IN PICS: Exquisite images of bygone Barcelona discovered by American tourist at flea market

An impulse purchase of some tattered old envelopes at a Barcelona flea market led to the discovery of an extraordinary treasure trove of old photographs revealing a Barcelona of a bygone era. And led to a quest to discover the identity of the unknown photographer.

IN PICS: Exquisite images of bygone Barcelona discovered by American tourist at flea market
Photo: Tom Sponheim / Las Fotos Perdidas De Barcelona

Tom Sponheim was idly browsing “what looked like a lot of old junk” at Els Encants in the summer of 2001, when he came across a box of brown envelopes, each one containing a collection of negatives.

“It looked like someone had just cleared out the contents of an old apartment, but I am fascinated by old photographs so I bought the lot for the equivalent of about $3.50,” he tells The Local in a Skype interview from his home in Seattle.

“To be honest I doubted that there was much of interest there, but nevertheless, it wasn’t a big outlay so I took the risk.”

In fact, ever since childhood, he has been collecting old photographs, a hobby he explains developed after his great aunts died and their own archive of family photographs were lost in transit to his own home.

On his return to Seattle, he examined the negatives and as soon as he saw the first image, a photograph of a schoolgirl pausing as if to eavesdrop on two older women seated on a bench, he recognised that he had stumbled across real talent.

“I’ve been a keen amateur photographer my whole life and at a glance I knew that one shot was better than anything I had ever taken. It was great story telling captured in one image.  What were they gossiping about that stopped the girl in her tracks?”

Photo: Tom Sponheim / Las Fotos Perdidas De Barcelona

What Sponheim had discovered was a rare collection of images taken on the streets of Barcelona in the 1950s, capturing its residents unaware as they went about their daily life.

The images provide insight in subjects rarely captured during the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, nuns strolling down the street, housewives gossiping, a child thoughtful during a ballet class.

Photo: Tom Sponheim / Las Fotos Perdidas De Barcelona

Sponheim, who for 30 years has volunteered and worked for Solar Cookers International, an NGO that promotes cookers powered by the sun,  printed some of his favourite images and displayed them on the wall of his dining room. But over the years, his curiosity over  their provenance grew and grew.

Who was the talented photographer  who so exquisitely captured the residents of Barcelona?

“When I heard the story of Vivian Maier, I just saw so many similarities,” said Sponheim referring to the Chicago nanny hailed posthumously as one of the most talented street photographers of the 20th century, after she left behind a collection of over 100,000 images.

 “This photographer was unusual because they are not posed but show a realism that wasn’t  usual at the time,” explains Sponheim. “They depict the real life of real people, sometimes revealing  aspects of poverty and despair that was really quite subversive during a dictatorship.”

 Photo: Tom Sponheim / Las Fotos Perdidas De Barcelona

“More than ever I want to know why did this person decide to start taking pictures that were a little bit provocative for the political times? Why did that happen?  What happened to the photographer and how did the negatives end up on a stall at a flea market?” he asked.

 Photo: Tom Sponheim / Las Fotos Perdidas De Barcelona

In an attempt to find out more about the unknown Barcelona photographer, Sponheim turned to social media and set up a Facebook page to publicize the search for information.

Las Fotos Perdidas De Barcelona –  The Lost Photos of Barcelona – has more than 10,000 followers and has brought him information about where the photographs were taken and even a clue to the identity of some of the subjects.

“It’s amazing what can be achieved using social media, how much I have been able to discover from Seattle without going back to Barcelona,” explained Sponheim.

Visitors to the page have commented when they recognize the location in the photograph, some think they have identified a long dead member of their family

“It has suddenly gained momentum and has people talking about it,” said Sponheim, who dreams of staging an exhibition of the photographs and tracing, if not the photographer himself (or herself) then at least a relative.

But so far, the mystery remains as to the true identity of the photographer.

Tom Sponheim holding the envelopes he bought at the flea market for the equivalent of $3.50 and some of the prints on his dining room wall behind. Photo: Tom Sponheim


To see more of the images check out Las Fotos Perdidas De Barcelona facebook page. 

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Why Spain is still in the wrong time zone because of Hitler

As Spain again prepares to put the clocks forward on Saturday night, we look at the fascinating reasons why the country has been in the wrong time zone for the last 75 years, the possible effects of this historical blip on Spanish society, and why there's still no sign of it changing.

Nazi leader German Chancellor Adolf Hitler (R) shakes hands with Spanish Generalísimo Francisco Franco at Hendaye train station on the French-Spanish border in October 1940. (Photo by AFP)
Nazi leader German Chancellor Adolf Hitler (R) shakes hands with Spanish Generalísimo Francisco Franco at Hendaye train station on the French-Spanish border in October 1940. (Photo by AFP)

Why is Spain in the wrong time zone?

Madrid lies directly south of London. Spain is geographically in line with the UK and Portugal. It makes sense, then, that Spain was in the Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) zone until around 75 years ago.

But that all changed in 1940. With Nazi Germany occupying Belgium, Holland, and recently invading France, Spain’s own facist dictator, Francisco Franco, travelled to the French border to meet with Hitler, the man he and many other believed would go on to dominate Europe.

The momentum was clearly with the Nazis, at the time, and Italy had already pledged its support to Hitler. Although he wanted the same from Spain, Franco, however, didn’t have much to offer. With the country ravaged by its own recent Civil War – in which Franco’s victory was heavily supported by Hitler –  Franco felt obliged to make a gesture of some sort.

Although ultimately remaining neutral in the war, Franco decided to show his support for Hitler by agreeing to put Spain’s clocks forward by an hour in an act of solidarity with Nazi Germany. 

Spain has remained in the Central European Time zone ever since, in line with countries as far east as Poland. That means that Madrid currently has the same time as Warsaw in Poland 2,290km away but is one hour ahead of Lisbon which is only 502 km away. 

The consequences of Spain being in the wrong time zone

But Franco’s decision all those years ago isn’t just a quirk of Spanish history, or testament to the extent to which the legacy of that period still looms over Spanish society, it was a decision that, experts say, has had a lasting impact on Spanish culture and society that underpins everything from Spaniard’s sleep cycles and meal times to the country’s birth rates and economic growth.

In recent years there have been calls to make the switch back to GMT because many believe the time zone quirk is affecting Spaniard’s productivity and quality of life. In 2013 a Spanish national commission concluded that Spaniards sleep almost an hour less than the European average, and that this led to increased stress, concentration problems, both at school and work, and workplace accidents.

Some experts believe this explains the Spanish dependence on siestas – that is, that the lack of sleep makes them necessary – but in reality the siesta has been a consistent feature of Spanish life for centuries for many of the same reasons it still is today: in southern Spain, the fierce summer temperatures make it necessary to stay at home during the afternoon. 

Spain's most famous clock is the Puerta del Sol in central Madrid. Photo: Jorge Franganillo/Flickr
Spain’s most famous clock is at the Puerta del Sol in central Madrid. Photo: Jorge Franganillo/Flickr

One effect of the siesta however is that the break in the day means Spaniards work the most hours in Europe yet at one of the continent’s lowest levels of productivity. A lack of sleep contributes to siesta taking which, in turn, means Spaniards work later into the evening and could partly explain Spain’s notoriously nocturnal lifestyles and late meal times. 

Despite the country running on CET, Spaniards’ eating patterns roughly mirror GMT. Many Spaniards eat lunch at what would be 1 or 1.30pm in London (the traditional 2 or 2.30pm in Spain) and dinner at a reasonable 8pm in London (but 9pm or even 10pm as is customary in many parts of Spain).

Making the change and returning to GMT would, according to Nuria Chinchilla, professor at Spain’s IESE business school, help Spaniards “return to the natural order of our circadian rhythm (our 24-hour physiological cycle) that goes with the sun… and the sun in Greenwich, not Germany”.

“If we don’t (change to GMT) we lengthen the day, eat very late and then don’t sleep,” she added.

Why hasn’t Spain moved to the right time zone yet?

The debate about which time zone Spain belongs in was reinvigorated following recent proposals at the EU level to scrap entirely the daylight savings custom. 

In 2018 the EU Commission announced a proposal to abolish the custom after polling showed that 80 percent of Europeans are in favour of staying permanently on summer time.This debate naturally had many in Spain wondering about whether they were in the right time zone.

But owing to a combination of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brexit, and various other bureaucratic difficulties, the proposal was shelved. Member states cannot decide unilaterally on the question of daylight savings, but they can decide which timezone they want to be in. 

Spain has had various commissions over the years exploring the impact of daylight savings and timezones, but no concrete proposals over a return to GMT have ever been made, despite the benefits experts claim it could bring.

Although the government’s focus has been drawn by more pressing issues in recent years – and the issue of time and daylight savings shelved at the European level – expect discussion of whether Spain is actually even in the right time zone this weekend when the clocks do go back, or if the linked issue of daylight savings is eventually taken off the shelf at the European level.

Article by Conor Faulkner