After a 16-year search, the pioneering photographer behind a mysterious collection of images that have been hailed as ‘Spain’s response to the work of New York’s Vivian Maier’ is being celebrated in Barcelona.
Tom Sponheim, from Seattle, visited Els Encants market during his trip to Barcelona in the summer of 2001. Whilst browsing the stalls, he stumbled across a box of brown envelopes containing a series of negatives. Due to a keen interest in old photography, Sponheim purchased the envelopes for the equivalent of $3.50.
Upon his return to America and a closer examination of the negatives, he realised he had come across something very special. The collection of images captured Barcelona residents on the streets during the 1950s, providing an intriguing insight into daily life during the Franco era. Given the political climate, the photographs were notably provocative.
“They depict the real life of real people, sometimes revealing aspects of poverty and despair that were really quite subversive during a dictatorship,” said Sponheim.
Over the years, he grew more curious about who the photographer was and how the images had ended up in the flea market. When he heard about Vivian Maier—a nanny from Chicago who left behind over 100,000 secret photographs, hidden in storage—he decided to take action. In an attempt to find out more about the enigmatic images, Sponheim set up a Facebook page ‘Las Fotos Perdidas de Barcelona’ (The Lost Photos of Barcelona).
Before long, the page gained thousands of followers and hundreds of comments from people offering information about where the photos were taken, and even some clues towards the identity of the subjects.
“It’s amazing what social media can achieve!” he exclaimed.
Although the identity of the photographer still remains a mystery, Sponheim is hopeful that he will be able to track him or her down, or at least a relative, in time.
Begoña Fernández found Tom’s Facebook page on which the album is featured and got to work. She identified the school in some of the images. Looking through the archives at the Agrupació Fotográfica de Catalunya (AFC), Begoña found a photo from Tom’s collection in a 1962 article on the IV Provincial Photography Contest. Captioned Fervor (below), the picture of a woman deep in prayer had claimed fourth place in a 1961 competition. The photographer was Milagros Caturla.