140 photographs from 10 different series produced by Fernell Franco between 1970 and 1996 are currently shown at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain. CALI CLAIR–OBSCUR is a first-time-in-Europe retrospective of this curiously under-recognised Latin American photographer.

The exhibition has not failed to demonstrate Fernell Franco’s photography techniques and unique senses of vision, evidently accumulated from his rich experiences from being a fotocinero (a photographer who takes and sells portraits of people in the streets) to a photojournalist for the newspapers and a fashion photographer. Working as a photojournalist of Cali, Colombia, his sharp and close observation of the city stems from his unbreakable bonding with his native home. As highlighted by the title of the show –Cali, Clair-Obscur, Fernell Franco’s powerful, unobtrusive and yet radical works center on the light and darkness of the city’s urban life.

Fernell Franco, Series Billares, 1985. Gelatin silver print. Courtesy Fundación Fernell Franco Cali / Toluca Fine Art, Paris

Fernell Franco, Series Billares, 1985. Gelatin silver print. Courtesy Fundación Fernell Franco Cali / Toluca Fine Art, Paris

Since 1954, Fernell Franco had been discovering cinema and eventually became a film aficionado. He would watch several movies a day in various cinemas throughout the city. As a result, cinematic influence of Mexican cinemafilm noir and Italian neorealism is significantly visible in the Billare series, presenting interior images of snooker clubs in finely designed composition, and the Interiores series, seeking to record the fast-vanishing urban areas from early 1970s where abandoned homes became slums. What I favor the most in these series is how the cinematic effects were accentuated by the artist’s retouching of colours and the emphasis on the contrast between red and green on B&W photos. Serving as a testimony of the cityscape for later generations, the Interiores series showcases the importance of Fernell Franco’s work within a broader cultural context in Cali at the beginning of the 1970s.

Fernell Franco, Series Prostitutas, 1970-1972 (photomontage),Gelatin silver print. Courtesy Fundación Fernell Franco Cali / Toluca Fine Art, Paris

Fernell Franco, Series Prostitutas, 1970-1972 (photomontage),Gelatin silver print. Courtesy Fundación Fernell Franco Cali / Toluca Fine Art, Paris

The Prostitutas series depicts young girls and women working in one of the last brothels in Buenaventura, Colombia. It is neither glamour nor seduction. Instead, we see realism and darkness. Uneasiness arose when I saw some of the girls in portraits look like a 12-year-old, too young to appear in such settings. The artist used experimental techniques such as toning and solarisation to enhance the contrasts, underlining the dark shadows as ‘a metaphor for forgetting and confinement’. Ironically, underscoring the contrast is the light-hearted salsa music that accompanies the exhibition. Fernell Franco wanted to recreate the joyful and enthusiastic ambiance typical of restaurants, bars, night clubs and brothels of Cali when he exhibited this Prostitutas series at Ciudad Solar, Cali back in 1972.

I like the creepy mysterious, imaginative and  artistic series entitled Amarrados (translated as tied) photos taken by Fernell Franco of wrapped and tied merchandise objects left unattended overnight when he was wandering around the outdoor markets of Colombia and Latin America. According to the text description in the exhibition, these objects in peculiar forms and sizes were seen as dead human bodies.

Fernell Franco, Series Interiores, 1979, Gelatin silver print. Courtesy Fundación Fernell Franco Cali / Toluca Fine Art, Paris

Fernell Franco, Series Interiores, 1979, Gelatin silver print. Courtesy Fundación Fernell Franco Cali / Toluca Fine Art, Paris

Fernell Franco’s works, representative of Latin American photography, not only are part of the vibrant art scene in Cali since early 1970s, but also have witnessed the transformation of a Colombian city throughout the decades meandering through light and darkness.

FERNELL FRANCO | CALI CLAIR–OBSCUR
February 6 June 5, 2016, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris

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