A conversation with Rafael Navarro

Sara Sda, for Contraluz magazine


Rafael Navarro (Zaragoza, 1940) sharpens all his senses, he thinks, imagines, digs into his deepest self, and creates. He does not simply take a shot, he expresses through images what words could not possibly express. Rafael has revealed his soul in every work for exactly four decades. Being a late beginner, he never considered photography would become the fundamental instrument of his life. His longing for freedom and a personal need to express himself brought about a casual encounter between a man and his camera.

Let’s put ourselves in the picture, because the shades of romance surrounding this fortuitous meeting has much to do with its circumstances. This artist’s introvert character and his limited sociability matched the dark Spain of the seventies, which was anxiously longing for an aura of brightness. This struggle gave way to an overwhelming yearning for freedom of expression which, as the protagonist puts it, “had to burst out somehow or another”. He found in photography the way to rebel and made it his reason to exist.

He started off as a press photographer and as his career developed he approached the theatre and sports until he eventually found his remarkable personal style. He was president of the Real Sociedad Fotográfica de Zaragoza; in 1977, he and Manuel Esclusa, Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formigera created the Alabern group, and at present he is a permanent member of the Real Academia de Nobles y Bellas Artes de San Luis in Madrid. He has been awarded prizes on several occasions; in 2013 he received the Aragón Goya prize, which represented a turning point because he was the first photographer to be given this award.

His work has been exhibited in galleries all over the world, and is also on permanent show at distinguished foundations such as the Maison Européene de la Photographie in Paris, the Contemporary Art Galleries of Mexico, Buenos Aires and Japan, and the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid.

Rafael Navarro is sitting in front of me. There are many kilometers between us, but our desktop screens help to bridge the distance. He scrutinizes me and I am torn between asking him some of my questions or simply smiling. He knows I will try to undress him the way he undresses his models and he helps me, looking for the right words every time. He tries to be eloquent and I, humbly, try to tear his skin off to get a photo of his soul. Rafael tells me about his beginnings, about the family business he ran when he was thirty, about his influences and the great artists he has been absorbing ideas from.

I would not want to dwell on this but I must ask him about his principal axiom: “an artist, if he is really honest, spends all his life telling the same thing”. He nods emphatically, his face expressing an eloquent “that’s it”, which echoes in the silence of his voice. His mind works fast to create an answer for the majority of people to understand easily. “If you are pure, if your art is natural, you produce it from deep inside, you look for your inner self and this never changes”, he explains.

Rafael does not only seek to convey a feeling in each piece but to generate in the viewer one “which stirs up something in their guts”. He admits that there are two ways of looking at his work: “some just get a superficial reading and some really get inside”. “Which can provoke different interpretations that may be very far from the message you wanted to express”, I say. This does not cause him any concern, actually “this is the beautiful thing”. This artist does not intend a dogmatic approach, on the contrary, he sets firm foundations on which the public will build up their own individual vision. “If a work is seen by fifty people, I’ll generate fifty different sensations” he states enthusiastically. For him, once shown, his works are “like children that leave home”. “It’s when they are finished that they arouse something in other people, at that moment my relationship with them changes completely”. He lets them go, he sets them free so that they can fly away, as he himself does when he creates them. He does not even like to give them a title, “words confine them”, it’s imagination that must give them that power. Why? I insist on prying. “Because it’s a hundred thousand times more powerful than any other language”.

Bitterness, loneliness and nostalgia are some of the traits that can be seen in his series, or may be not, it depends on who is in front of them. His technique, “always the camera”. Rafael uses slow shutter speed to show what, in his opinion, must be invisible to the eye; he uses abstraction and concealing to reach the sensuality which prevails in his work. By means of light and shade he has painted a great many female figures over the years, with ever changing intentions.

His gift, his ability to enhance any part of the body to remove it from reality and transform it into an abstract concept with an exact meaning. “I don’t just take a photo of a hand –he tells me– I use it to create a sensation, I don’t let it be the protagonist, it’s a mere vehicle”.

I ask him about two of his series, Evasiones (1975) and Danza de la Vida y de la Muerte (2003). Both of them show a woman moving against a neutral background. “The only thing they have in common is the technique used” he confirms. The difference between them lies in their aim. “The first one is a song of freedom, the movement towards other positions is what matters”, the second one narrates the transition between life and death, “it sets off with a totally positive vision and ends up being something negative”.

Shape and texture are the main elements of his work, I ask him to prioritise, but he cannot. “Both have a function to fulfill”. The body curves and the allure of the skin shape the spirit that Navarro tries to express in his creations.

His more than fifty series, made in the last forty years, are not independent, they are part of a whole which is his entire artistic career and which he does not conceive as something fragmented. “Whoever wants to know about me must see my photographs” he laughs. His legacy does not consist of a compendium of works of art collected over the years, showing an evident technical evolution. His legacy is the autobiography of the inner life that this artist has experienced through time.

We must not forget to mention his Dípticos (1978-1985), his best known work. The process of the creation of this series was substantially different from the rest. “These have a clearly intellectual origin, each composition built between two images is a particular idea”. “What they try to express is the concept of duality”, he uses Marañón’s words to make me see that “nothing is absolute”. Rafael is concerned about balance both in the world and in his own life, where he also finds this duality. He was able to combine his work at the family business, which had nothing to do with photography, with an intense artistic production. In this series, the artist substitutes the usual left-to-right horizontal axis for a vertical axis. He juxtaposes some images, others he sets against each other or succeeds in making them complement each other by means of lines in order to create a third reality which shows the ambiguity of the universe.

Our talk comes to an end. I ask him about the prizes he has received in Spain and abroad and about those which came near but never arrived, about his aims and about his future projects. Little does this highly individual artist care about awards, “when you get them, you think: and what now? And you just carry on”. It is forty years since Rafael Navarro picked up a camera with the intention only to satisfy his hunger for the world, then it did not occur to him that he would reach his present status. He adopted an attitude towards life that would allow him to cry out loud from within and be free. He did not set out to succeed as an artist, he made art his own way and life flowed.