December 25th, 1955. Sixteen years have already elapsed since the end of the Spanish Civil War, but its economical, social and political aftermath is still fully being suffered by the country inhabitants.
Most of the Cordovan civil population has become mostly impoverished, immersed in a context of nutritional imbalance, lack of all kind of raw materials and shortage of meat and fruit, whose price has skyrocketed.
The unemployment is wreaking havoc among the working age people, whose exceedingly meager economic resources make them often be only able to eat once or at most twice a day, helped by relatives and friends.
But there´s another specific segment of the population even under worse conditions, on the verge of the most absolute destitution: they are the unemployed Cordovans who haven´t been able to find work, whose nearest and dearest are in a similar plight, and so are wandering through the city looking for a morsel of anything to eat.
Poverty stricken, some of them have gone to San Jacinto Convent (then called San Jacinto Asylum) searching for food and are now queueing waiting for their turn in order that three nuns and an auxiliary young woman give them bread and baked potatoes as a meal, because the Cordovan Town Hall has decided to donate 1,500 vittles for jobless workers of the city (nurturing aids which would have to be increased shortly after).
A disabled man who lost his left leg when he was thirteen years old (after suffering an accident at a grocery in 1930) and a photographer by trade, is in the place at those moments, very near the unemployed men who are being delivered food by the three nuns and the ancillary young woman.
His name is Ladislao Rodríguez Benítez.
He has been working as a professional photographer since 1946, year in which he left his comfortable lifetime permanent job as a chartered accountant civil servant (after having passed the public examinations in early forties), in favour of photography, which he loves to his utmost, and he has got his recognition as a photojournalist through his own travail since then.
Ladislao Rodríguez Benítez is paying great attention to what´s happening, being standing up and doing his best to go unnoticed by all means, since it is a delicate context, with human beings in dire straits, so respect to them and discretion are key factors to photograph them.
The three nuns and the auxiliary young woman go on giving bread and filling with baked potatoes the dishes brought by the unemployed Cordovans.
It´s a situation held sway by misery and deeply touching the photographer, a man featuring great sensitivity and humanity, deeply loving both his city and its people and he gets pictures to earn his living and particularly to take home the daily livelyhood for his woman and children, so there´s an empathy with the people in need being the main characters of what he is seeing.
Ladislao Rodriguez Benitez´s concentration is utmost and as a good professional photographer he knows "to see the picture", something that he has been doing since early forties.
Kodak Super-XX 200 ASA black and white 35 mm film. It was the high speed and versatile par excellence photojournalistic emulsion from 1940 to 1954, year in which appeared the then 200 ASA Kodak Tri-X, which with its excellet acutance and huge exposure latitude, enabling to use it between 50 and 3.200 ASA, prevailed in the photographic market at a worldly level since mid fifties. Nevertheless, the Kodak Tri-X launching into market made that the Kodak Super-XX 200 ASA 35 mm film (manufactured until 1958) was still widely used by the Cordovan photojournalists due to the fact that its price dropped significantly — with the saving on film it entailed before the more expensive Tri-X— , and though its acutance (because of the emulsion thickness) and grain quality didn´t reach the Tri-X level, it was acceptable (in the photojournalistic images their technical quality isn´t the most impostant factor, but to get the picture and be at the right place at the adequate moment, such as happens to name just one example with the vertical photograph Midnight Mass at Scanno, Abruzzo, Italy, made by Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1953 with a Leica IIIc coupled to a Summitar 5 cm f/2 - though his favourite lens was a Zeiss Sonnar 5 cm f/1.5 in LTM mount- shooting handheld at 1/8 sec or 1/15 sec, also with 35 mm Kodak Super-XX 200 ASA b & w film, with very apparent grain on the three monks faces of the lower left half of the image, but it doesn´t matter at all and amazingly boosts the instant atmosphere, which is even more reinforced by their black habits), its characteristic curve was fairly long, with a great exposure latitude making possible to expose it at different sensitivinesses between ASA 100 and ASA 800 without any problem and being subsequently treated with a comprehensive range of both long and short developers, along with special compensating formulae.
Suddenly, magic comes up : the nun being furthest from the camera (wearing glasses and located in the middle of the image) is offering a medium size cooking pot with potatoes to a young unemployed man being roughly 18-20 years old who has just filled his dish — staring at it— while another man being around 30 years old (placed on the left of the image) is impatiently waiting for the aforementioned nun to also offer him potatoes of the medium size pot.
In the meantime, the third and fourth men in the queue are awaiting their turn.
The facial expression of the third man (being approximately 40-45 years old and whose head can be seen behind the sunlit right shoulder of the young unemployed filling his dish with potatoes from the medium size being offered to him by the nun) is exceedingly distressed: he is engrossed in his thoughts, plunged into despair and brimming with anxiety before a gloomy and uncertain future.
It´s now when the photographer chooses this defining instant to press the release button of the 100% mechanic horizontal travelling shutter with rubberized silk curtains of his Leica IIIc (boasting some improvements designed by Ludwig Leitz and Willi Stein with respect to the already excellent original shutter of the Leica III created by Oskar Barnack, and likewise generating an almost imperceptible noise because there isn´t any swivelling mirror), while he strongly leans the stretch against his left armpit and holds the camera with both of his hands, creating a highly revealing image of the postwar Cordoba city, which 61 years after being taken, makes up an exceptional graphic document, even more heartrending and meaningful than it could seem, for the almost tangible hardship and dismay of the scene (in the same way as the rising smoke of the pots being heaten on the spot and the smell emanating from them)
are even more boosted by the toilsome effort which is being done by the around 30 years old man on the left of the image who strives after gathering as much food as he can, has already taken six breads — appearing enhanced by the tridimensional effect brought about by the very powerful natural light coming from the left and lighting the image — with his right hand which isn´t able to cope with more, is holding with a precarious balance between his right forearm and chest a bowl that he will try to fill with baked potatoes, and is simultaneously grasping with his left hand a handicraft wicker basket, while fidgety, is staring at the nun wearing glasses, whom — because of need— , he will endeavour to convince to get more breads inside it) and by the distraught countenance of the auxiliary young woman watching how the nun wearing glasses offers the medium size pot (taking it on one of its handles with her right hand) to the young unemployed man, while her left hand is resting on the cardboard box with breads inside.
It´s a hard and very representative image, whose semantic epicenter is the face of the roughly 40-45 years old man (located just behind te two ones nearest to the camera and which are being delivered food),
The grain of the by the time high speed 200 ASA Kodak Super-XX black and white film and the not 100% accurate focus (typical in the photojournalism made with Leica rangefinder cameras in which the fastness when shooting is essential) combine to further increase the drama of the picture, factors which were also used by Bruce Davidson three years later when he made with a Leica M2, Tri-X film and a Leitz Summaron 35 mm f/3.5 lens the portrait of the clown Jimmy Armstrong with his naked torso, suspenders, his face painted, his right arm bent backwards in the elbow area and a small white curtain on his head during the month he was photographing the Beatty-Cole-Hamid Circus in Palisades, New Jersey (United States).
Ladislao Rodríguez Benítez undoubtedly belongs to this golden generation of the world photojournalism defined by photographers formed working with black and white chemical films, who got top-notch pictures with utterly mechanical cameras, without any electronics or programmed obsolescence, coupled to excellent manual focusing lenses, metering through estimation according to their experience and talent and sporting an innate ability to "see the picture" and "become invisible" at the supreme moment of the photographic act.
It´s a working dynamics similar to the one fulfilled by Walker Evans, Robert Doisneau, Izis Bildermanas, Willy Ronis, Èdouard Boubat, Brassaï and others, daily walking the streets of his city throughout decades, earnestly focusing on taking the best feasible photographs, both in full daylaight and at night, devoting their existence in body and soul to photography, which becomes not only his profession but also a way of life.
Therefore, Ladislao Rodríguez Benítez knows Córdoba like the back of his hand intensively, from sunrise to sunset, lives and loves photography with all-out passion and has to steadily be available, even very late in the nigths, if the hot news or the necessity to go to a place to get pictures at the adequate moment urge to it.
But in my viewpoint, this photography goes beyond the high level photojournalism and the concept of iconic image (although it can be bluntly deemed as such) and provides a further commendable qualitative step from the standpoint of rising above oneself accomplished by a human being.
This picture was made with the heart and the soul by a man from head to toe who, though lacking a leg, always managed to reach everywhere at the suitable moment and place himself in the best possible position to get his pictures, something of extreme difficulty for a one-legged disabled man, and which had to undoubtedly mean for this great photojournalist to make a huge level of constant effort, often on the brink of exhaustion, during his entire career as a photographer, because the classic social photojournalism using primes (particularly with 50 mm lenses, which because of their short tele nature are more complex to use than the 35 mm — photojournalistic lens par excellence — and 28 mm wideangles) requires constant and fast movements with both feet to be able to do the framings, so it can be inferred that the courage, amour propre, level of self-commitment and professionalism of this man who passed away in 1988 had to be truly impressive, in the same way as this picture taken by him and containing another fundamental ingredient: the very strong Andalusia sun which penetrates diagonally into the image from the upper left corner, bathing the whole scene in light and specially striking the faces and thoracic area of the three nuns and the auxiliary young woman who are feeding the unemployed Cordovans, along with the large pot inside which potatoes are being baked and the cardboard box containing the breads, both of these elements making up the extreme high key of the picture along with the bosom of the nearest nun to the camera.
Such a use of the very powerful sun light giving rise to quite strong high keys, shadows and contrasts, is quantically related to images created by Werner Bischof (vertical photograph on the famine in Bihar, India, 1951, in which the woman placed in the lower area is protecting herself from the sun beams with her left hand, while an old man and an old woman located standing behind her area leaning against long canes), Mario de Biasi (Grandmother holding in arms her grandson in Sardinia, 1954), Yuri Eremin (Camels in a Street of Bujara, 1928), Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (Two children in Ascona, 1926), Manual Álvarez Bravo (Girl Watching Birds, 1931 and Recent Tomb, 1939), John Thomson (Street of the Healers, Cantón, 1869, also with a great depth of field), Dorothea Lange (Unemployed Workers waiting outside the California State Employment Agency at Tulelake, Siskiyou County, September of 1939), Eugène Atget (Flowers Seller, Paris, 1899, in which appears a man wearing a hat on the left holding small flowers in his right hand covered with a white glove, while the woman on the rights is offering him a bunch of bigger flowers and the word Degustation can be seen painted on the background wall, in the upper area of the picture), Joel Meyerowitz (A Blind Man with Glasses and Black Beret in a Spanish Café, 1967, likewise with a great depth of field enabling to discern with full sharpness the persons of all ages visible beyond the large glass of the premises, who are watching a travelling show made by two gypsies boys, one playing a trumpet and the other one making a drum resound while a goat is balancing on a small size base on top of a little ladder, and in the background of the image, in its upper left zone, you can see a Citröen 2 CV and a Seat 600), Samuel Coulthurst (Street Photographies in the Bustling Swan Street Market of Liverpool, between 1889 and 1900) and others.
It´s also an image featuring a number of compositive elements which have been so masterfully combined by the photographer that the result simultaneously oozes spontaneity and simplicity alike.
Selective reframing of the left third of the photograph, in which can be seen the woman leaned against the wall and holding between her hands the jacket of her husband who is waiting in the queue to be given his food ration. The 24 x 36 mm negative surface featuring a four times smaller size than the 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 format and six times smaller than the 6 x 9 cm format (both of them were used by some photojournalists at that time, specially the 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 Rolleiflex, 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 Ikonta B 521/16, 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 Ikonta B 523/16 , 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 Zeiss Super Ikonta B 532/16, 2 1 /4 x 2 1/4 Agfa Super Isolette, 2 1/4 x 3 1/4 Mess-Ikonta 524/2, 2 1/4 x 3 1/4 Super Ikonta C 531/2 and the Voigtländer Bessa RF with which both 2 1/4" x 3 1/4" and 6 x 4.5 cm format negatives could be exposed, without forgetting the large format 4 x 5 -contact of 10 x 12 cm- ) results in an inevitable loss of image quality in comparison to the entire picture on making enlargements of specific areas of the negative.
But what really matters is that the photographer displays his mastery and experience choosing the most important and significant moment to press the shutter release button of his camera with a remarkable accuracy in the timing, fruit of his talent, know-how and intuitive instinct inherent to great photojournalists, managing to also go unnoticed and capture all the persons appearing in the image without anyone of them detect his presence, something really praiseworthy, since he shoots from a very near distance of around 4 meters.
And this image vividly proves that obtaining very high resolution and contrast, utter lack of grain, 100% flawless image enlargements to king sizes, having lenses with first-rate optical level aspherical elements, a creamy bokeh, etc, aren´t at all the most important factors when it comes to get a great photojournalistic image, being much more decisive the photographer´s eye and his ability to know to see the photograph, along with the evocative nature of the captured image.
José Manuel Serrano Esparza
The author wants to express his gratitude to Ladislao Rodríguez Galán, Ladislao Rodríguez Benítez´s son, outstanding Cordovan photographer, for his kindness and work searching for the picture in his father´s historical archive along with the trust placed, and to Antonio Jesús González (graphic editor of the Diario Córdoba and foremost researcher of the Cordovan and Andalusian photography) for taking the necessary steps to send the picture main subject of this humble article.