Jacques Leonard - Pèlerinage Gitan
“1953. I often see Rosario in the street with her mother. I love her figure. She doesn’t even look at me. Today I found her alone so I approached her and asked if she wanted to go for a stroll. We ended up in restaurant ‘Los Caracoles’. Rosario wore a simple dress and no makeup. I felt like a schoolboy on his first date. This month we have seen each other every day at the same restaurant. Her presence has become necessary in my life.’”
French photographer Jacques Léonard (Paris, 1909—L’Escala, 1995) made Barcelona his home in the early Fifties when he fell in love with Rosario Amaya, a striking gypsy woman from the slum in the foothills of Montjuïc. In contravention of Romani tradition, they managed to get married and afterwards they settled in Amaya’s neighbourhood, from where Léonard began a lifelong photographic study of the close-knit gypsy community.
Léonard, or ‘Payo Chac’ as he became known to his new family, suddenly gained what no other professional photographer had had before—unique access to all the dwellings in the slum and its residents’ full consent to take pictures from within. Unlike his contemporary colleagues who, when venturing into such environs, commonly approached the curious Romani with a paternalistic sentiment that reaffirmed their role as outsiders, Léonard simply reached for his camera and took pictures of the people around him, whom he both respected and adored. For more than two decades, he lived and photographed in the shanty towns that were on the fringe of what was then considered to be the accepted perception of Barcelona, both geographically and sociologically. The outcome is an intimate black-and-white testimony peppered with dotted dresses, guitars, dirt roads and bare feet, and that is completely free from criticism.
Perhaps this special relationship between Léonard and his subjects also explains the sad fact that his unparalleled collection remained in shoeboxes during his life and it wasn’t until last year, 15 years after his death, that two of his children found his legacy and understood its historical value. Together with the Arxiu Fotogràfic de Barcelona, they succeeded in bringing thousands of negatives back from oblivion and have put together two exhibitions (and a documentary) to tell the story of a lifestyle that has now largely disappeared. Through their father’s photographs, the viewer is invited to joyful events such as weddings, Christmas celebrations and festivals but is also walked through the quotidian life of the humble slums where gossiping women fetch water from pumps and grinning children play football in the street; the exhibition at the Institut Français focuses its attention on the annual pilgrimages that many from the community made to a French village. The work on display falls within the parameters of humanist photography so in vogue in the mid-20th century, when poverty and marginalisation inspired various photographers to capture human history on silver gelatin plates. But what sets Léonard’s images apart is his decision to approach his subjects as equals, without condemnation or romantic ideas. Thus his work transmits nothing but dignity, making it beautiful as art and irreplaceable as testimony.