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In March 1951 a wave of civil unrest in Barcelona culminated in the first general strike to threaten the authority of the Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco, who had ruled Spain since his rebel forces had won the Civil War in 1939.
When the Picture Post team of photographer Bert Hardy and journalist James Cameron arrived in the city, they found Barcelona in near lock-down.
Armed security police lined the streets. The staunchly Francoist navy occupied the docks.
During the Spanish Civil War, Barcelona had been subjected to many air attacks by Franco’s Nationalist rebels, who were aided by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Barcelona eventually fell to the Nationalists in January 1939, just a month before General Franco’s final victory.
Twelve years on and Bert Hardy’s original contact prints, now housed at the Hulton Archive in London, show the ancient sea port going about its business in an atmosphere of suspicion.
In one unpublished image, a well-dressed woman stands in a queue outside the Cathedral of Santa Eulalia. She ignores the religious cards offered by a beggar to wonder at the purpose of the photographer.
In another image, painters create a militaristic mural at the entrance of a building while felled palm trees are rolled to the side of the road: one symbolic moment in a city of symbols.
THREE THOUSAND WINDOWS SMASHED
Then there is the portrait of a Barcelona tram conductor with his passengers.
Often in the anarchistic Catalan capital, unrest began with an assault on the city’s cumbersome and notoriously dangerous trams (one killed architect Antoni Gaudí in 1926).
Immobilising the trams was also an effective way of restricting the movement of the army and the police on the city’s streets.
From late 1940s into the early 50s tension was again mounting in Barcelona. Power cuts, tax rises and a culture of corruption fuelled the sense of injustice felt in a city already politically and culturally repressed by the Franco regime.
When a 40% price increase for tram journeys in Barcelona was announced, the resentment boiled over into a riot during which, the regime noted dutifully, 174 windows were broken. The next day three thousand windows were smashed in the city.
In the early 1950s a Spanish worker earnt an average of 90 pesetas a week. The price increase meant the cost of a tram ticket rose from 0.50 pesetas to 0.70 pesetas per journey.
When the Ministry of Transport added insult to injury by leaving the price of a ticket in Madrid unchanged – at the lower price of 0.40 pesetas – a boycott of Barcelona’s trams was called.
THE BOYCOTT HITS HOME
The Barcelona tram boycott began during the last days of February 1951. Each day the streets of the city were filled with workers walking to and from their places of work. The workers were joined by a growing number of students, shopkeepers and employers.
After a football match at Les Corts stadium on March 4th, when the tram companies expected to sell half a million tickets, only 487 tickets were sold.
Then the city’s right-wing press, who, having labelled the unrest as Communist inspired (which was not wholly untrue) saw which way the wind was blowing, joined with the protesters. Even more surprising, many Falangists joined as well.
Despite shootings and arrests the Barcelona protest grew unabated.
By March 7th the tram boycott had become so effective that the authorities had no choice but to back down, and the 0.50 peseta ticket was reinstated. It was an extraordinary victory.
Sensing their collective strength the protesters called for a general strike to take place on March 12th. The strikers sought the release of all those arrested during the disturbances. Again, the demands of the protesters were largely met, although not everyone involved in the unrest was released.
Then the regime clamped down hard, as regimes did in the 1950s, and do still.
HARDY FLIES OUT
It was on the day of the Barcelona general strike, March 12th, 1951, that Bert Hardy flew from Northolt airfield for Bordeaux, then on to Madrid. From Madrid he took the train to Barcelona, arriving on March 19th.
Bert was to shoot three stories in Spain for Picture Post before returning to the UK on April 1st.
Hardy’s accreditation for the trip had been organised by General Sir Brian Horrocks, then Black Rod in the House of Lords. Horrocks was also a contributor to Picture Post.
In ‘Can Spain’s army help the West?’ an article illustrated with Bert Hardy’s photographs of Spanish military training, Horrocks argued that Spain should join the West in the fight against communism ( Picture Post , May 12th, 1951). The Iberian peninsular had huge strategic importance, Spain also had one of the largest armies in Europe.
Politically and economically isolated since the defeat of its fascist allies in the Second World War, the Franco regime was in desperate need of aid. As the war in Korea escalated Cold War tension, the United States sought military bases in the Western Mediterranean.
In June 1953 a treaty was signed which guaranteed that the US would defend Spain in the event of invasion. In exchange the Americans got air bases within flying range of Soviet forces in Europe, and a headquarters for the US Sixth Fleet.
Two years later fascist Spain was welcomed into the United Nations.
BERT DOES BRASSAÏ
What we know from writer James Cameron’s time in the Catalan capital was that he made contact with the Barcelona political underground through the bellhop at his hotel, had a clandestine meeting at a bullfight, and filed the story ‘Barcelona: city in ferment’, which was published beside Bert Hardy’s photographs in Picture Post on April 14th, 1951.
Among the original contact prints from the shoot are images of Cameron with a prostitute in some dramatically lit night scenes taken in the back streets of Barcelona. It seems that Bert was having a go at aping Brassai’s Paris de Nuit.
Perhaps no less amusing is the recent discovery that Bert Hardy spent the evening of his arrival in Barcelona – a city locked-down by General Franco’s army and security police – dining with the comedian Jimmy Edwards.
DOORSTEPPER AT WORK
As for Bert Hardy’s street photography in Barcelona in 1951, it seems the photographer roamed the city with his Rolleiflex for a week without hindrance from the authorities.
Ever attendant to detail, Bert had gone to a government office seeking permission to take photographs in Barcelona. He was told permission was unnecessary.
However, one suspects photography of the security police in the city would have been strictly forbidden, although we can see from the contact prints and from the story published in Picture Post that Bert photographed them anyway.
Hardy’s knowledge of exposure, of focus distance, and his intrinsic understanding of a good composition carried him through.
And of course, there was perhaps his greatest strength – the speed with which he worked. A speed honed in the days when Bert Hardy was a Fleet Street doorstepper.
The Unseen Bert Hardy, a talk by Graham Harrison showing images recently rediscovered in the Picture Post collection at the Hulton Archive, took place at the Photographers’ Gallery, London on November 10th, 2009. Peter Marshall reported the event on >Re: PHOTO