Culture 25/05/2021

The photographer who entered the houses of Barcelona's red-light district

The Photographic Archive of Barcelona shows the photographs taken by Margaret Michaelis commissioned by GATCPAC

4 min
41 Arco del Teatro Street, number 41 (10 April 1934)

With the rise of Nazism, the photographer of Jewish and Polish origin Margaret Michaelis (Dziedzice, Poland, 1902 - Melbourne, Australia, 1985) left Berlin and decided to go into exile in the Barcelona of the Second Republic. Three months later the Grup d'Arquitectes i Tècnics Catalans per al Progrés de l'Arquitectura Contemporània (GATCPAC) hired her to make a photoreport of Barcelona's Barri Xino (red-light district). She had to photograph the bowels of the neighbourhood and show the insalubrity, the lack of infrastructures, the worn out pipes... For an exhibition that was held in the basement of Plaça Catalunya to justify the need to carry out the Macià plan, also known as the Nova Barcelona plan. Michaelis, however, went further. "She approached people, gained their trust and photographed them in these spaces", says Dolors Rodríguez Roig, art historian and curator of the exhibition Margaret Michaelis. Cinc dies pel Barri Xino, which can be seen at the Photographic Archive of Barcelona (AFB) until 31 October. The Nova Barcelona plan was never executed but the intimacy of the houses in those narrow streets has been able to reach us thanks to the snapshots of this woman with a curious gaze.

Children playing in Barcelona's red-light district, in April 1934.

To approach often means to free oneself from prejudices, and while GATCPAC wanted to show the poor state of terraces and interior courtyards, the rooms with little light and the unventilated kitchens, Michaelis shows much more: women with a concentrated look and sewing at home, children laughing and playing with chairs and paper hats, or neighbours with a sly look next to a haberdasher's shop assistant. While there have been many exhibitions on the streets of Barcelona's Barri Xino, sometimes with half-hidden cameras and quick shots, few have shown what was on the other side of the door: "Michaelis shies away from stigmatisation", says the curator.

GATPAC chose her for the way she worked

In Barcelona in the 1930s there were established photographers with renowned studios. Why did GATCPAC choose her for this commission? Michaelis went to live at Carrer Rosselló 35, 4-1, where she also had her studio, with her husband, the archaeologist and anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Michaelis. "There is no documentation that allows us to know if they shared a flat or just lived in the same block with the writer Helmut Rüdiger and his wife Dora, but surely they put her in contact with GATCPAC", says Rodríguez Roig. Besides, the building had been designed by Josep Lluís Sert. Be that as it may, GATPAC decided that the Polish-born photographer was the right person. "I think they chose Michaelis because she had all the time in the world and because of the way she worked. She established contact with people, she was respectful and the neighbours trusted her, and it helped that she was a woman photographer and not a man", the curator explains.

Self-portrait from December 1931.

Michaelis was very careful and detailed on the back of the photographs the date and the place where she took them. She went to the Barri Xino for five days, from April 9 to 13, 1934. Each day she moved through different streets and was sometimes accompanied by architects from GATCPAC. In one of the images, for example, you can see Sert (he was also a great photographer) leaning against a wall with Antoni Bonet Castellana, waiting for her while she photographs a boy with a dog in his arms. The exhibition shows the images that the architects of GATCPAC photographed next to the ones she took and the gazes are quite different. She looks at people, they mainly look at buildings.

Unpublished information

The information that the photographer so meticulously recorded has also made it possible to obtain unpublished information about those days in April. "It is the first time that this photographic collection of GATCPAC, which is in the AFB, has been investigated, and I have crossed it with the collection of the GATCPAC archive, which is in the College of Architects of Catalonia (COAC), that of the architect Josep Torres Clavé and that of Margaret Michaelis in the National Gallery of Australia", says the curator. With the names of the streets that Michaelis wrote on the back, Rodríguez Roig has been able to draw on a map two very specific areas of the neighbourhood: "It is possibly where they wanted to throw more buildings on the ground to sanitise the area". The detailed information that the photographer wrote down in her invoice has also helped to dispel another misunderstanding. "It had always been thought that Michaelis had come to Barcelona in 1932, because two of the photographs in the exhibition are of the red-light district at that time, but we have been able to prove that she did not come that year and that the photographs were actually taken by the Greek architect Isaac Saporta", explains the curator.

Sant Oleguer street, 20. 12 April 1934.

On those five days in April, Michaelis took other photographs that were not part of the GATCPAC commission and that can be seen in the exhibition. The photographer entered Cal Peret, also known as La Taverna dels Tenors, at number 17 Carrer de d'en Robador. The place no longer exists but Michaelis immortalised its people: a cook in front of some snails and mussels, a man playing the guitar and another one singing, a couple talking while a pickpocket tries to steal the lady's purse, or a man cleaning his shoes while a woman, in the background, stares at the camera.

The photographer continued to work for GATCPAC and photographed the Astòria building, the Palau-solità i Plegamans school and Torre Eugenia. With the outbreak of the Civil War she went to work for the Commissariat of Propaganda and went to the front as a photojournalist. She also worked for the CNT-FAI. In January 1937 she divorced her husband and in 1938 she went to London. In August 1939 she took a boat to Australia and continued photographing, but never again as a reporter.