New York Photo Review
Volume 3 Issue 3 February 1 to 7, 2012

No Singing Allowed: Flamenco and Photography
Susanna Sloat

They really mean "No Singing Allowed" in the intriguing show that José Lebrero Stals curated for Aperture (a companion show is at the Instituto Cervantes at 211 E. 49th St. until April 1). It's hard to spot a singing mouth in the photographs. Men and, notably, women (even from the earliest, tiny 1858 photographs) play guitars, similar instruments, and tambourines, or have hands raised to clap palmas. And, of course, dancers pose and preen and after 1930 are sometimes caught in action. But though we hear low singing and guitar in the big, loft-like gallery, this fine show avoids any attempt to capture the essence of flamenco duende, its song.

What fascinates, by photographers unknown, little known, and famous, is the look and context of flamenco, particularly when it moves away from the studio. It is by the look, the frilled, tiered dresses or hats and jackets and occasional sleek all in ones for the men, but mostly those elaborate dresses and heavily fringed mantons, that flamenco announces itself in photos like Adgie and Her Trained Lions from San Francisco in 1887. Adgie, caged between her two huge lions, doesn't just have an arm up like the other early posers, she's got a leg up, too. The 1858 photos show gypsies (gitanos), another recurrent motif, and one that in informal settings is particularly alive with impromptu dancing – a workman enjoying a dance on a road, a man in an ordinary suit dancing on a table at a 1931 gitano wedding. Even into the mid 20th century we see covered caravans with women in their performance frills peaking out.

Like the photographers, some of the subjects are famous – La Argentina (in studio shots interesting only for the parade of costumes), Farruco c. 1964 clapping for his young son dancing outdoors in front of a cinderblock wall. In 1930 Martin Munkacsy was the first in the show to capture movement, with a wonderfully acute shot of circle of six dancers, some children, swirling up their skirts in a Seville tavern. Inge Morath's pictures from the mid-1950s can entrance with their skillful focus on a group of workmen dancing on a road or a very soulful boy in a polka dot shirt thinking, while leaning his face on his hand, next to a woman in costume, broadly smiling. In 1951 Brassai took a picture at the Seville Fair of a woman on a horse, with her big skirt covering its rear (and her own legs) so that the horse's legs seem to be hers. In 1982 Román Masats echoes this chimera shot in a color photo.

The chronological presentation helps us see how the flamenco dress evolves – with frills and tiers remaining a constant for a long time, though things are changing now. Those skirts begin to move with Munkacsy. How flamenco dance erupts is another evolution. A key picture is the only one blown up, first seen this way out of the chronology, with the 1962 print from Barcelona by Xavier Miserachs coming toward the end. First we see her life size – Antoñita La Singla, an attractive young woman in a short polka dot dress standing on one bare foot in relevé, her other leg sharply bent and held up high, those bare feet unable to stamp out sounds on the bare dirt of a hilltop, but her hands flowering with full flamenco communication. A guitarist is in back of her, as are two children, and the city lies below. Antoñita's vivaciousness is emblematic. No singing is allowed, but the dancing comes alive.

No Singing Allowed: Flamenco and Photography

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