STORY: HIDDEN IN AN ENVELOPE

Narrative (classroom-ready)

Story challenge – exercise your imagination and creativity!

Title:

  • Hidden in an Envelope

Protagonists:

  • an American tourist
  • a Catalan woman
  • a ghost

Key prop:

  • a stack of old brown envelopes

Locations:

  • El Mercado de Los Encants Barcelona [Els Encants], a flea market in the Catalan capital
  • Seattle, USA

Clues:

  • There is a mystery connected with the envelopes.
  • The three characters take part in solving the mystery.
  • They share the same passion.
  • They never meet at the flea market.
  • Despite some success, only part of the mystery gets solved.

Questions:

  • What is inside the envelopes?
  • What is the mystery?
  • How is each character involved?
  • Which part of the mystery is ultimately revealed?
  • Which part remains a secret?

Only when ready with your version, are you allowed to read on!

Characters’ confessions 

Tom Sponheim, Seattle (US)

After my great aunt’s death in 1990, a whole collection of my family photographs was stolen in transit to my Seattle home. Since then I have kept an eye out for other people’s photographs that might have also got lost. I may not be able to find my own photos, but maybe I can help another family find theirs and in this way make up for the loss.

In 2001 I was in Barcelona for a few days on a summer holiday with my wife. We were walking from an underground station to La Sagrada Familia when we came across a bustling Catalan street market ‘Els Encants’.

We were idly browsing what looked like a lot of old junk when I saw a stack of tattered old envelopes on a table. It looked like someone had just cleared out the contents of an old apartment. Each brown envelope contained a collection of negatives. I opened one and made sure that the negatives were decently exposed. I asked the vendor how much she wanted for them. She told me some price around $2.50. I thought that was too low, so I paid her $3.50. It was an impulse purchase.

When I got back home, I scanned one of the photos at random. It was a photograph of a schoolgirl pausing as if to eavesdrop on two older women seated on a bench. That is when I realised that I had stumbled across real talent. This picture just blew me away! To me that picture was just so evocative – great storytelling captured in one image.  What were they gossiping about that stopped the girl in her tracks? Why was it so important to this girl? It just struck me as something I have never conquered in my own photography. I just thought, wow, what if I had taken that picture?

Caturla1

All pictures © Milagros Caturla, courtesy of Tom Sponheim Collection.

Soon I came across another photograph of three priests walking near the Cathedral and I knew that I had come across the work of an unknown master photographer. They were all images from a bygone era and each told a story.

uploads2017412lasfotosperdidas_9

All pictures © Milagros Caturla, courtesy of Tom Sponheim Collection.

I printed some of my favourite images and displayed them on the wall of my dining room. But over the years, my curiosity grew and grew. I wanted to know why this person decided to start taking pictures that were a little bit provocative for the political times? Why did that happen?  What happened to the photographer and how did the negatives end up on a stall at a flea market?

I embarked on a quest to find out the identity of the mystery photographer. In 2010, I set up a Facebook page Las Fotos Perdidas De Barcelona –  The Lost Photos of Barcelona and I invested at least $500 in Facebook ads targetted at Barcelona inhabitants who were into photography. I set out on a mission to publicize the search for information, hoping social media users might be able to help me piece together who the mystery photographer might be. It worked: the page suddenly gained momentum and had people talking about it. Several followers came forward to identify themselves, their long-dead relatives and locations shown in the mystery photos. But no-one could confirm who was behind the lens.

Begoña Fernández, Barcelona (Catalunya/Spain)

I am an amateur photographer and an avid collector of old negatives, based in Barcelona.

In the early spring of 2017, I stumbled upon a Facebook page full of black-and-white photographs Las Fotos Perdidas De Barcelona –  The Lost Photos of Barcelona. The quality of the photos was immediately apparent to me, because the photographer caught the moment, had the correct framing and light and the people in the photos were talking directly to the photographer,  and because of that to us.

All pictures © Milagros Caturla, courtesy of Tom Sponheim Collection.

I also admired the way that the person behind the lens focused on the little things, a foot, or a knee – always in a manner that transmitted a sensation…

filing_images_27ac3f5c9e1a

All pictures © Milagros Caturla, courtesy of Tom Sponheim Collection.

Fascinated by the artistic value of the images and driven by my passion for photography, I decided to find out who the author was.  I had a hunch it was a woman that was responsible for these photographs. I noticed two things: the intimacy between the photographer and subjects and the backdrop to some of the shots. Most of the photos had been shot in locations popular with women, such as girls schools or ballet lessons, so considering that at that time (the 1960s) boys and girls attended separate schools in Spain, I thought the photographer must have been female.

 

 

After pulling several all-nighters, often finding myself in the middle of nowhere, coming up against false starts and dead ends, I finally had a stroke of luck. I reached a major breakthrough when I identified one of the locations: the ‘Carmen Tronchoni’ Elementary School, popularly know as ‘Els Tres Pins’. That was it! From there, I uncovered a posting about a 1962 photo contest, with suggested shooting locations that matched some of the lost images. Further digging led me to visit the archives of one of the area’s oldest photography associations. After hours of painstaking research, while flipping through the dusty pages of an old magazine, I recognised a photo from the Facebook page: the image of a woman caught deep in prayer won the fourth place in a 1961 contest. The caption revealed the title Fervor, the name of the photographer and the fact that she had been the 4th winner of the 1961 contest.

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All pictures © Milagros Caturla, courtesy of Tom Sponheim Collection.

Bingo! I found the mystery photographer, I finally solved the mystery of the name! However, one question remained unsolved: Who is the photographer? What happened to the person behind the lens?

The ghost of a street photographer – Milagros Caturla, Barcelona (Catalunya, Spain)

The seventh of ten siblings, I never got married or had children. Although I trained to become a teacher, I was a Barcelona council worker all my life.

uploads2F20172F42F132Fmilagros_1-1

All pictures © Milagros Caturla, courtesy of Tom Sponheim Collection.

I was always passionate about photography and had a darkroom in my apartment shared my sister in Barcelona.

I liked to capture Barcelona’s residents unaware, as they went about their daily life. My subjects were nuns strolling down the street, housewives gossiping or a child thoughtful during a ballet class – people rarely captured during the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco (who ruled over Spain for 36 years from 1939 until his death). My photos depicted the real life of real people, sometimes revealing aspects of poverty and despair, which was really quite subversive during the dictatorship in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Womens’ participation in street photography was frowned upon in that era, with females often being barred from men’s photography classes and clubs. Despite that,  I won several local photography competitions. Was I a pioneer? Perhaps.

uploads2017413milagros_3uploads2017412lasfotosperdidas_2C-MW0K4XgAAkM71

All pictures © Milagros Caturla, courtesy of Tom Sponheim Collection.

I spent my final years suffering from Alzheimer’s before I died in a care home in 2008.

I can’t work out how the envelopes with my negatives found their way to that flea market… but, apparently, it was meant to happen.

uploads2017412lasfotosperdidas_7

All pictures © Milagros Caturla, courtesy of Tom Sponheim Collection.

Story behind the story

An American tourist Tom Sponheim paid $3.50 for a set of negatives at a Barcelona flea market in 2001. He developed them at home in Seattle to discover haunting snapshots of Barcelona’s life during the dictatorship of General Franco (1950s-1960s). After Tom launched a Facebook campaign in 2010, a Barcelona-based amateur photographer Begoña Fernández – who saw his page – succeeded in tracing the original photographer, Milagros Caturla. No one has found out how the negatives ended up on a table at a flea market stall. The photos were exhibited in Barcelona in May 2017.

Sources 

The Independent

The Local – part 1

The Local – part 2

Photo Journal

Mashable

The Daily Mail

 

 


 All pictures © Milagros Caturla, courtesy of Tom Sponheim Collection.

The featured image of the Els Encants market – private collection

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