Overview: The Catalan capital regains its swagger | Photography

In 1951, General Franco’s regime in Spain, bankrupted by two wars, reached an agreement that allowed the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet and some Royal Navy ships to dock in Barcelona. The sailors found the Catalan capital, center of resistance to Francoism and fascism, on its knees. The city’s economy was partly saved by the arrival of the Sailors, who brought not just dollars but jazz and rock’n’roll and a post-war levity to the Ramblas. A recent book The Sixth Fleet in Barcelona, by Spanish journalist Xavier Theros, details this impact. Bars, tailors, souvenir shops – and the sex industry – have exploded. Barcelona has been reinvented as a tourist destination.

This photograph of sailors in Barrio Chino in 1953 was taken by pioneering documentary photographer Francesc Català-Roca, who died in 1998, and whose centenary is celebrated this summer at the PhotoEspaña festival in Madrid. Català-Roca was the son of a Republican photographer, Pere Català-Pic, famous for an image of a peasant shoe stepping on a swastika. The young man made two landmark studies of post-war Barcelona and Madrid, although his work received little recognition during Franco’s repressive years.

This image is typical of his narration. The white bell-bottomed uniforms of the sailors contrast with the grayness of the alley in front of them. The woman in the foreground watching the group in her flat shoes and loose dress offers an implied commentary on the scene. There is, it seems, only one vanishing point to which the urgent couples in front of her can head that afternoon. All the tensions of the city in those years are present in the imported swagger of the sailors; in the 1970s, the “marineros” were increasingly seen as a symbol of Madrid’s dictatorship and were the target of Catalan separatists. The Sixth Fleet finally departed in 1988.

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