Stars of ‘El Boom’ celebrated in Madrid show for forgotten photographer

From Gabriel García Márquez to Jorge Luis Borges, Baldomero Pestana photographed famous literary figures but remains little known outside Peru

‘They show his interest in depicting poverty’: Lima, 1957-1966.
 ‘They show his interest in depicting poverty’: Lima, 1957-1966. Photograph: Baldomero Pestana/Instituto Cervantes

Fifty years ago, a Colombian novelist picked up an unusually lugubrious portrait of himself and scribbled a dedication to its photographer.

“For Baldo, from the least photogenic of his victims,” he wrote in thick, black ink. “A hug, Gabriel.”

Gabriel was Gabriel García Márquez, whose One Hundred Years of Solitude, published the previous year, had detonated one of the biggest bangs of the literary explosion known as “el boom”.

Gabriel García Márquez photographed in Paris, 1968.
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 Gabriel García Márquez photographed in Paris, 1968. Photograph: Baldomero Pestana/Instituto Cervantes

Baldo was Baldomero Pestana, a nomadic Spaniard who photographed almost all the giants of 20th century Latin American letters before moving to Paris, giving himself over to drawing, painting and, eventually, obscurity.

Despite his portraits of García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Luis Borges, Carlos Fuentes, Pablo Neruda, José María Arguedas, Martín Adán, Blanca Varela and Ciro Alegría – not to mention the artist Man Ray and musicians including Dizzy Gillespie and Lalo Schifrin – Pestana remains little known outside Peru, where he lived for a decade from the 1950s.

But now, almost three years after his death, efforts are under way to honour him in Spain and to bring his work to a wider audience. On Friday, a major retrospective of Pestana’s work opens in Madrid, staged by the Instituto Cervantes and the government of Galicia.

According to the exhibition’s curators, the aim is simple: “The country where he was born needs to settle the outstanding debt when it comes to recognising his work as that of one of the most interesting Spanish photographers of the second half of the 20th century.”

Chus Villar, an art historian and gallery owner, and Juan Bonilla, a writer and journalist, sorted through more than 17,000 negatives to choose the 159 pictures on display.

“He’s best known as a portraitist and it’s a fundamental part of his work: obviously that had to be there and it occupies the main part of the exhibition room,” they told the Guardian.

But Villar and Bonilla were also struck by his nudes and by his early street photographs chronicling life in Argentina and Peru: “They show his interest in depicting poverty, which was the other half of the reality that surrounded him. There are pictures of children who, for him, were symbols of purity and poetry but also, doubtless, symbols of his own lost childhood.”

Born in Galicia in 1917 and raised by a single mother who emigrated with him to Argentina four years later, Pestana’s beginnings were humble and unpropitious.

“Being the son of a single mother was really hard back then,” he recalled decades later. “My mother didn’t want me and my father never acknowledged me.” Still, he added, it meant “I was fortunate to be born a free man”.

Blanca Varela, Pervian poet.
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 The Peruvian poet Blanca Varela, surrounded by indigenous art. Photograph: Baldomero Pestana/Instituto Cervantes

After a childhood punctuated as frequently by work as school, he was training as a tailor with his uncle in Buenos Aires when he signed up for a photography course. Not only did the camera give him a way out of a job he disliked, it allowed him a means of artistic expression.

In 1957, he moved to Peru with his wife, Velia, and started working as a photojournalist for newspapers and magazines, collaborating with Robert Capa’s brother, Cornell, and shooting for McCann Erickson and Unicef.

Life in Lima brought him into the orbit of artists and writers including Vargas Llosa. One portrait shows the future Nobel prize winner as a serious, young man staring through the leaves of a plant. Others show the poet Blanca Varela surrounded by indigenous art, and the novelist José María Arguedas sitting with his hands in his pockets eight years before his suicide.

Pestana and Velia moved to Paris in 1967, where they remained for nearly 40 years. After she died in 2004, he decided to return to the country he had left nine decades earlier.

Baldomero Pestana in Paris in the 1960s, photographed by his wife, Velia Martínez.
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 Baldomero Pestana in Paris in the 1960s, photographed by his wife, Velia Martínez. Photograph: Baldomero Pestana/Instituto Cervantes

“He left Galicia as a poor emigrant and became a self-made man, but at the end his life was a bit like Ulysses,” says Carmen Rico, the wife of Pestana’s nephew.

“He had this pressing need to find his family, and he found us.”

Although an exhibition of Pestana’s photographs was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Lima in 2015, the photographer had little interest in sharing his work.

“People always ask, ‘Why didn’t he exhibit more?’,” says Rico. “And I tell them it was because he genuinely wasn’t bothered. He always had something else – something new – to be getting on with.”

Villar and Bonilla, who describe Pestana as “less a forgotten figure than an unknown one”, hope his portraits, social reportage and nudes will finally find the exposure they deserve.

Rico, meanwhile, suspects her late, modest relative would, grudgingly, have approved of the initiative: “If he was still alive, he’d be delighted at people’s enthusiasm but he’d think it was all a bit of a fuss. But he’d go the exhibition and he’d be the last to leave.”

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