The story of the lost pictures of Barcelona

Tom Sponheim, an American from Seattle, bought an envelope with unauthored pictures for $3.5 while on a summer vacation in Barcelona. Back home, he couldn’t believe what was inside.

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

By Pol Artola @artolariera
March 31, 2017

It all started in 2001. Tom Sponheim, an American from Seattle, was in Barcelona for a few days, accompanied by his wife on a summer vacation. They were walking from a metro station to La Sagrada Familia when they happened across ‘Els Encants’, a popular flea market in the Catalan capital.

“We looked around and I saw a stack of negatives lying on a table. I opened one envelope and determined that the negatives were well exposed, so I asked the vendor how much she wanted for them. She told me some price around $2.50.” He thought that was too low, so he paid her $3.50.

When he returned home, he scanned one of the photos at random. It was one where a schoolgirl is seen listening behind a bench where two old ladies are talking. “This picture just blew me away!” He soon came across another photograph of three priests walking near the Cathedral and knew that he had stumbled upon the work of an unknown master photographer.

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

When his family’s photos and letters were being shipped to Seattle in 1990, after his great aunt’s death, they were stolen en route. Since then he has kept an eye out for other people’s photographs that might have also gotten 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.”

20 years later, in 2010, he created a Facebook page and bought Facebook ads focused on people within 20 miles around Barcelona and who indicated an interest in photography. The page amassed considerable popularity, probably due to the quality of the images, and several fans could even identify theirselves, relatives and friends depicted in them, but no one had any idea about whom the author might be.

His effort was useless until earlier this year, when Begoña Fernández, an amateur photographer from Barcelona, stumbled upon his page. Fascinated by the artistic value of the images and driven by his passion for photography, she recently started a thoroughly investigation to find out the author of those incredible photographs. “I noticed that most of the pictures were shot in women environments, such as girls schools or ballet lessons, so considering that at that time (1960s) boys and girls attended separated schools in Spain, I thought it had to be a woman.”

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

After spending long nights awake, often finding herself in the middle of nowhere or at dead-ends, she achieved a major breakthrough when she managed to identify one of the spots where several of the pictures were shot: Elementary School ‘Carmen Tronchoni’, popularly know as ‘Els Tres Pins’. She then started to search for information about the school on the Internet, and found the announcement of a photo contest in the archive of La Vanguardia, one of the main newspapers in Barcelona. The note specified that the contest was organised by the female section of ‘Falange’ (the one and only party in Franco’s dictatorial regime), as well as the theme in which contestants should focus, ‘childhood’, and suggested a handful of cultural and educational centres in which to shoot. Almost all of them matched the pictures locations.

“That was it! At that point I thought that I just had to find the winners of that year’s (1962) contest, but to my surprise there where no winners published…” She then fixed her attention on the winner of the previous edition, Gloria Salas de Villavecchia. She had been member of one of Catalunya’s oldest and more emblematic photography associations, the ‘Agrupació Fotogràfica de Catalunya‘ (AFC), and she was alive! “I sent her some of the photos but she didn’t recognize them, so I was again confused…”

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

Despite the constant setbacks, Begoña didn’t cease in her effort. She went to visit the AFC, where she met Francesca Portolés, a senior member who suggested her to look in the archive of monthly bulletins of the association, where she could probably find information that might led her to finally find the elusive photographer. In the end, while exploring a magazine, she found a picture that she had saw in Tom Sponheim’s Facebook page. The caption read Fervor, by Milagros Caturla, 4th winner of the contest in 1961 . “Eureka! I had her, I finally solved the mystery!

However, one question remained unsolved: Who is actually Milagros Caturla? What happened to her?

Milagros Caturla died in 2008, suffering from Alzheimer’s. The seventh of ten siblings, she never got married or had children. Although he studied to become a teacher, she never practised as such, and worked instead as administrative in Barcelona’s Regional Council. According to one of her nephews, Lluís Caturla, Milagros was passionate about photography and had a photo lab in her apartment in Barcelona. Later Begoña found that she also won the first prize in the subsequent edition (1962) of the same contest, as well as other regional awards. She took part in an exhibition in Olot that featured the aforementioned Salas de Villavecchia too.

With the collaboration of the AFC, Begoña will try to pay her a proper tribute with an exhibition featuring her photographs. “We feel her as our own Vivian Maier.”

See more images on Facebook.

Portrait of Milagros Caturla.
The story of the lost pictures of Barcelona
Tom Sponheim, an American from Seattle, bought an envelope with unauthored pictures for $3.5 while on a summer vacation in Barcelona. Back home, he couldn’t believe what was inside.

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


By Pol Artola @artolariera
March 31, 2017

It all started in 2001. Tom Sponheim, an American from Seattle, was in Barcelona for a few days, accompanied by his wife on a summer vacation. They were walking from a metro station to La Sagrada Familia when they happened across ‘Els Encants’, a popular flea market in the Catalan capital.

“We looked around and I saw a stack of negatives lying on a table. I opened one envelope and determined that the negatives were well exposed, so I asked the vendor how much she wanted for them. She told me some price around $2.50.” He thought that was too low, so he paid her $3.50.

When he returned home, he scanned one of the photos at random. It was one where a schoolgirl is seen listening behind a bench where two old ladies are talking. “This picture just blew me away!” He soon came across another photograph of three priests walking near the Cathedral and knew that he had stumbled upon the work of an unknown master photographer.

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

When his family’s photos and letters were being shipped to Seattle in 1990, after his great aunt’s death, they were stolen en route. Since then he has kept an eye out for other people’s photographs that might have also gotten 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.”

20 years later, in 2010, he created a Facebook page and bought Facebook ads focused on people within 20 miles around Barcelona and who indicated an interest in photography. The page amassed considerable popularity, probably due to the quality of the images, and several fans could even identify theirselves, relatives and friends depicted in them, but no one had any idea about whom the author might be.

His effort was useless until earlier this year, when Begoña Fernández, an amateur photographer from Barcelona, stumbled upon his page. Fascinated by the artistic value of the images and driven by his passion for photography, she recently started a thoroughly investigation to find out the author of those incredible photographs. “I noticed that most of the pictures were shot in women environments, such as girls schools or ballet lessons, so considering that at that time (1960s) boys and girls attended separated schools in Spain, I thought it had to be a woman.”

After spending long nights awake, often finding herself in the middle of nowhere or at dead-ends, she achieved a major breakthrough when she managed to identify one of the spots where several of the pictures were shot: Elementary School ‘Carmen Tronchoni’, popularly know as ‘Els Tres Pins’. She then started to search for information about the school on the Internet, and found the announcement of a photo contest in the archive of La Vanguardia, one of the main newspapers in Barcelona. The note specified that the contest was organised by the female section of ‘Falange’ (the one and only party in Franco’s dictatorial regime), as well as the theme in which contestants should focus, ‘childhood’, and suggested a handful of cultural and educational centres in which to shoot. Almost all of them matched the pictures locations.

“That was it! At that point I thought that I just had to find the winners of that year’s (1962) contest, but to my surprise there where no winners published…” She then fixed her attention on the winner of the previous edition, Gloria Salas de Villavecchia. She had been member of one of Catalunya’s oldest and more emblematic photography associations, the ‘Agrupació Fotogràfica de Catalunya‘ (AFC), and she was alive! “I sent her some of the photos but she didn’t recognize them, so I was again confused…”

Despite the constant setbacks, Begoña didn’t cease in her effort. She went to visit the AFC, where she met Francesca Portolés, a senior member who suggested her to look in the archive of monthly bulletins of the association, where she could probably find information that might led her to finally find the elusive photographer. In the end, while exploring a magazine, she found a picture that she had saw in Tom Sponheim’s Facebook page. The caption read Fervor, by Milagros Caturla, 4th winner of the contest in 1961 . “Eureka! I had her, I finally solved the mystery!”

However, who is Milagros Caturla? What happened to her?

Milagros Caturla died in 2008, suffering from Alzheimer’s. The seventh of ten siblings, she never got married or had children. Although he studied to become a teacher, she never practised as such, and worked instead as administrative in Barcelona’s Regional Council. According to one of her nephews, Lluís Caturla, Milagros was passionate about photography and had a photo lab in her apartment in Barcelona. Later Begoña found that she also won the first prize in the subsequent edition (1962) of the same contest, as well as other regional awards. She took part in an exhibition in Olot that featured the aforementioned Salas de Villavecchia too.

Portrait of Milagros Caturla

With the collaboration of the AFC, Begoña will try to pay her a proper tribute with an exhibition featuring her photographs. “We feel her as our own Vivian Maier.”

See more images on Facebook.

Follow @artolariera on Twitter.
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