Fernell Franco Cali Clair-Obscur

Fernell Franco, Série Billares, 1985© Fernell Franco, Courtesy of Fundación Fernell Franco Cali / Toluca Fine Art, Paris

The recent exhibition at the The Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain  sheds well-deserved light on the experimental Colombian photographer Fernell Franco (1942-2006) who lived and worked in Cali, Colombia.

Cali Clair-Obscur (French for chiaroscuro) is an apt title as Franco delves into the seedy side of Cali life in shades of light and dark, images he shot between 1970 and 1996. Gathered into ten different series, Franco created a film noir photo fusion of urban scenes.

Fernell Franco, Série Retratos de Ciudad, 1994

Brought up in the countryside, Franco fled with his family during the Colombian violence, in the years between 1948 and 1953, to a poor neighborhood in Cali. At an early age, he was exposed to gritty city living, especially while pedaling through the streets as a bike courier for a photography studio. Self-taught, he became a photojournalist who worked in fashion and advertising. Franco was then part of a vibrant artist community of the period, including filmmakers and artists such as Oscar Muñoz who often worked collaboratively with one another. As Munoz relates they were all interested in ruins, violence, and decline.

Fernell Franco, Série Interiores, 1978

As a social documentarian Franco developed a unique style that played with light and shadow and was greatly influenced by the film noirs of the 1940s and 50s. Indeed, so many of his gritty images seem like movie stills, each with a seamy, suggestive narrative. One can imagine Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum as Phillip Marlowe sleuthing around such shadowy scenes.

Franco’s various stories focus on interiors, exteriors, brothels, billiard halls, and demolished buildings, among others. He achieves this grainy, cinematic effect often creating photomontages and drawing on his prints with a pencil or airbrush.

Fernell Franco, Séries Prostitutas, 1970-1972 (photomontage)

The Fondation Cartier calls Franco, “a major yet still under-recognized figure of Latin American photography.” Fortunately, I caught the show on its closing day in Paris. I
hope it will travel or inspire other venues to expose the public to his work.

“In the countryside at night, there is the spectacle of stars in the sky. What I saw in contrast when I arrived in Cali were that the stars were on earth.” Fernell Franco

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