DC.es | Florida Ave by Juan Baraja

Former Residence of the Ambassadors of Spain 1 -12 -2022 / 1 - 03 - 2023


Florida Avenue runs through the heart of Washington, DC, as if the State of Florida had shot an arrow diagonally to Washington State -the other Washington-, leaving the beach and the crocodiles behind and heading for the cold of Seattle, making its way through the heart of the country. However, at the beginning of time, or at least at the time of Washington city’s founding (1791), that street went by another name, quite different from that of the state where you go to retire and take aquagym lessons with people who use dentures, just like yours. Boundary Street was its original name, because it marked the end of city limits, the place where the city ended, the border. And in 1890, when it was about to turn 100 years old, the poor thing was given another name.  The city limits had now changed due to the expansion of the city, and the people who lived on this street protested because they were not happy with that name, which was synonymous with border, as they felt it depreciated the value of their properties. And, as if Ponce de León had made a leap to the north, Boundary became Florida, but this did not mean that homeowners would see the price of their house magically go up, nor that palm trees or retirees would suddenly pop up out of nowhere, nor (thank God!) that people would turn up there looking for a theme park.

“There are other worlds but they are in this one” Baudrillard solemnly stated one day, not knowing that his words would be used in a perfume ad. “There are other Americas, but they are on Florida Street”, as Juan Baraja aims to highlight in this wonderful series, a project that is at the same time multiple and univocal, diverse and compact. Because his stroll along Florida Avenue seems like a cross-country jaunt, a classic road trip, as if this avenue contained in itself, -in the same way as Whitman contained multitudes-, the nuances and boundaries of this country that is truly a continent. A country that, as we can see in some of the photos, is still unfinished, under construction, encompassing the urban and the rural, the classy and the trashy, the commercial and the residential.

From the traditional townhouses found in some of DC’s upscale neighborhoods to the gas station that seems to have been taken out of the Midwest, from the industrial zone to an area that is studded with small stores, for Juan Baraja, Florida Avenue is indeed a whole country by itslef, and he keeps his clear and attentive gaze on detail, on a corner, on a face, on tomatoes, moving from portrait to still life, from landscape to architecture. Muñoz Molina refers to him as the photographer of the right angle, and when he speaks about his photographs, he reminds us of a quote by Diane Arbus, who said: “there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them”. That same right angle is applied here to a street that is diagonal and, at the same time, curved, that appears and disappears, and which you may stumble upon while wandering around DC when you least expect it. And when he watches carefully and he sets his gaze on something, that thing comes to a halt and becomes ennobled at the same time; it is frozen and elevated. And, for the sake of contradicting Arbus, it is not so much that you have not seen whatever he photographs, but rather that as soon as he photographs it, you suddenly see it in another way; and now, not only do you notice that new reality, but that reality suddenly takes off. As Master Truffaut said, framing is a moral choice; and Baraja knows this very well. However, the second part of his approach is also a moral choice. The first one is where to put the focus on while the second one is how to reflect it. And this is where expertise comes into play: the photographer’s impressive capacity to stop time for some tomatoes on a street stall, in a swimming pool that looks at the sky and sees its reflection, or in a passerby that suddenly becomes a portrait, with a light that seems to have come out of its lens alone. Throughout the years, Baraja has been polishing his voice, a voice that finds beauty where others do not see it; a voice that in the apparent coldness of the right angle catches a glimpse of the space so as to elevate and enhance everything it frames.

When we invited Juan to come to Washington DC and inaugurate the DC.es project, A gaze of Washington DC by Spanish photographers, organized by the Cultural Office, in which former scholarship recipients from the Academy of Rome share their vision of this city, we knew that he would keep his eyes on detail. We also knew that he would wander through the city; and that he had read Benjamin, who wrote: “to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling”; we also knew that he has indeed such schooling and that he knows how to lose his way. What we did not know, however, naive as we were, is that he was going to give us and the city such a gift: a new Florida Avenue, renamed by him one hundred and thirty years later. Enjoy it, for it is well worth it.

Miguel Albero

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