Spanish photographer Txema Salvans’ new book, Perfect Day, is a collection of bittersweet images that offer a surprisingly insightful view into the contradictions of our post-industrial civilization. Over the course of fifteen years, Salvans traversed the shores of the Mediterranean Sea photographing scenes of people relaxing, sunbathing, and carving out a small personal paradise amid the seemingly inescapable backdrop of the industrialized landscape.
The post-industrialized lifestyle lurks ever-present, both literally and figuratively, as a backdrop to the sun-washed moments of bliss captured in Perfect Day. All at once, the people in Salvans’ images become sympathetic punchlines, figures of stubborn insistence, and symbols of a contemporary condition where we see the pressures for individual productivity continually encroach upon our need for escape and leisure. In a simple visual gesture, Salvans offers us profound truths about the inescapability of societal expectations for the labor force. The demands of economic production, sharply alluded to in Perfect Day and ever-present in our own lives, simply cannot be quieted.
In our current moment, defined by a pandemic that has isolated us, the pictures perhaps ring even more relatable. We feel the longing for escape to any place outside our own dwellings and for those of us working from home, there is a continual blurring between times of work and leisure. In this interview, Salvans speaks to Gregory Eddi Jones for LensCulture about what photography means to him, making work on home turf and our faltering relationship to nature.
Gregory Eddi Jones: To start, Txema, the work in your new book, Perfect Day, was made over the course of fifteen years. I’m curious, how did you get started with this project and what sustained your interest in this work for such a long period of time?
Txema Salvans: Fifteen years? Why not? Nobody was waiting on my photos. I don’t have any scholarship or help, I have no excuses or I have them all. I can’t afford to publish a work to which I haven’t given everything, so I better do it right. That’s my commitment to myself, to you, and to photography.
Photography is a state of mind that I cannot shake. It allows me to experience an intellectual pleasure, to observe the complexity of our species. It allows me to be alone, to wander and remain in a state of contemplation that at times frees me from the need to be the protagonist of my own life. And that is a great liberation. Like all artists, I try to find a personal voice, and probably because I studied science at university—I studied biology—I feel comfortable speaking about things that I can understand.
GEJ: Was focusing on your own surroundings an important factor in making this body of work?
TS: I take photos about my own culture, people and landscapes. I have to have a physical connection with the landscapes and an emotional connection with the people. Being part of this reality helps me to be more critical and to go deeper into Spanish culture. So, for the last twenty years I have focused on a big project, taking photos all along the Spanish Mediterranean Coast. And more precisely, looking at how people spend their free time. As a photographer, I understood that I had to focus my point of view, otherwise the work could become too scattered. ‘Leisure’ allowed me to be a photographer every day; I didn’t need long journeys or anomalous situations to be able to work.
I have become a ‘super specialist’ in a very specific subject, and for that reason, I believe that my work can transcend photography to become a document at the mercy of historians, ethnologists, architects, journalists. But the most difficult thing is to transcend the document, to be able to have your photos go beyond what the photograph shows.
“My photos are not only a document about the Mediterranean, the Spanish or holidays, they are above all a document about the human condition.”
GEJ: There’s an underlying tension in the pictures that speaks to the relationships between work and leisure. It’s really interesting that some of the reasons your subjects seek out moments of leisure is to escape from the anxieties, and perhaps unnatural lifestyles, brought on by industrialization. To see the evidences of industrial development within the pictures provides the sense that it’s an inescapable condition, aside from the few privileged who have the means to visit a truly remote paradise.
TS: Our existence is framed between the highly improbable event of being born and another inevitable event that is death. From that binary perspective, every second of life is a ‘perfect day’. But from an existentialist perspective, our existence resembles that of plankton: living organisms, with little or no ability to move without the mercy of waves and currents. For a society that values its individuals for their production capacity, doing nothing has become the holy grail of our free time, and considering that death is a proven fact, it’s a great paradox!
GEJ: It’s strange and funny to me how, given the book’s release amid this global pandemic, the title almost becomes sarcastic, or perhaps a statement of longing. And it’s noteworthy that the people in your images, appearing alone, sometimes lonely, fall in line with the current context of social distancing and isolation. I wonder: has the pandemic changed your own interpretation of these pictures you’ve made?
TS: We could say that this pandemic is global thanks to one human invention, “the combustion engine” that facilitates human movement on a global scale. The paradox is that it is stopped by another human invention, “the vaccine”. We are a totally denaturalized species. We have stopped relating to life and our natural environment, and have begun to relate more to dead materials, like plastic. We are opportunistic animals, we have adapted. Perfect Day tells us about the incredible physical and emotional resilience of our species. In this resilience, paradoxically, lies the tragedy of the human being. Where other species surrender, we are able to endure a little longer.
GEJ: The thing I like most about this work is that the sea is the actual object of desire for your subjects, but it is not included in any of the pictures. You photograph with your back to it. It might seem funny to say, but I can almost read these pictures as having been made by the sea, distant and impartial, looking back at humanity and considering both its ingenuities and its follies. It seems important to me that these pictures were made around the Mediterranean coastline. Can you talk a little about the significance you found in photographing scenes from the Mediterranean specifically, as opposed to any other body of water?
TS: I love your idea! How the Mediterranean sees us! The Mediterranean is above all landscape, and has a positive representation in the collective unconscious. My photos show the current reality of much of this landscape. The future of a landscape depends on its complexity, on the interrelationship of flora, fauna, meteorology… even the dunes of a desert never stay still. Our species devastates, demolishes, forces, and violates the landscape until it is sterilized by adding cement. A landscape without a future is a dead landscape. We are heirs to the violence of those who preceded us, and the Mediterranean has been deeply wronged, yet we have adapted. We are bordering on dystopia.
GEJ: One of the most notable characteristics of these pictures is the sense of humor that comes with your vibrant color palette, the formal playfulness of your compositions, and the calmness of your detached viewpoints. To a degree, I have the sense that you are photographing with a forgiving eye toward humanity. We are eating ourselves and destroying the world, but we really just can’t help it, can we?
TS: If I had to draw a parallel with literature, I see myself as a theatre playwright: I stand off-stage, very much centered in the theatre hall, and I observe. My photography is classic, it doesn’t pretend to surprise by a technical display. Nor does it pretend to explain. I like the observer to have room for interpretation. Photography is polysemic, its readings don’t depend entirely on just what I try to say. The viewer, through their emotional experience, gives meaning to that image. My photographs make sense when they leave me and someone else fills them with meaning.
In terms of my technique, one of the reasons why I use analog photography is because I like to follow my intuition. With analog photography you cannot correct the photo you just made; you just have to keep going. Keep yourself very focused on what you do and stop, at least, every time you change the film. Digital photography is much faster. You are always attentive to what goes on the screen, which is ultimately the photo.
I appreciate the wait I was subjected to when I sent the photographic rolls to the laboratory. I like to look at the backlit negatives. In short, I like the rituals of analog photography. While it is true that photography exists as a consequence of a technological fact, that is the camera, this interface between the world and the artist makes me very uncomfortable. The camera discovers you and interrupts your thoughts. But at the same time, in the realms of aesthetics and form, it offers you a multitude of possibilities that you can use skillfully. The great paradox of working with a large format analog camera mounted on a tripod, is that it complicates the rituals that accompany the photographic act. The more visible I am, the more unnoticed I am too.
GEJ: Now that Perfect Day has been published, what new projects will you be turning your attention to?
TS: I have several projects in progress, but the most advanced is the third and final part of my project The Waiting Game: a photo project consisting of three books. Each book deals with a very precise theme that at the same time alludes to three circumstances that define us as a species: sociability, self-awareness and our relationship with the physical environment. This trilogy focuses on a dystopian version of these circumstances. The Waiting Game 3 is the project that closes the trilogy.
The images are also taken again in the Spanish Mediterranean and once again follow the same working protocol. In this case, the relationship between man and dog is a theme that allows me to address the way in which man relates to his environment in a dystopian way. The subject of my work is the dog on a leash, chained to the walls or fences of factories, industrial estates, farms, properties. It is the dog that waits and protects, that is born and dies in the same place and that lives at the mercy of its owner. A human capable, as in many other facets of our relationship with the environment, of distancing themselves emotionally from their animal to the extent of cruelty.