In Perfect Day, Txema Salvans captures the tragi-comedy of the Mediterranean coast
The Spanish photographer has been working on the series for 15 years, travelling up and down the coastline and shooting people at leisure by the seaside.
- Matt Alagiah
- 29 May 2020
Perfect Day is about the sea – and yet, throughout this expansive series, not one single droplet of ocean water is to be seen, not a solitary wave or ripple. The Spanish photographer Txema Salvans has been travelling along the Mediterranean coastline for 15 years working on this project, but his back is always turned on the water. Instead he turns around and looks at what has been attracted by the brilliant sunshine, the vistas, and the glittering shoreline – chiefly money, development, and people.
“In photography, that which is not shown determines the final sense as much as that which is shown,” says the photographer, whose project The Waiting Game we looked at in 2018. He describes Perfect Day as “a project about the Mediterranean, where the sea never appears, but the focus is on everything that the presence of the sea has provoked”.
The series, which has just been released as a book by Mack, for the most part consists of sweeping landscapes that are dominated by ugly, often ill-considered manmade structures. Human figures do appear, but they’re often small and buried in the foreground, dwarfed by the monstrous built environment around them. “We are heirs to the violence of those who came before us, and the Mediterranean has been deeply wronged,” says Txema. “And yet we’ve adapted. We’re bordering on dystopia.”
There is an amazing consistency to the photos, despite the long timeframe in which they were taken, something Txema attributes to his use of an analogue camera. “I am very aware of the limitations of the analogue, and it is precisely these limitations that make my work so aesthetically consistent,” he says. “Not being able to modify the files saves me from the ‘trends’ of the moment. Beyond contrast and luminosity, I have little margin.”
It’s a luxury he doesn’t afford himself on paid commissions, but for personal projects, he prefers this medium. “It leaves me in peace,” he says. “When I travel with my cameras, I can’t correct the second photo by looking at the first screen, and the third by looking at the second. I have no margin for error, I have to be totally connected with what I see and with my own intuition.”
One of the ironies of the coast is that its fortunes often run in the exact opposite direction to the rest of society. “Paradoxically, it is the economic cycles that save or destroy the coast,” Txema explains. “When the economy is doing well, the coast does badly, and when things are going badly, the coast does well.” (You only need look as far as all the “Nature is healing” memes going around at the moment to spot the parallels with our own economically straitened times.) As Txema puts it: “The best thing that can happen to a virgin Mediterranean site is that no builder has money to invite a politician to dinner.”
What does this mean for the humans who find themselves stuck in this inhospitable environment, penned in by all this development? For Txema, the answer to that question is pretty bleak, and it comes back to the distance he keeps from the people in his pictures. “My photographs speak of the context, hence that distance,” he says. “The presence of people amplifies the tragedy but does not resolve it.”
The people are diminished by their environments, becoming small and insignificant. In a society that sees productivity and money as a person’s main reasons for existing, choosing to do nothing is held up as “the holy grail”, Txema goes on. “The truth is that our free will resembles that of plankton: living organisms with little or no ability to move, at the mercy of waves and currents.”
And yet, despite the tragedy of the images, there is perhaps also an underlying humour to them. Txema is wary of the word. “Irony is part of my language, but it can be very dangerous,” he says. “I would not forgive myself for falling into mockery. That never.” And it’s true – the distance between the photographer and his subjects prevents the mockery that might stem from proximity, from seeing a grim facial expression or a close-up of a particular garment or accessory. Instead Txema’s images have something of the Greek tragedy to them, the characters at the mercy of wider forces that they’re powerless to resist.
GalleryTxema Salvans, images from Perfect Day (Mack, 2020). Courtesy of the artist and Mack.
Txema Salvans, image from Perfect Day (Mack, 2020). Courtesy of the artist and Mack.