Txema Salvans, Perfect Day

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Mack Books (here). Embossed hardback, 28 x 27.5 cm, 90 pages, with 48 color reproductions. With an afterword by Juan Fontcuberta. Design by Morgan Crowcroft-Brown. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Henri Cartier-Bresson sometimes employed a simple trick to analyze photographs. He viewed them upside down. In this inverted position, with the narrative content somewhat nullified, he could better study them as pure compositions. A related trick is to examine photographs out of season. A snowy landscape seen in January is one thing. Viewed in July, it can shift into something quite different.

Such transformations came to mind recently when browsing the Spanish photographer Txema Salvan’s Perfect Day. There are many facets to this book—I’ll address them shortly—but for me all were initially subjugated by one: summer. Perfect Day celebrates the dog days of peak summer—perhaps early August?—when socks, shirts, and preening have long since been discarded. What’s left is a parched world of sweat, skin, blue sky, suntans, sand, and outdoor leisure. Subjects laze about on their lawn chairs or haunches. There is no schedule. Every image here radiates an aura of sun-kissed heat. When viewed on my blanketed lap nestled indoors on a rainy day in February, this midsummer dream appears quite exotic, an alien world unto itself. And yes, the compositions work just as well viewed upside down.

Salvans shot in summer because he wanted to document people during their leisure time. Not that he has a particular passion for leisure. At 49, his own lifestyle is closer to busybody than layabout, a fact reflected in his bustling oeuvre which now stretches across five monographs. His wry detachment toward vacations is similar to a research scientist (Salvans’ training was in biology), or perhaps a particular strain of photographer. Martin Parr, Reinier Riedler, and Massimo Vitali have also photographed vacationers with a similar spirit of bemused fascination. 

To the work of these predecessors, Salvans adds a pinch of blank agnosticism. “Our existence is framed between the highly improbable event of being born and another inevitable event that is death,” he says. “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!”

To study this holy grail, he spent fifteen years wandering the Spanish Mediterranean coast with a medium format film camera and tripod. One might imagine such equipment would be cumbersome for candids, but it ultimately served to his advantage. “The more visible I am, the more unnoticed I am too,” he chirps. Perched behind his setup in broad daylight, he soon blended with the static mise-en-scènes before him. “I see myself as a theatre playwright,” he says. “I stand off-stage, very much centered in the theatre hall, and I observe.” Captured at a distance Salvans’ subjects are typically minor elements set amid broad surroundings. He has applied similar methodology to all of his projects, stirring ethical concerns in the earlier monograph The Waiting Game, which compiled furtive pictures of roadside sex workers. Perfect Day swims in the same general waters process-wise, but this project is less morally fraught. Its subjects carry no societal baggage. They are simply relaxing and enjoying a perfect day off.

What is a perfect day? That depends who is asking. For one person, it might be an afternoon idling in an empty parking lot. Another might require access to a beach or recreational activity. Salvans seems to relish the natural variance as he casts his vacationers against a bewildering variety of strange backdrops. A lonely child sits poolside hemmed in by concrete buildings. A Spaniard man-spreads in his lawn chair, seemingly happy to be surrounded by a dead trees in a barren expanse of concrete. We see a couple enjoying a beach day with their dog in the sand. The only visual prick in their bubble is the huge industrial factory parked just beyond the car. There are picnickers on a cement berm, sunbathers in unlikely nooks, desert dwellers idling amid roadside debris, a treasure hunter poking through post-industrial effluent, a man hanging out in the shadow of a huge electrical transformer, and so on. 

Within the first several pages, it becomes clear that Perfect Day is an ironic title. The phrase’s strangely stunted cover hyphenation now takes on new significance as a deliberate foreshadowing of trouble in paradise. These are not the perfect days you might find in a travel brochure. Instead they carry ominous visual undertones, with a decidedly political edge. “Our species devastates, demolishes, forces, and violates the landscape until it is sterilized by adding cement,” says Salvans. “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.”

Nothing says dystopia quite like an image of recreation near belching smokestacks. Photographers including Mitch Epstein and Daniel Shea have explored similar juxtapositions, balancing the slow pace of vacation against the humdrum of industry. Perhaps it is an easy caricature, but Salvans plumbs it with remarkable depth. His ability to sniff out various factories near beach scenes—“Coastal Destruction”, as one reviewer labeled it—is uncanny. Their effect is sharpened by Salvans’ vantage, which always faces inland to exclude the Mediterranean. We see swim suits and beach toys but no expanse of water to relieve the tension. As Juan Fontcuberta’s afterword explains, “what the camera shows us is the degraded prospect that the characters want to turn their backs on.”

Salvans’ photographs reveal a grudging admiration for his subjects, as if studying barnacles clinging against an ebb tide. Where other species surrender, we are able to endure a little longer,” he says. For anyone who has vacationed in summer or engaged with industry—which is to say, most readers—these scenes will hold a natural fascination, especially if viewed in winter.

For formally conscious photographers, the images have an added kick. Salvans’ compositional skill is subtle and extraordinary, and reveals something of his scientific bent. In the tradition of Lee Friedlander, Gerry Johansson, Andrew Borowiec, and others, he favors precise camera positions to divide scenes into carefully layered alignments. A picture of a beer-bellied vacationer leaning against a pole might fall flat if photographed straight on. But by standing to the side, in just the right spot, Salvans poles the gap between two background buildings, galvanizing the entire frame. A couple lounging on a poolside patio is injected with fresh energy by Salvans careful vantage. He aligns lamps, umbrellas, and distant hills just so, creating a convoluted jigsaw of color blocks. A man posing with an ornamented stagecoach is so precisely layered into its door that he flattens the scene. The cover photo is just as tightly composed, but takes measures one step further by placing active humans—notoriously difficult to pinpoint—precisely into the social landscape. These are merely a few examples. There are forty-eight pictures in the book and without exception each one’s framing is rigorous. As formal arrangements they are a joy to unpack.

Mack’s production subtly reinforces Perfect Day‘s summer timbre. The cover photo of a sunbather sprawled under a cloudless sky opens onto sunny yellow endpapers. The pictures to follow are reproduced with gorgeous fidelity, using a slightly oversaturated palette and top-alignment to emphasize their fantastical blue skies. If the effect is slightly surreal, it is in keeping with the book’s quizzical tone. Salvans presents his evidence, but still one wonders. Do such places really exist? The question looms even larger out of season. Fontcuberta’s explains the discordance as a collective delusion. We “fantasize these transient scraps of paradise,” he writes. They may be mere figments of reality—as all photographs are—but they’re a welcome sign in deep winter.

Collector’s POV: Txema Salvans does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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