The Romantic painterly influence of Caspar David Friedrich illuminates each glorious image, which although taken with a large format analogue camera, are then manipulated digitally, forcing the viewer to question what’s real (a recurring theme at Photo Espana). A stormy seascape has echoes of Paul Strand’s Hebrides work, while his red-earthed landscapes move beyond the scope of pure documentary.

In pursuit of more yellow signs (the Photo Espana logo), we chanced upon CaixaForum Madrid, an extraordinary building with a vertical garden adorning one vertiginous wall. An Alphonse Mucha exhibition within was not strictly part of the festival, but as fans of the Czech art-nouveaux painter, we had a look, only to find Mucha used photography both as a basis for his studies but also as a language of its own.

A walk through the labyrinthine Retiro – Madrid’s huge park – lead us in a (very) roundabout way to Compromised Places Topography and Actuality, a collective exhibition of 11 artists. The over-all effect of the show was one of extreme elegance due to the muted palette of shades of grey – in particular the works of Simon Starling, Beate Gütschow and An-My Lê, yet such elegance belied the thought-provoking subject matters. Each of the artists appeared to be asking the viewer to engage in a dialogue about our relationship with not just the ‘natural’ landscape, but the landscape of war, politics and urbanity. In relation the festival’s grand theme Place, this show surpassed the brief. Lê’s desertscapes, populated by US soldiers performing rehearsal operations (with some playing the role of Iraqi soldiers) infused the space with an eerie apocalyptic calm before the (desert) storm, while Gütschow’s digitally manipulated images gave the sense of a post-apocalypse everycity, its few survivors surveying the destruction.

garden_wall.jpg

Photo Espana has put together its 100 best photo-books of the year, in a small space in the city’s library. We dutifully looked through every single book (including Photo Espana’s own catalogue!) and then shared notes: the only book Lauren and I both studied page by page was Richard Misrach’s On the Beach. Read Guy Lane’s blog and interview with Misrach elsewhere on this site (here) to get a feel for his intentions. And then consider the last page of the book. It’s not a photograph, but a quote from On the Beach, a novel by Nevil Shute, with its own epigraph by T S Eliot:

In this last of meeting places
We grope together and avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper

Chilling. Prescient. Brilliant. Should be Number One!

Other strong contenders were Larry Towell’s squishy-covered The World From My Front Porch, Anders Petersen and Christian Caujolle’s visceral French Kiss, and The Descendants by Janne Zehtinen, in which the photographer returns to her ancestral home in south Finland to investigate the so-called curse of the village, which dictates that all men are afflicted by a predestined fate of destruction. Three books dealt with the supremely personal or familial: The day-to-day life of Albert Hastings by KayLynn Deveney, The Brown Sisters by Nicholas Nixon and In Almost Every Picture by Christian Bunyan. It was the latter – an Erik Kessels production – that had the edge, focusing on the passport photographs of a single woman throughout her life. Haunting. Award for the fattest, heaviest book of the year (beyond Magnum’s Magnum Magnum) goes to Philip-Lorca di Corcia. Too heavy to carry home to London.

exhibitions

Next stop was Roni Horn’s show at the Ciculo de Bellas Artes. Her work is so familiar now, the show failed to show a more revealing aspect. One of her Icelandic series, Becoming a Landscape, in which she follows a young woman around the country (which she thinks of as her studio) is disturbing in its exploration of the landscape as orifice. Pooling You also ripples with a visceral sexuality, while Her, Her, Her and Her is again a study of holes.

Downstairs in the same building was a video installation by David Claerbout, in which a Chinese family are observed from every possible angle, surveillance-style, as they enjoy a ballgame. They are surrounded by lifeless concrete on all sides, and it seemed possible that this work is a comment on the rigid structure of external life. The viewer is being asked to question the true happiness of the family, but, despite the melancholic music that accompanies Sections of a Happy Moment, they all looked pretty content to us (maybe we are just superficial).

Our penultimate artistic endeavour was the opening of Thomas Demand’s sculpture-meets-photography exhibition. The process behind the finished results is fascinating – Demand uses existing images of (often politically-) interesting places, with which he fashions a model of the building which he then photographs, before destroying the model. The place in question may be the scene of a brutal child murder or a foreign embassy – here it is the Niger Embassy, where the documents on enriched uranium used by George Bush to justify his invasion of Iraq were found – but it is up to the viewer to make these connections. Without detailed explanation (as just proved) this is impossible, and renders his work merely pleasing to the eye.

vu party

We rounded off the day with outsized G&Ts at the launch of the first edition of the Vu agency’s eponymously titled magazine. We love Vu photographers Anders Petersen, Olivier Pin-Fat, J H Engstrom and Vanessa Winship, but we haven’t read the bi-lingual mag yet, so will reserve comment …

Max Houghton