Sant Cugat

By good fortune and coincidence I’ve been travelling a lot to Spain this year, either Madrid or Barcelona and, from time to time, Zaragoza, which lies almost prophetically half way between these two great cities that suddenly find themselves on opposite sides of a political divide. 


My last trip was to Madrid and then on to Zaragoza. This time it’s Barcelona.

Barcelona is such a beautiful city. I was here earlier in the year just at the beginning of spring and had spent a few hours of an afternoon wandering around the narrow streets and the food market off La Ramblas. The sun had started to dip low in the sky, shining through the apertures of the market’s roof casting brilliant patches light that spilled next to inky pools of intense shadow. It was fun to have the chance to indulge in a little of the street photography that is guaranteed to get loads of likes on Instagram; throwing silhouettes of people against brightly lit colourful walls or catching figures half in the light and half in perfect shadow. I don’t know who first came up with this highly stylised and much copied aesthetic, but being an extreme take on chiaroscuro lighting I guess the nod should go to Caravaggio.

Now in November as I drive from the airport to my hotel I notice that the light is being wonderfully rendered by a thin layer of gossamer cloud. It’s falling in abundance everywhere but is wonderfully diffuse and gentle so any splash of colour is super saturated. I’m excited and start imagining a new aesthetic of brightly lit and evenly toned cityscapes with vignettes of colour and that fine white balance that is so much easier to achieve when the lighting is this good. It’s still only 10am local time and I start to plan my day around all the work I need to do so that I can create a small window for when I might get the chance to shoot. My plan is built around maximising the daylight hours when a camera is most profitably used and booting the work work until after sun down. I do have got a lot to get done and I can’t afford to play fast and loose with the job I am here for but I don’t have to be up super early in the morning and the previously mooted client dinner hasn’t been confirmed so the evening is my own and can be used to work.

And then the client emails me to say that the dinner is on after all. Bugger.

Apart from anything else the emails have piled up between leaving home and arriving at the hotel and I also now have the added complication of a taxi strike in the city, making my transfer from the hotel to the following day’s meeting in Sant Cugat some 24km away a significantly more challening undertaking. I work solidly from 10.30am until it’s time to go to dinner at nine o’clock in the afternoon (but apparently we only have the table until 10.30pm when another party will need it to sit down to their own evening meal. Only in Spain!), and never even look at my camera.

My meeting the following day however is all done by 1.30pm including a light lunch and my flight is not until 6.30pm, plus I now also have a hire car (in lieu of a taxi) so suddenly the possibilities open up. Sant Cugat is a small town, quite independent of Barcelona and lying to the north west of that city. It is compact, neatly presented and populated mostly by families where one or both parents commute into Barcelona, leaving the town with a weekday mix of the children and grandparents. I decide to leave the car where it is and with assurances for how pretty the town is and where to find the prettiest parts, I head out on foot.

The light is not as flattering as it was on the previous day; it’s clear and very bright and the sun is still relatively high in the sky so shooting portraits is going to be tricky. I play a little with the fall of light and the strong contrasting shapes this makes with the shadows but I did that in Barcelona and it feels contrived and ultimately unfulfilling. I’m also finding that the majority of the people around are children of school age and while they are more likely to speak English and make an approach easier to broker, I’m still steering clear of the complications that such approaches create.

In the centre of the town there’s a 14th century monastery that seems to be both the literal and spiritual centre of the town. The walls are bright limestone tinted with yellow and around the perimeter are young saplings that still have some of their leaves offering the possibility of dappled shade. One side seems to act as a thorough fare from one side of the town to the next and there’s a gentle flow of people going about their daily business and passing through the grounds. A young couple wander in and drift a little around the grounds taking careless steps from the shade of one tree to the next. He is dark and brooding with a baseball cap and hoody, slightly swarthy and with intense eyes. She is lithe and angular, her jeans falling down over her hips and her top slightly cropped above her waist revealing the tops of her briefs. It’s something I try not to notice but it is both alluring and disconcerting; it is a detail of youthful hubris and growing sexual confidence and it is impossible not to notice it. The couple settle in the shade of one of the saplings and proceed to remove their roll tobacco and filter papers.

The wall behind where they have chosen to sit has the dappled shade of the sapling they are sitting under as well as the dark shadow of a vertical buttress. A crack also runs up the wall in dog leg fashion creating a natural framing element. The wall also has a lower horizontal buttress running around the base of the monastery and meeting the main wall at a 45 degree angle. It’s only waist height and I being to wonder whether this wall with crack, buttress and dappled shade would make a good setting for a portrait despite the fact that it would require the subject to be a little adventurous and climb onto the base of the supporting wall. I look around but apart from the couple, now unambiguously ‘skinning up’, there’s suddenly no one around. I ponder for a moment, weighing up the age gap between us, the fact that she is the more photographically interesting of the two and the more likely candidate (and the whole middle age man approaching a young woman has become somewhat political lately), and the fact that they are in fact rolling a joint. I decide to be brave. I have no more than three words in Spanish to my credit so any approach has to be in English but, being young, of course they do speak English.

I approach them acknowledging that I can see what they are doing but reassuring them that it’s entirely none of my business and not the reason I have approached them. I ask if they would let me explain what I am doing and I introduce myself but the young man has one ear plugged into his music and the rest of his attention focused on his tobacco. The young woman is more receptive and introduces herself as Beth. I explain that apart from my day job, I’m a keen photographer and that I like to engage people and persuade them to let me take their picture. I show her some examples of my work on my phone and Beth is both immediately and genuinely enthusiastic, explaining that she is also a photographer. She is fascinated by and complementary of the examples I show her and this is of course terribly flattering; I experience the flutter and nervousness again. Beth shows me some of her work; the first examples she shows me are strong fashion shots with great perspectives and lots of natural light. I comment on this and ask if she is indeed a fashion photographer but her answer throws me.

“Well I’m only 18 so I still don’t know quite what I want to do.”

The instinctive trepidation I had initially felt based on propriety and appropriateness are confirmed by this information but my sensibilities are sent into a slight tail spin when she then shows me more of her work. The examples are bold and daring and while there is nothing inappropriate about them, it’s clear that she is nude in many of the images and it is impossible not to acknowledge her physical beauty and sexual appeal alongside my admiration for her self-confidence. It’s an exploration that I couldn’t bear to do of myself, lumpen as I am in my sprawling middle age. My emotional response to her showing me this work is a complex mixture of excitement, respect, admiration and self-admonishment as I reconcile my feeling of excitement with the fact that I am old enough to be her father. I have always been very wary about photographing any woman that on first sight I might find physically attractive (and especially if they’re considerably younger than I am) because I want to avoid objectifying my subjects (and slipping into middle aged lechery). But Beth is genuinely excited to engage and wants to be photographed. I reason that I should just set the picture up and see how it works; if nothing else it will be a learning outcome and I can always say ten Hail Marys later if I feel I’ve violated my own moral code of conduct.


I give Beth some direction, asking if she can indeed clamber onto the low buttressed wall and crouch half in and half out of the shade so that the crack in the wall runs above and round her head rather than straight out of it. She is compliant and willing and I have that sense that I better know what I’m doing or else I will be discovered as a fraud. After we make the shot, I share the result with her on the back of the screen and she expresses how much she likes it. We part and I promise to share a copy with her.

Perhaps the oddest part of this whole experience though is that her boyfriend has remained uninterested, almost implacable, throughout the entire process. Maybe there is some male pride thing going on, maybe there is distrust or resentment and perhaps the more interesting thing to have done would have been to also try and engage him. It’s perhaps more interesting that I didn’t.