Spain’s Unbelievable Capital City
When I was little, my mom or dad would drop me off at a sitters on their way to work. My sitters varied, with each one being unique and providing me with an informal education prior my formal one. One in particular, Juanita, was from Spain. I remember walking into her home’s living room and seeing a wall-sized colorful tapestry of a matador and bull displayed over the couch. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it was unlike anything I’d seen before, and it was impressive.
In the kitchen, was a seemingly always-filled wine jug of Carlo Rossi. The decor in the house was distinct and her accent, especially in northern Michigan, was even more so; naturally, my curiosities were thrust into overdrive. When I’d ask her about where she was from, she’d lean back into her chair—her husband, Larry, had an adjacent one that was his—close her eyes for a moment and begin talking—pronouncing words with a ‘th’ in place of the ‘c’, as is done when speaking Spanish in Spain—and talk poetically about Valencia, her hometown.
Her yearning for the motherland was palpable and sitting, listening to her describe it—this would be my second introduction to anywhere outside of the United States (my first introduction coming in the form of National Geographic magazines at another sitters house)—would be, for me, like visiting there. When she spoke, she’d speak a variation of English combined with Spanish so at first it was extremely difficult to understand. Over time my understanding improved and we’d be able to have more advanced conversations; as advanced a conversation as an eight-year-old boy could have; a beautiful window to the world was opened for me.
Some time ago, my partner and I decided to travel so we began searching for destinations. We came across many but eventually chose Spain; specifically, the city of Madrid. Based on our love of food, architecture, art and history, we knew Madrid would be a perfect spot for us to play. Being about 225 miles away from my former sitter’s hometown was a bonus. Being in the country that I’d heard so much about as a youngster—I couldn’t wait.
Vacation day had arrived and after some layovers, we’d reached Spain. After landing and checking in to our lodging, we stepped out onto cobblestone streets to explore.
Large, beautiful old buildings, one after the other, lined our walkways as we passed wine and cheese shops; each one looking more appealing than the last. We stopped for some brief people watching as locals, Madrileños, stopped to talk or hustle to their destination. The main streets were filled with people, tourists too, but one step onto a side street and it all went away. It was like another world, one that was peaceful and real.
Each Street Like a Postcard
It was almost a visual overload to make photos on the streets of Madrid. Some of my favorite images took place on the quiet side streets. Oftentimes, there’d be a single person against a backdrop of stunning architecture; this is what mostly attracted my attention.
We ducked into a small café for some red table whine and a plate of assorted Spanish cheese. The flavors of it all were something I’d never experienced; at least, not to that high of a level. The bar of food standards wasn’t raised, it was launched into outer space.
With wine from the Rioja region of Spain and manchego cheese consumed, our next destination was the awe-inspiring Royal Palace of Madrid. Completed in 1755, it was an impressive sight from a distance and larger-than-life up close. With more than 3,000 rooms and covering almost 1.5 million square feet, it’d be a decent shack to kick your feet up. While we were there, the sun was visible through some moody clouds so I made some images that included other Royal Palace admirers.
Making images in Spain far exceeded my expectations, especially with street photography. This may be due in part to the fact that there are so many people, or even so many photographers, so it was easier to photograph unbothered. The light was perfect, for me, with dynamic clouds and rays of sun playing together. I took many images in busy sections of the city and calm sections and had zero problems. It was tremendous. Around each corner was another scene that seemed like it was out of a movie.
Find a Scene and Photograph It
When I listened to longtime National Geographic photographer Sam Abell speak some years ago, he emphasized the importance of finding a scene you’d like to photograph, then just waiting for a person or people to enter the frame. This was the technique I often used, although it didn’t take long to wait because there were a lot of people. For a small-town street photography, any large city, especially Madrid, is a supreme photographic experience.
We had three days in Madrid and I don’t think three years would’ve been sufficient. They were an unforgettable three days though and we perfectly blended our activities with our relaxation; Madrid makes it all incredibly easy because of how laid back it naturally is. We did Juanita proud.
“Like Spain, I am bound to the past.”~William S. Burroughs