michael hughes’s blog

The making of… Bilbao

Posted in The making of... by michaelhughes on February 15, 2009
bilbao, spain by you.
Jeff Koons “Puppy” at the Guggenheim in Bilbao



The nice people who promote Spain in Frankfurt arrange trips for journalists which I go on one, sometimes twice a year. In Spring 2002 a small group of intrepid journalists set off to explore Bilbao and other parts of Galizia over an extended weekend. We arrived at Bilbao airport at night. The place is shaped like two wings, designed by Santiago Calatrava, but I had the impression walking out of the terminal that night as if I was leaving a monumental cave. We were driven to eat a steak at a local restaurant in the old part of the city where the guest can drink wine out of potes; wine served in little glasses. 

The next day we set off from our hotel via a park set on a hill to the north of the city for our visit to the Guggenheim. The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao nestles in a bend of the river Nervion the glistening titanium panels catch the sun as it flits in and out of the clouds rolling in from the Bay of Biscay. Some say that the building built by Frank Gehry, using three dimensional imaging, looks like a ship gone aground and certainly, the connection could be made between this exotic ship which came to bring back prosperity to the city after all the trading ships and docklands had faded away, leaving Bilbao to ponder on its further existence. Uninformed a I was, I thought the edifice looked like a fish, sporting in the waves, the tail fin at the east side of the building caught upwards in a muscular convulsion prior to propelling the body onward.

We looked down over Bilbao, and an idea struck me; why not make a Souvenir photo using a fish to put in front of the building. We parked the bus and I told the rest of the group that I was going to look for a fishmongers instead of doing the tour. First of all I wanted to visit a friend of mine; Erika who is the official photographer at the museum, a woman I had met in Berlin through a photographer friend, David Hornback. After exchanging the news, I asked her where I could find a fishmonger and went off on my quest.

After fifteen minutes, asking people with sign language and broken spanish where I could buy fish, leaving any amount of be and amused people in my wake, I found the shop. Studying the wares carefully, I decided I needed a fish with a clear tail fin form and a deep chest to approximately duplicate the form of the building. I selected a fine looking Dorada by pointing at it and nodding, paid the price and headed back to the museum. 

Arriving there a few minutes later with my fish beginning to soak through the paper in the plastic bag, I saw the first main problem; the museum is built roughly west to east, the head of the fish to the west and the tail east. This meant that the only clear view of the building is from the north looking across the river. As we live in the northern hemisphere it means that the sun comes from the south and that now, just after midday, I had to photograph against the light. I estimated that my time was running out, as the group would soon be finished with their tour but I thought I would give it a try so I hurried over the bridge, turned left onto the Unibertsitate Etorbidea street and down to the west looking for a clear view of the building. The character of the city changes once you get over the bridge. The road is more like a motorway and you become aware of the industrial site which has been demolished into which the Guggenheim has been inserted. At about 150 yards I found an opening and set up the shot. I pulled the fish out of the bag, peeled off the, by now, thoroughly wet, fish and held it up in front of the lens. I’m not a man to disappoint easily but this was the pits. Against the light in front of a building which suddenly looked in no way like the fish I had bought and with the necessity of holding it one-handed while turning its tail upwards to emulate Gehry’s flourish, was difficult in the extreme. It is no easy matter fighting single-handed against gravity and rigor mortis and I soon gave up, not without having given many a Spaniard a sight to tell their grand children about.

Back over the bridge and a little out of breath, I was just in time to meet the group who were coming out of their tour and alighting the bus. They knew what I had been attempting and one of the women showed me a key ring she had bought with Jeff Koons’ Puppy. Right in front of me was the object itself so I pulled out the camera again and “did” the puppy. It was some consolation for the wasted effort with the fish. The space in front of the museum is very interesting, it allows for unusual perspectives and shutting off the background using the facade. Lining up the key ring for the “Puppy” shot I was reminded of a photo series I had seen in Creative Camera in the seventies called “Pictus Interruptus” by Ray K. Metzker. His beautiful monochrome photographs have photographic spaces in which extraneous objects intervene to disturb the reading of the image. This was the reason why I tried leaving the key ring of the “Puppy” out of focus. Probably partly because of my recollection of “Pictus Interruptus” and partly because of the space in the image which reminds me of the space in one of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s pictures of the fat man walking through an urban space where the walls of an apartment house with asymmetrically arranged windows close up the background. I like the image, but although it has been viewed over 50,000 times in Flickr it has few favourites or comments. 

It is customary, of course, for groups such as ours to give a tip at the end of the day. Our bus driver was a keen cook who had appraised my fish. So, apart from money, he got the fish, to take home and cook. 

Flickr Index: 51,515 views, 6 Faves, 4 Comments (two of them mine)




4 Responses

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  1. Damian said, on March 26, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    Why did Santiago Calatrava design the airport at night? Did he have insomnia?

  2. michaelhughes said, on March 29, 2009 at 9:42 am


  3. moogler said, on August 5, 2009 at 6:49 am

    Hi! I think your photographs are amazing! Although, I’d appreciate your works even more, if there’s a “before and after” kind of thing. I am thinking of 2 photos combined into one image. The first photo is your usual style of putting the souvenir over the actual thing and the second photo is the before you put the souvenir over the actual thing. Then just put the second photo, probably just a very small one (almost like a thumbnail) over lower right of the first image.

    • michaelhughes said, on August 6, 2009 at 6:44 pm

      I appreciate your interest and your comment. I remain convinced that for the sake of clarity as well as the aesthetics that it has to remain just the one photo; the point is to obscure the real with the (usually excruciating) representation, that way the object which is being replaced is also the butt of a joke in having outlived its usefulness to the extent of being reduced to a sign. Otherwise you would be explaining a joke, which is pointless because it is no longer funny…

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