© Antonio M. Xoubanova/Courtesy of MACK
We enter the park through a series of dirt pathways that trod through grass and bushes and trees. The pathways are unofficial, established not by design but by use. Once inside we take in the sights: a woman with dyed red hair lying face down on the ground; a small pit dug into the earth and left open; an adolescent dressed in black holding a real-looking machine gun; a ritualistic circle of stones; a three-legged dog; four small, green birds that appear to be consorting; a Christmas tree enclosed by a makeshift fence.
Casa de Campo is the park. A former hunting estate for the Spanish royal family, the Madrid refuge measures more than six square miles, making it the largest urban park in the world. Though it holds attractions like a zoo and an arena, the area is mostly wooded—a place where city dwellers can relax and find a bit of privacy outdoors to engage in various activities.
This vast, undeveloped area is the setting for Antonio M. Xoubanova’s new book, Casa de Campo, which was recently published by MACK. An editorial and newspaper photographer in Madrid, Xoubanova has photographed the park for more than four years, developing a familiarity with what he calls the “strange” goings-on there. In his book he combines portraits and landscapes into a series of tales about love, death, mystery, time and “the sensation of being lost,” he says.
Xoubanova began the project as a documentary effort, but soon realized he wanted to “play with [the] reality” of the park, and create a series of fable-like stories.
Whereas fables traditionally contain some sort of moral lesson, Xoubanova’s short photographic narratives are less specific and more emotionally evocative, leaving the reader to ponder subtle hints—about what’s going on in the images and what they might symbolize—and fill in the blanks. “I prefer to do pictures that bring you to another place when you see them, and play with imagination of the reader,” Xoubanova explains.
In his first chapter, which is about love, he says, Xoubanova utilizes portraits of men and women alone and together in states ranging from bliss to distress; images of crossing paths and flowers; and a close-up photograph of two frogs being held by a person—a reference to the classic children’s tale of “The Frog Prince.”
Time is represented in facing pages that combine images shot from the same vantage point at different times of year, or in photographs of odd or candid moments.
In Xoubanova’s chapter on death, a boy with a possibly real machine gun stands in for the Grim Reaper; three shirtless, older men contemplate a pit in the ground; a bouquet of flowers sits on a car roof; other flowers are affixed to a tree in some sort of memorial; small twigs sit, arranged, on what appears to be a freshly dug grave.
Xoubanova’s landscapes often bear inconclusive evidence of human activity. “Sometimes landscapes can be a portrait of a person that has been here before,” he says. An image of a picnic bench, for instance, shows an odd-shaped hole that has been carved or maybe burned into the wood. In another photo we see an abandoned or at least unattended baby stroller sitting under a tree. There is a photograph of some type of white plastic (possibly police) tape stretched in a triangle shape between a group of small, nondescript trees. Beneath another bench we see a narrow but deep hole that looks as if it may have sucked up whomever last sat there.
Xoubanova and MACK produced Casa de Campo in a style that resembles old books of fables, with an illustration of a ring of leaves and butterflies on the golden, cloth cover; floral illustrations on the dark-blue end pages; and a yellow, sewn-in ribbon bookmark. A black silhouette of a human figure with the head of a bird is stamped into the back cover. The image comes from one of the photographs in the book’s interior, of a girl with her back to the camera, who is staggering or throwing her head in such a way that her hair shoots out to the right like a beak, creating a shadow on the ground that suggests a human figure with a bird head. The image is one of many that hint at mystical happenings in the park.
“I tried to do something magical,” Xoubanova says.
Antonio M. Xoubanova Photo Gallery