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Desierto de Tabernas

The Tabernas Desert is located in the south of Spain, 40 km north of Almeria. Almeria is known for it’s greenhouses, and every season they provide all of Europe with fruits and vegetables. This is made possible by the unusual climate conditions in the region. It rarely rains and the sun shines more often than in any other place in Europe. This is also one of the reasons why the Desierto de Tabernas is known for something else entirely, even if it is most people do not realize this immediately.

A barren , rocky and dusty plain extends from a mountain range, which has been cut off from the humid mediterranean air. Fissured by hills and valleys, and overgrown by shrubs and colourless grass, the small 280 square kilometers landscape reminds one of the large deserts of North America.

That’s why many European filmmakers of the Sixities discovered the Desierto de Tabernas as an ideal backdrop for realistic Western movies; even on a small budget. Above all, it was Sergio Leone who promoted the growing Italian Western hype and produced his most famous works in area around the provincial town of Tabernas. For my Bachelor thesis, with which I have completed my studies in Photo Design in Munich, I was looking for an unusual subject, a unusual place. To me, the desert was particularly impressive. The worlds of color, as well as the light moods fascinated me
for a long time and my thesis seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally work in a desert. But in which desert and for which topic? Certainly there are many deserts in the world, but a body of work based purely on landscapes was not satisfactory to me. No, it would have to be more. So I set out on a quest, searched the Internet and googled deserts , deserts , deserts …

My work is constantly referencing unfinished, dilapidated or abandoned structures: Ski villages, deserted like ghost towns after the snow melts, waiting for the next winter and the thousands of skiers who bring them back to life. Or the Formula1 circuit in Singapore, which changes an entire city once a year, stopping traffic, public transport and entire neighbourhoods from going about their daily routine.

My thesis should take a similar direction of abandoned structures and dilapidated buildings . Per chance, I had learned about the area in southern Spain during a conversation with an acquaintance. A desert! He told me the story of how he and a couple of friends had driven an old Ford Escord 2400 km to Tabernas to go hiking. That was twenty years ago. In the middle of the desert, in a small valley they discovered a shiny metallic, strange object. It looked like a UFO. Curious, they explored what they had discovered. It proved to be a construction made out of cardboard, wood and shiny foil. A film set. For some sci-fi movie. But the film crew was nowhere to be found and the poor state of “UFO” suggested that they hadn’t been there in a while. The story intrigued me. Old and abandoned movie set in the
middle of a dusty, barren and deserted environment.

I researched the area some more: since the 60s the Desierto de Tabernas has developed from an inconspicuous, dry and unused desert to a bustling movie set. In particular, the conditions were ideal for western movies. In the early Sixties, Sergio Leone coined an entirely new genre: the ‘Spaghetti Western’ or ‘Italian Western.’ Leone was impressed by the American films that previously dominated the film market, and he was convinced that European western productions could be equally successful. “Per and Pugno di dollars” ( “For a Fistful of Dollars” ) from 1964 was his first venture into the genre. However, the budget was tight and it was not enough to hire great actors like Henry Fonda and James Coburn. Instead, the part was given to the still unknown TV actor Clint Eastwood. And the film set had to stay in Europe for financial reasons. “For a Fistful of Dollars” was therefore largely filmed in the Tabernas Desert, similar to the typical Western landscapes of North America, and despite the doubting critics who either paid no attention to the film or ripped it apart, “For a Fistful of Dollars” was a sensational success. Clint Eastwood became an international film star over night and “For a Fistful of Dollars” coined a whole generation films. With its financial success and the relatively favorable production costs, the “dollar-trilogy” caused spaghetti westerns to flood the market. In the late Sixties the desert was a hot commodity, with crews filming everywhere. Wild gunfights, stunts, cowboys on horses in search of treasure and bandits seeking revenge all roamed the desert. But all the movies needed sets in addition to the great landscapes, sets which were not yet available. Unlike some deserts in America, there were no villages or buildings in the desert that fit into the picture of a western movie. So they had to be built specially for the film productions. Throughout the Desierto de Tabernas, entire western villages seemingly appeared out of nowehere. During filming, the sets were wobbly and fragile, to keep production costs low as they only had to last through a certain amount of production. There were saloons, banks, forts and villages poorly constructed with wooden frames, mats, plaster and some paint.

At times there were up to 14 villages and dozens of individual small movie sets in the desert. After the shooting no one was interested in the structure. They could not be used as regular houses, a warehouse or barn, and there were no people around who would have had any use for them anyway. And since it was still too early for a nature conservatory (the area only became a nature reserve in 1989), all the sets remained in the desert after the film crews had left. Many directors took advantage of the already existing sets that had been left by previous productions, with only partial minimal changes (new paint , new props) for their own productions. Because of this, many films were filmed using the exact same scenery. But sets that had been deserted for a long time quickly fell apart due to the weather conditions in the desert. The permanently strong wind and partial, intense rainfall in the winter completely destroyed the structures after a few years. Many are barely recognisable today. Because of the many movies filmed there, smaller productions, showmen, stuntmen and other actors flocked to the desert, hoping for a role in a film. During the heyday of the film industry in the Desierto de Tabernas many of them got small roles as Extras in a film or worked in different areas of film production. But the hype around the desert, which reached its peak with Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West,” was soon over. After nearly two decades, the desert became barren once again, as film crews disappeared along with money and jobs. All that is left is a handfull of Extras, who are trying to re-live the Western myth to this day. They work on the three remaining film sets that have been converted into theme parks: Texas Hollywood, Western Leone and Oasys. They host stunt shows, drive the guests through the dusty desert in carriages or pose for photographes with children. One quickly realizes that the golden days of the Wild West are long over in Tabernas. The stunt shows seem superficial and improvised, and even the sets that are still used seem to be decaying slowly.

What remains is a melancholy mood that looms over the entire Desierto de Tabernas. A mood that can probably only be ignored by die-hard fans of Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone, when indulging in a nostalgic wander through the desert. Ennio Morricone’s famous melody was always playing in my head.

In April 2013 I spent three weeks in the Desierto de Tabernas. I explored as much as possible and talked to tourists and cowboys, workers and travelers. I used an analog medium-format camera by Linhof; a great camera that brought me a lot of attention and made for impressive image quality. As the desert is only 30 km from the Mediterranean Sea, I decided to spend the nights there. On the coast around Almeria there are many very small and cozy campsites for little money, which have not yet been turned into amsement parks or luxury resorts, as is often the case in Italy. Nevertheless, they offer much more comfort than the barren, dry desert, in which camping is strictly prohibited, since the area was declared a nature reserve. The campsites right by the sea were a better choice for me. Most of the time I only stayed in one place a few days before moving to a new one. Early in the
morning I went out into the desert, wandering around and taking pictures. During the long midday, when the sun is much too bright and harsh for photos, I drove around with the car and looked for new motives, another movie scene or scenic points of interest. In the afternoon I photographed again until late in the evening, and when it became to dark I returned to the campsite.
After three weeks and more than 100 exposed films, I packed my things and moved on towards the South. I stayed in the area around Gibraltar and Tarifa for three more days before I returned to Germany to develop and scan my photos, and successfully complete my dissertation.