Ibiza History Culture

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I Remember Ibiza
by Harold Liebow

Part Seven
Christmas Day In Ibiza Town


I Remember Ibiza

After a good night’s sleep I found myself recovered from the previous day’s exertions. I was inspired to explore Ibiza town. Christmas day had come as if it was the first day of creation. The air was as sweet as a virgin’s sigh. On the port, everything was in pastels. My photographer’s eye was charmed wherever I looked. On the quay, in front of a crumbling hotel called the Norai, they were gently unloading a car suspended in a cargo net, just as they had unloaded my little black Renault. The work voices of the stevedores sounded just right; not raucous, not rowdy, not randy. Traffic on the streets was subdued. An occasional taxi. An occasional private car. But mostly it was donkey cart transport or a mule and wagon in town from the farm. This was Christmas time and life was even more relaxed than usual. Ibiza town seemed to be dreaming. The movement on the streets and on the town square, the Vara de Rey, was like a stately saraband, repose implicit in each muted motion. All was right with the world for me, notwithstanding that the cold war was at its height and I was in the middle of a divorce.

On this special day, only my second in Ibiza, just as I left the port area and approached the corner which led to the main square and the Hotel Montesol, I saw a photo-shot that was made in heaven for photographers. Slung on my right shoulder I was carrying my Polaroid camera which I tried to keep with me, always. And on this day I had it. Its great virtue was that it was a door-opener. Sneak, or openly take a shot with it, develop the shot in less than a minute, deliver the picture to its astonished subject and you’ve made a friend. After that you’d always be welcome to shoot at will with serious film in your working cameras. But in 1964 Polaroid’s were unheard of in Ibiza, so what happened when I actually used it was quite astonishing. And, because I had it with me, I was not caught unprepared when providence sent me my second great photo opportunity since arriving in Ibiza. The first had been that super shot of Flipper looking down at me from the window of the Renault as it was being lowered to the dock; and now here was another eye-opener as a holiday offering.

Standing almost up to his hips in the heart of what had become an elongated island of brilliantly colour Christmas-gift, fruit-and-spirits baskets, was a municipal policeman. Dozens of baskets had been set out to form a centre-line island in the middle of the street. It was narrow to start with, then widening out towards him, where it was at its widest. The display of gifts stretched for at least six or seven meters before and then again behind him. And he, with a near permanent smile in place, was languidly directing what little traffic there was with white-gloved hands. He was a rather stout, elderly, beaming man, with kindly blue eyes; with iron-frame spectacles dropped to the lower part of his nose, he looked rather like the stereotype of an absent minded professor. But at the same time, with his white hair bursting out from under his cap, and with his silver uniform buttons gleaming in the bright sunlight against his spotless blue uniform itself, he also looked the very image of a benign police Santa Klaus. I learned later that he was only one of a few such popular policemen which made up Ibiza’s pocket-size police department in those days. And it reflected the almost entire absence of even minor criminality on the island. I discovered that no one locked a door or tied a handbag to oneself. There was a pervading feeling of confidence in one’s fellows. A handshake was as good as a Deed. Ibiza was that way then; alas, it is not that way now.

He was an astonishing sight, standing there amid his Christmas gifts from a loving public, especially to a veteran New Yorker like me, whose culture had taught him to look upon police more as enemies than as friends. But Ibiza’s culture-impulse was to shower this monument to municipal solidarity and communal fraternization with dozens of beautiful and quite expensive presents from his personal constituency. The gifts were vouchers of their trust and faith in his goodness, comradeship and professional dependability. It was a statement such as I had never seen before and one which I shall never see again. It staggered me. And it provided me with an insight into the nature of the people of the island which consolidated my affection for the island itself. It made me almost forget I was a photographer. But not quite.

Now, photographically speaking - and I‘m afraid I’ll have to be a bit technical here - the nature of the shot was daunting. One wanted somehow to include the entire 10 to11 meters long island of baskets, aglitter with Christmas gift wrappings - in the middle of which stood our symbol of civic benevolence. The depth of field required was OK for my Polaroid, but the perspective was tough. In order to include the bulge in the middle of the gift island, wherein stood our hero, and in order to provide a proper dramatic organization of the whole subject, it became clear to my eye that it would require of me a somewhat unconventional shooting position, given that my subject was in the middle of a roadway, albeit a somewhat dreamy one largely traversed by mules and donkeys. In short, I found that in order to make optimal creative use of such a super subject, I would have to lie down flat on the asphalt, positioning myself at what passed for the front end of the island of gifts. Then I would have to shoot toward our friendly lawman! This was all right with me, but how would it look to Santa standing there with a near permanent smile on his face? And how would it look to the locals sitting in front of the Montesol having their morning coffees? I knew how it would look. It would look like a crazy foreigner up to another crazy antic, much too early in the day. But so be it, I had to get the shot. And I did.

I stretched out full length in the street at the tip of the island of gifts, carefully focused on my main interest-point, our kind police officer, and methodically made sure that the exposure was set correctly. Before anyone could have me institutionalized, I got the shot! And what a wonderful shot it was! There, among the generous gifts of his many admirers stood a beaming police Santa, his right arm grandly signalling a mule and wagon to pass. He was smiling right into the camera with only a whiff of disbelief showing in his face at the implausible sight of a foreigner lying in the street in front of him! But the smile was genuine. One more detail: the passing mule had become a not inconspicuous element of the whole. And the mule, it must be noted, was smiling, too.

As I got to my feet after I had the shot, I thought it was all OK in Ibiza that early Christmas morning. And as the image was developing in the Polaroid, I walked slowly over to the white haired old man standing in his veritable garden of gift baskets. By the time I reached him the picture had popped out of the camera and, without a word, I gave it to him. His face would have made another special shot because it showed such incredible disbelief; he looked as if he had just learned that the earth orbited the sun and not the other way ‘round. But he was not the only discoverer of a new astronomical verity. As soon as the dozen or so people sitting at their tables at the Montesol saw their symbol of municipal incorruptibility standing stupefied in the middle of their gift offerings, there was a spontaneous and universal rush to see why he was so affected. Crowding ‘round us they were awed by what seemed to them my own personally constructed photographic miracle. They had no idea the Polaroid was a mass produced item. To them, before I laboriously explained it all, I was a world-class photographic inventor.

Drinks were indicated and we all trooped over to the tables they had just left. The mules-and-donkeys traffic would just have to do without its Christmas morning police officer. Brandy with coffee was obligatory. I had to tell them about Polaroid’s in particular, and about picture taking in general, over and over again. That wasn’t as easy as it sounds because I had less Spanish than I have now and they had little enough English. But somehow, we managed. Now I was doubly known as the great American photographer. My first shot of Flipper in the Renault had already become legendary. And to this day, almost 40 years on, I still occasionally meet someone in the streets of Ibiza town who stops me to tell me they were there when they saw me take their first Polaroid picture.

Later that day, like Hungry Hannibal, I was to meet an incoming boat from Barcelona. On it would be my Parisian hostess and her family. With them I was to travel west to a place just north of San Antonio Abad. And it too, would shape the beginning of my new life on the island I had already grown to love.

Harold Liebow