From Dali to Picasso, Bunuel to Almodovar, Spain’s art landscape is known for some of its quirky visionaries, obstinate artists with quixotic ideals whose masterpieces outraged many with their unfeasible and costly nature.
Photographer Susana Girón set out to document the living embodiment of that spirit: Justo Gallego Martinez, an 86-year-old former priest who, about 50 years ago, began building a massive cathedral outside of Madrid with his own hands.
“All I can remember is the emotion I felt of astonishment when I first walked in, to see that colossal edifice juxtaposed with such a frail man,” Giron said.
That astonishment soon led to a new experience for Giron, one that involved putting down her camera to do masonry work on Gallego Martinez’s cathedral.
“Conquering his trust was very important,” Giron said. “He was very mistrusting of journalists.”
For more than 100 days, Giron lived and breathed the life of Gallego Martinez, photographing the man as he worked without a break, welding, scaffolding, mixing cement and, intermittently, praying.
“Once trust was established, the process was simple,” Giron said.
Gallego Martinez had no building permit, no drawing plans and no money when he started building. In his manifesto on Facebook, he said his own faith and passion were enough to build his cathedral.
"I've been inspired by books about cathedrals, castles and other important buildings," he said. "But my principal source of enlightenment has been, before anything, Christ's evangelism."
To some locals, Gallego Martinez was a madman who began working at 3:30 a.m. on an incomprehensible project that seemed to never end.
But today, the 8,500-square-meter building (nearly 91,500 square feet) has awed architects and artists, becoming a tourist attraction and even drawing comparisons with other major Spanish works of art.
Made with recycled materials, the building meshes styles of Spanish Gothic, alludes to St. Peter’s Basilica and even borrows from the U.S. White House.
Coincidence or not, the cathedral stands on an avenue named after Spain’s most famous architect, Antoni Gaudi, whose unfinished Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona still remains controversial to this day.
Giron acknowledges a unique fervor in some of Spain’s artists. But what attracted her to Gallego Martinez, she says, was something more universal.
“It’s the power of faith, not necessarily in a religious sense, that captivated me,” she said.
Giron, a documentary photographer whose work can be seen in major publications worldwide, said working with Gallego Martinez was a humbling and enriching experience. She stays in touch with him, bringing him food and gifts and paying occasional visits to the building site.
"There is a symbiotic relationship between the building and Justo. Neither can exist without each other," she said.
Giron’s resulting photo project is a series of intimate portraits and photographs of an archetypal genius at work.
Giron frames Gallego Martinez as a Galileo of sorts, someone whose passion is lit by the luminosity of genius and faith. In one shot, Gallego Martinez is seen working on an architectural model, fire blazing behind him. It is a powerful moment of introspection.
“At home, I was plagued by questions I needed to answer. I knew I could only answer these with my camera,” Giron said.
“We all have an ideal, but many of us lose ourselves in life in unimportant things. How can we remain strong and persevere?”
- Helena Cavendish de Moura, Special to CNN