Photographs by Mark Parascandola, Foreward by Alex Cox

Published on 11/30/ 2017

In the early 70s, enthralled by the discovery that Westerns were made in Europe, and that there was a desert less than a thousand miles from my home, I resolved to visit the place where they were filmed. At that time I lived outside Liverpool, in England. The province of Almeria in the south of Spain was less accessible than it is today, and my journey involved buses, trains, and a bicycle. Eventually I reached my goal.
Mini Hollywood

I recognized at once the town which Carlo Simi had built for FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE: “El Paso”. Just up the highway, over a couple of low, desert hills, was the impressive wooden ranch-house Simi had constructed for ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.
Almería Western Film Festival 2016, Tabernas
Fort Bravo/Texas Hollywood

A brief stroll north of that, one found a decaying fortress, built into the hillside for a Lee Van Cleef action pic: EL CONDOR. I spent my first night in the desert there, in one of the watchtowers. Tourists arrived at first light.
Ruins of the El Condor Fort, Tabernas
Justice of the Peace,
Fort Bravo/Texas Hollywood

On the far side of the highway was a wood-and-adobe pueblo which I didn’t recognize from any film I’d seen. On the outskirts of Tabernas, up one of the arid ramblas, sprawled a Cowboy-Mexican town.

There were other sets, as well - farmhouses, and cavalry forts - and long after the Westerns faded, the desert remained a lure for filmmakers, including me. I shot a video there, with Joe Strummer, and made two feature desert-bound features: 3 BUSINESSMEN, and STRAIGHT TO HELL.
View from the Alcazaba, La Chanca, Almería
Oasis, Rambla Viciana, Tabernas

For twenty years I had a house in Tabernas. And, the longer I lived there, the more I found myself drawn to walk or cycle through the desert - but I no longer stopped by the movie locations. The desert had drawn me in, just it drew certain filmmakers, and goat herds, and a wonderful photographer, Mark Parascandola.

Mark is clearly at home in the Desierto de Tabernas. His photography only rarely deals in pure landscapes. More often it reflects, with great perception I think, the interaction of a desert place with monumental structures raised by man.
Girl and Cowboy,
Fort Bravo/Texas Hollywood
Mini Hollywood

The places he depicts have limited life expectancy, show signs of decay, yet do not collapse. There is a strikingly arrested state of impermanence - whether the subject is an ancient and historic ranch house, a Western set, or a massive hotel, illegally constructed on the Mediterranean coast, then abandoned in mid-build.
Cortijo del Fraile, Níjar
Playa del Algarrobico, Carboneras

When the Westerns were being made, there was no tourist industry to speak of – and hence no incentive to keep these sets in good order. On my first visit to Simi’s “El Paso” set, there was a lone concessionaire with a refrigerator. Today - its dust streets paved - the town whose bank El Indio robbed is part of a larger “attraction” called El Oasys.
The Yellow Rose, Mini Hollywood
Espectaculo Western Show, Mini Hollywood

Once you decide something is a tourist destination, you struggle to keep it in good shape. As Mark documents, the El Condor set is consistently battered by the elements.

Fort Bravo,
Fort Bravo/Texas Hollywood
Ruins of Flagstone, La Calahorra

Other stark sunset images capture the remains of the town of “Flagstone” - now brick skeletons bisected by a tarmac road - from ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST; and, poignantly for me, an almost-gone adobe in the desert. Nothing remains but a fragment of the back wall and some wooden beams.

But thirty years ago, when we went STRAIGHT TO HELL, this was our saloon where Strummer snarled at Courtney Love, and Sy Richardson and Dick Rude gunned down the Weiner Kid, and Grace Jones barred Dennis Hopper from smoking.
Card Game,
Fort Bravo/Texas Hollywood
The Ultimate Western,
Fort Bravo/Texas Hollywood

For cast and crew, this blob of adobe was a town with a bar, a hotel, a hacienda, a gas station, a hardware store… For Charles Bronson, it had been the location built for him to walk through, in a long forgotten Western which the Spanish called CABALLOS SALVAJES.

Just as Mark’s photographs record the decay-into-the-earth of some locations, they chronicle the dandification of others. Who dreamed up those colour schemes? Who art-directed that porch? In this desert, buildings either crumble to dust or are improbably prettified…
Ruins of the El Condor Fort, Tabernas
Western Leone

Consider Mark’s wide angle view of the cardboard-box, faux-town which surrounds SImi’s ranch house, all set against the sweep of majestic hills which once framed Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda. It is an image simultaneously foolish, ironic, inspirational.

If only the imposing structure – built, allegedly, from lumber left over from Orson Welles’ CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT - had been left alone in the desert, as Simi intended it. In Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, its loneliness is its point – its creator’s grand folly. Do loneliness or folly count, when tourism is at stake?

There are few people in Mark’s austere photographs — a lone dude crosses the “El Paso” street, and once, mysteriously, we see a mini-skirted girl saluted by a galloping cowboy. Mostly, the desert he depicts is still, and silent.

This silence is another beauty of the Desert of Tabernas, and the remaining wild country of the Zona Verde in Almeria. What sounds do these photographs inspire? The wind, of course. The animals who lived in and around these buildings. Coconuts for horse’s hooves. And the waves, of course, crashing on a deserted shore below an abandoned, mega-hotel.

Dirt Road,
Parque Natural de Cabo de Gata