27 January 2021

How a Storm Shapes a Country

27 January 2021 - Written by Colin Pantall

Galerna means a sudden storm in the Basque language. It’s a storm that brings in sleeting bands of rain, hail, and snow from the Atlantic to the Basque lands that border the Bay of Biscay. The storm courses through valleys, and shapes the hills, the mountains, the people. One of the people it shapes is Jon Cazenave.

© Jon Cazenave, spread from the book Galerna

Galerna starts with an image of the sea. The water is black, it’s still, and it’s deep. The picture sits on the bottom of the right page, the left page is blank, the gutter divided by the black dashes of bookbinding thread.

The next image is of a waterfall cascading into the darkness of the valley below. Above vegetation rises in a mist-shrouded hilltop as the water leaks out of the land above.

There are grainy seas of fog settling beneath charcoal mountain tops, V-shaped banks of pines disappearing into a murk of snow, and a serried file of rocks sticking out of the ground like the teeth of some dormant creature waiting for the time to rise again.

© Jon Cazenave, spread from the book Galerna

Welcome to the world of Galerna. It’s a world where (as the glossary of 11 key basque words at the back of the book tells us) ‘…water (ur) and earth (lur) are very close. You only need to add one letter to the word water and you get earth. … Nature heals us, gives us peace. But nature is also immeasurable, dangerous; the vastness of nature can blind us.’

That vastness is at the heart of Galerna. The images are dark, grainy, and use extremes of contrast to convey ideas of a land that has a timeliness to it, a land that is still in formation, where you can see the forces that shape a physical, psychological, and political world; a world you can step out into, from which you might never return.

It is (as in Cazenave’s previous book, Ama Lur) a world where the elements fuse, where the boundaries between earth, water, and wind are blurred. Cazenave takes us into the bowels of the Basque land, into caverns where rock walls look like cloudscapes on and there are paintings made tens of thousands of years ago. He takes us into the skies where the clouds look like the boiling swell of waves crashing on clifftop rocks, and he takes us onto rockface slabs that look like flesh and bone.

© Jon Cazenave, spread from the book Galerna

Galerna is not just about the land of the Basque Country, it’s also about the people and how they are part of this land, how their culture, customs, and language have interwoven with the forests, the valleys, and the coastlines that you see in this book.

‘The Basque word for a Basque person is euskaiduna,’ - reads another entry in the glossary at the back of the book -’ which means “person in possession of the Basque language”. Our language is ancient, it has no known relatives and it’s not clear where it came from either… A Basque person is someone who speaks Basque… All it takes to be a Basque is to want to b . If you speak our language you’ll be among us.’

There are faces in Galerna, faces taken from old posters, faces that are frozen in ecstasy or grief, faces that find an echo in the slabs of rock that Cazenave also shows. These portraits tie into a broader political life; the language that is referred to is not just lingual in other words. And it is echoed in a section of graphic images of concrete walls, of ripped posters, and soaped-up windows, flat images where the world is blocked and closed, where there is no escape, no way out.

© Jon Cazenave, spread from the book Galerna

‘It’s tough, feeling that your mother tongue is dying, noticing that the words used by your elders are disappearing forever,’ reads the accompanying text, and there is a heaviness to the images that adds a sense of grief to the books.

It’s there in the final images where trees grow out of an earth where people once lived, breathed (and painted). The outlines of the hands you see in those caves are reprised in images of a man playing Basque pelota. The court he plays on, the image isolated in the surrounding black of the page, looks like a cave, while the surface texture of the cave we see in the following image looks like the lines of a hand.

The book ends with snow, with horses, with pebbles sprayed yellow, the colour of fire, of creation, of madness. And then comes the postscript, the 11 Basque words for Jon Cazenave; Kanta (song), Galerna (gale), Ur (water), Txiki (small), Euskara (Euskara – the Basque Language), Lur (earth), Gatazka (conflict), Gorputz (body), Leize (cave), Nabar (multi-coloured), and Tiro Pun (bang).

© Jon Cazenave, spread from the book Galerna


Galerna by Jon Cazenave

Published by Dalpine and Atelier EXB in 2020

Designed by Eloi Gimeno and Line Célo // Texts by Kirmen Uribe and Fannie Escoulen

Softcover, Otabind binding // 28 x 21 cm // 248 pages

144 black and white and colour photographs



Jon Cazenave, born in 1978 in San Sebastian, is an intense and emotional author, austere, spiritual, ascetic, silent and synthetic. His approach to photography starts from an intimate anthropological perspective and develops into a language that incorporates the ancestral sign and symbol to contemporary creation. Follow him on Instagram.

Colin Pantall is a photographer, writer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His latest book, All Quiet on the Home Front, focuses on family, fatherhood and the landscape. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Written by

Colin Pantall

Reading time

6 minutes