I met the Spanish photographer Isaac Flores at a cafe called La Principal, where we sat outside amidst the cars and the people and talked about his work, under the Barcelona sun. Sitting between a coca cola and a coffee, we discussed the thriving underground LGBTQ scene of Barcelona’s nightlife and Flores’s medium of choice. His work — his name — is known within the intimate group of Spanish queens and performers.
When I ask what parties in the city I should attend, he suggests Believe Club, where there is a drag show every night, but admits that most events are word of mouth. If I’m not intertwined with the community (which I’m not as a tourist in Barcelona), it can be difficult to traverse the whereabouts of the gritty underground scene. But if anyone knows, it’s him.
“Color can be a distracting thing,” Flores says of his black-and-white images. “The first thing you may see is a hat, or a lipstick color, or a dress. But in black and white, the first thing you see is the face or the eyes.” Still, he says, “I like to combine. I’m very versatile.”
The images in the dark, among the club walls, display people in contrast. The whites of their eyes and the blacks of their outfits eliminate unnecessary detail. The viewer is forced to look into the face of the model, their confident faces, their sensual poses. In his Belladonna series, figures in lingerie and strings of pearl necklaces are lumped over one another, looking directly in the camera, their identities both revealed and hidden. BDSM and body modifications are captured in these works alongside performances, freedom of sexuality, and the gritty underground of the city.
The black and white works examine the “present” state of the party, while Flores’s photographs in color are more polished, refined. They act as the “before” to the party. They are before the ripped tights, before the kissing on the dancefloor, before the sun rises the next morning.
It’s interesting to note when he chooses to decide to utilize color as opposed to black and white. Joy, and glamour are rich in Flores’s images, especially in the portrait of Gilda. The 90-year-old woman fled from a town outside of Barcelona where her brothers were trying to murder her. Gilda found safety in Barcelona.
“I can’t portray her soul in black and white,” Flores says. “I wanted to portray her in color, because I think she was living a life in darkness.”
Flores shoots on polaroids, film, and digital, documenting the hearts beating in Barcelona. Through his lens, his models are glorified and, more importantly, archived.
He grew up a little bit outside of the center of the city of Barcelona in Hospitalet de Llobregat, where his mother is a housekeeper and his father was a handyman. He explains that while growing up, he relied on small references to outside culture — like music videos (Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty” from director David LaChapelle) — that pertained to his gay sexuality and exploration with more feminine qualities. He didn’t have any references within his community. He was reserved, and never enjoyed school. In order to fit in and stay out of trouble, he reshaped his identity. Because of this, he says, “I feel like I’ve lost an important amount of time from my childhood and teenage years.”
When Flores was 18, his mother bought him his first camera. “My mother has always been supportive,” he says. “I owe her everything.”
In 2017, he bought an analog camera.
“I didn’t have any artistic intention, I just wanted to shoot,” he says. At 24, he is shooting what he knows—his friends, muses, and community. He was able to create a style for himself which includes the themes of his immediate surroundings.
When Flores finished secondary school, he became more intertwined in the Barcelona gay community, going to discotheques, falling in love for the first time.
“When you break with your environment you have to start again,” he says, adding that he feels blessed to now live in Barcelona. “I can dress like a monster and no one will want to punch me in the face. They aren’t going to treat you like a freak.”
In this city, he found a space to fit in, where he could thrive as an individual and be his true self.
“When it’s a party, I go to the club. It’s normal for me,” Flores says.
He usually knows everyone at the party; he isn’t a stranger.
“When you are giving something to the community, the community normally responds,” he says. By celebrating the queer community through photography, the scene welcomes him. Everyone loves a good photo of themselves, supporting a friend practicing their skills. He’s treated well in the clubs — he’s given drinks, admired by his friends, and, in the process, has built his portfolio.
Flores explains that word-of-mouth discos are preferred to the gay nightspots, as the city is attempting to crack down on clubs and their hours of operation. The non-profit social clubs that exist in Barcelona ( “cannabis clubs”) are being regulated by authorities as the Barcelona City Hall plans to place restrictions on clubs which includes limited hours of operation.
“There are only 10 [LGBTQ] clubs in Barcelona. But when they don’t let you grow, it’s a little difficult,” he says. “When you start, you think you will go big. But then you see a wall.”
Flores sometimes goes into the club without his camera; without the intent to work.
“The camera is an extra,” he says, “When I was a fashion photographer, I was a fashion photographer. Now, I decide. If I want to go to a party and not take the camera, I don’t take the camera. I take the camera when I know it’s going to work. I want people to see me as a person, not as a photographer.”
As an artist, Flores’s process is always intentional. He’s always choosing to shoot, or not to shoot. To create with color, or work with black and white. While the images are chaotic, wild with sex and parties, his practice is serious and thoughtful.
Flores’s work will always be changing, growing, and celebratory. In the queer utopian community of Barcelona, the parties continue and the shots are taken. At only 24, he is finding his ground documenting his queer underground, the images detailing the blur of the night and freshness of day. He is illustrating a timeline of queer figures in Spain, his work a historical mapping of the artists, performers, dancers, and identities that make up queer and trans Spanish people in this metropolitan city.
Isaac Flores’ book, “Barcelona Se Muere,” is now available.
Header image of The Woolman Family