If you are said to be photogenic, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a knockout. That term actually appears to cover some huge mystery that comes directly from the seductive power emanating from the magic of photography. I would dare say that it is a phenomenon reserved not only for human beings—it frequently also occurs with cities.
In fact there are cities that historically have inflamed the passions of famous photographers and of thousands of other photographers who exercise the art of taking pictures in anonymity. There are many reasons these days that make certain urban areas more attractive for the camera’s lens than others. Havana has special features, valuable visual assets that have succeeded in augmenting its documentary and artistic appeal over the decades.
This is a city that harbors a plethora of reasons to position it under the probing eye of a camera lens, attempting to freeze the present so that it can become inserted into the future. Not only the buildings and natural landscapes attract our attention, there are other more subtle elements that endow Havana with its special air—the customs and comings-and-goings of its inhabitants and its political, economic and cultural past. In the year 1933, a young American named Walker Evans arrived in the city drawn by one of the most moving periods in the history of Cuba.
He eventually became famous as an incredible photographer. Evans came here on an assignment for the leftist writer and reporter Carleton Beals who needed some shots to illustrate his book “The Crime of Cuba.” At that time, Cuba’s capital was caught in the throes of the bloody repression unleashed by the dictator Gerardo Machado as an answer to the brave revolutionary movement that threatened to put an end to his government. The era had its contradictions though. It was also a splendid cultural moment, with Cuban music, notably the son, taking over Havana nightlife. It is said that the photographer Evans became friends with Ernest Hemingway and for about three weeks they concocted “mythical Havana,” intense and fleeting.
No doubt about it: that spirit of rebirth, no matter how great the obstacles and difficulties, is always present in the pictures that best represent Havana. One of the most concrete examples of this is the fact that many attempt to immortalize those veteran automobiles we have come to call almendrones, the best proof of the resiliency and inventiveness of Cubans.
The obsession about chronicling our streets and buildings is alive and well. Some recent Cuban photographers have turned this into a genuine artistic statement. There is a tendency to zoom in on details and to explore the city on minimalist terms, such as in the work of Nelson & Liudmila, two artists who worked together to intuitively show us the city in one of their series called Las puertas [Doors], revealing a fine-tuned reflection on the memory of what these doors protect behind them.
Some of our best photographers and artists have attacked the subject from different viewpoints. Alejandro González has specialized in the ties binding the urban setting with its inhabitants, often broaching the subject matter of nightlife seen from the edges, while Carlos Garaicoa’s photographic vision of his city proceeds along archeological even anthropological lines, leading us to profound reflections.
Evans’ photos do not exaggerate; nor are they sad. They cleanly and objectively focus on the denunciations for which they were being used. Their value lies in the fact that while they were recording a true tragedy, they could also project the city’s face to the world and, more importantly, towards the modern times that were around the corner.
These photos for the book zeroed in on the most intimate circumstances of a city, granting it a sort of halo of irrefutable mystery. The photogenic spirit of Havana has been aided and abetted by the abrupt yet complementary clash of two periods in the twentieth century: the so-called Republican Period from 1902 to 1958 and the Revolutionary Period from 1959 to the present.
I think that the controversy reigning about Cuba hasn’t just been ideological. It has had a strong visual aspect that could permeate and enrich everything else. Sometimes the photos of Havana resuscitate a past that surprises us as being nostalgic. At other times they are more critical but they always contribute to reinventing the city of the present. Legendary photos captured the frenzy of the Revolution…and there are photos bearing witness to the city’s resistance which becomes the real hero of the images.
Thanks to LaHabana.com for this article.