Thursday, January 04, 2007
Long term photographic projects can win a viewer over for a variety of reasons: some photographers provide compelling narratives that hang together because of certain formal qualities, while others enthrall you simply because their theme is unusual, or their take on an otherwise conventional theme is fresh or offbeat. The best projects somehow manage to combine both. Bruce Davidson’s East 100th Street is such a project; no matter how many times I turn its pages, the book never ceases to fascinate me. I own a first edition, and while I have been tempted during lean years to sell it, I have somehow, thankfully, been spared that humiliation. There is a new edition available, but the improved rendering of the shadow tones in this edition is no match for the tarnished and tired old friend that has inspired me for so many years.
The project is simplicity itself, nothing more than a series of portraits taken with a large format camera. The format dictates the type of imagery obtained: studied and steady observations of people who return the gaze of the viewer. By adhering to this method and patiently cataloguing the people and the streetscapes over a period of a year, Davidson created a profound and lasting portrait of a community on the edge -- literally and figuratively, as a ghetto is by its nature a community that has been edged out of the mainstream, and this particular ghetto was geographically pushed up against Manhattan’s northeast edge created by the East River. Like many great books of photography this one defies easy categorization and straddles different genres. It is photojournalistic in its themes, but “artistic” in its manner, since it adopts a format usually reserved for studio portraits or arty landscape work. And while it deals with journalistic themes such as poverty, drug abuse, segregation, and urban decay, it refuses to examine these themes using the rhetoric of the day and it resolutely avoids casting them in terms of being problems with answers. The result is that the photos, while they are quite clear-eyed and unsentimental, are open to all kinds of nuances and human variety; in concert they achieve the quality of an ode.
Above all what makes such projects so compelling is their capacity for world-building. When I was a child I liked nothing better than to curl up with a book like The Hobbit, The Tales of Narnia, The Phantom Tollbooth, or Alice in Wonderland, because I could lose myself in the imaginary worlds they fleshed out with such convincing detail. My favorite photo books do this too, and of course theimmediacy of the lens makes the detail all the more tangible. Abbas’s Return to Mexico, Salgado’s Other Americas, and Ackerman’s End Time City are among the books that I prize most.
Currently running on Kit Roane’s Warshooter, a site that has consistently been presenting all sorts of thought-provoking work, is a very interesting project with great potential: Dos Epocas: Un Vuelo sin Vuelta, which deals with a Cuban family divided by the Revolution. The photographer is a member of Lightstalkers who goes by the nom de plume (or de camera) of Gabriel – an apt choice given that Gabriel is the patron saint of journalists. It is also a necessary choice if the photographer is to continue working on this theme and travelling back and forth to Cuba – a certain anonymity is required. Gabriel’s project has that same potential to create a world in which one can lose oneself, but in this case the world is bifurcated. The project is all about shards and shoring up a world that came tumbling down when one side of the family left for the States while other members remained in Cuba. Gabriel is a second generation member of the exiled family and as such his perspective is imbued with a kind of nostalgia that cannot ever be requited because it is not based on something real, it is based on an imaginary powerfully formed by absence – it is the essence of what the Portuguese call “saudade.” His family is Cuban, but he isnt quite, and he didn’t know Cuba – until now. This lends a powerful motive force to Gabriel’s investigation of his roots, and the palpable sympathy felt for all the characters involved in this story stems not just from his filial ties but also undoubtedly from the personal wounds that he is healing through the creation of this narrative.
And it really is some narrative. First of all, it is ambitious: it spans two nations, two generations, two epochs. Its thrust is genealogical, journalistic, historical, and sociological. Above all, it is very very personal, but of course it is also of public import because it gives insight into one of the most important events of the latter half of the 20th century. But rather than give us the grand historical march of jackbooted revolutionaries (the usual landscape of the photojournalist), Gabriel trains his lens on the minutiae of everyday life, the paraphernalia of family life. The narrative is made up of all the shards that remain to give these people documentary evidence of their identities and their histories. In Gabriel’s photographs we can read pages from a journal which describe one family member’s meeting with Castro, or the return plane ticket that remains an eloquent reminder of dashed hopes, or family letters (one in particular being a love letter that is priceless in its effusive sentiment), or the newspaper article detailing the confiscated properties once belonging to the family. The narrative proceeds by comparing photos of family members in the States with those of members back in Cuba, but this contemporary perspective is then given further comparison by introducing family snaps from the past. Thus the narrative travels between different countries and different epochs.
In a sense Gabriel has reinvented the family album, turning it into a postmodernist narrative of fragments and disorientation. But that is not all. The effect of flipping through this album is nothing short of novelistic: so many different lives, so many different subplots – all set against a compelling historical backdrop. It is very like Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, but here the best and worst of times are related by an observant photographer instead of an observant writer. I might add, and not altogether facetiously, that this project has all the makings of a great telenovela (soap to you gringos) – Gabriel if you sell the rights, remember me when you calculate the fees!
The family must have been wealthy: there is one snap of Gabriel’s grandfather with his two children (Gabriel’s mother and uncle) on a sumptuous lawn with a palatial home in the background. The palatial home appears to belong to the neighbors as it sits outside the fence that surrounds the family’s backyard. But it is obvious they lived in a very good neighborhood of Havana, and manicured lawns are pretty much a luxury in the Caribbean. These people were landowners and businessowners who were forced to leave Cuba when the revolution took a left turn. The North American branch of the family continued to prosper, or at least they managed to maintain a comfortable middle class existence, but while the family members in Cuba appear to have to struggle a bit (selling octopus on the black market, for example) they too appear to have done fairly well in spite of their reduced circumstances – in one photograph we see the family’s pool adjoining their Havana home. The real difference is less obvious and unrelated to economic circumstance, and I cannot be sure whether this is an effect of the photographer’s excitement on being in Cuba or whether in fact it reflects a malaise or tedium inherent to American suburban life; but it seems to me that the Cubans in Cuba are happier than the Cubans in the States. The photos come alive in Cuba, they are full of light and color and theatrical gesture, while stateside the photos are more subdued. To be fair, there are very few of the latter in the selection appearing on Warshooter, but I suspect that one motif that will eventually become more salient as the project nears completion is the rueful irony that attends most exiles, even those who succeed in refashioning their lives – one can build houses and businesses from scratch, but one cannot recapture the magic that endowed the original home with its mystique, its sacred aura. It is not just that home is where the heart is, but that the heart is ultimately what makes a home. Suburban America is not the sort of place where a Cuban heart can beat to its habitual syncopated rhythm.