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Alex Harris

Alex Harris

In his own words – by Alex Harris
When I landed at José Martí airport in Havana in the spring of 1998, I knew nothing about Martí. Now I see that his ideas—even his persona—were already present in my work. In the 1980s I traveled to South Africa to champion photographers who believed, like Martí, in the idea that race did not exist and who were willing to sacrifice their own lives to build a new nation. Earlier I had edited and published the work of the Mexican photographer Gertrude Blom, who was determined that utopia was possible, at least for one small island of Lacandón Maya in the jungles of southern Mexico, and, like Martí in Cuba, had used her skills as an orator, writer, and political activist to try to save that island from more powerful outside forces. In Martí I found another individual willing to fight—in the face of overwhelming odds and repeated failure—for his beliefs; a man whose life story gives us all a shot of the courage we need.

For most of my life as a photographer, I focused on a theme that obsessed Martí from the moment he was forced into exile at the age of sixteen: the theme of family and reunion. My own childhood in Georgia, though privileged and suburban, was oddly ephemeral. My family, and all the other neighborhood families I knew growing up, had divorced or had moved away by the time I was in high school. I think now that this is why I’ve been drawn to live in the oldest and most traditional settlements in North America—the remote Eskimo villages of Alaska and the isolated Hispanic communities of northern New Mexico—to photograph family and community. Martí chose to live outside his beloved Cuba in order to fight for its liberation. There he crafted a new political vision for Cuba and dreamed of returning home to the island where he could share the fruits of that vision with his son. I have chosen my own form of exile, to find in the lives of others what is worth fighting for and to record—even to create in my photographs—a home where I can always return.

And yet there is no denying that the images in this book contradict the body of work I’ve created as a photographer who has tried to become as much of an insider as possible wherever I have made pictures. Fresh out of college in 1971, I knew little about the medium and didn’t have a sophisticated eye. What I had to offer was my eagerness to get to know the people and places I photographed. I hoped that my familiarity would be reflected in the pictures I made. I lived for months at a time with Eskimo families in Alaska and returned to those same Eskimo villages six times over a five-year period. In northern New Mexico I bought land, built a house, and have lived for a portion of every year in one village and photographed in one region of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains for three decades. My photographs are as much about establishing my own place in those Eskimo and Hispanic communities as they are about the communities themselves.

In May of 1998 I traveled to Cuba for the first time. What made me think I could arrive at a complicated historical moment and, in a matter of days or weeks, produce intimate portraits of Cuban society? The answer lies—at least in part—in three photographs I had seen years earlier: of a young woman behind a barred window wearing a pearl necklace; of a stevedore with both a toothpick and a cigar in his mouth, wearing a straw hat; of a ragged campesino family eating plain bread as they wander through a wealthy neighborhood. These photographs, from a series of pictures made by Walker Evans in Havana in May of 1933, were published later that same year in The Crime of Cuba, with a text by the Latin American specialist and investigative journalist Carleton Beals.

When I arrived in Havana fifty-five years after Evans, I was familiar with Hispanic New Mexican villages and spoke passable Spanish. Evans does not appear to have been as prepared for his foray into Cuban life. Born in Missouri, Evans grew up in a suburb of Chicago and was familiar with the East Coast of the United States. He set out to photograph Havana during the unstable and bloody waning days of the regime of Gerardo Machado. At twenty-nine, Evans’s international experience consisted of one year in Paris spent in the company of other American expatriates while he tried to decide if he should become a writer. Evans claimed that he did not even bother to read Beals’s text before he disembarked in Havana. Yet he managed to produce a series of pictures as evocative of that historical moment in Cuba as any other pictures made on the island, and as powerful and authentic as any pictures he would make in his lifetime. Evans’s photographs would be extraordinary by any measure, but his achievement is all the more impressive when we realize that his 1933 trip to Havana lasted only three weeks.

Walker Evans was my photography professor in the fall of 1970, my senior year at Yale. Out of curiosity about his work, before the class began I looked at a library copy of The Crime of Cuba. I had the same reaction to Evans’s Havana portraits and street scenes as when I’d earlier purchased a used paperback of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and stared at his photographs of three Alabama tenant farmer families and their homes and belongings. Evans made photography look easy. He seemed to do little more than point his camera directly at life and click the shutter. I was encouraged to try my own hand and eye at making pictures.

That September I met Evans in a windowless cement room in the bowels of the Yale Art and Architecture Building on the corner of York and Chapel streets in New Haven. I was one of seven or eight students in his undergraduate photography seminar. Evans’s deeply embedded rebellious spirit was enormously appealing to all of us. It seemed to make sense that we’d sit in an art-school building with a teacher who told us to avoid museums, who urged us instead to pay attention to what was happening out on the streets. And we never questioned learning photography from a man who claimed to believe that photography could not be taught. By the time I discovered that photography wasn’t as easy as Evans’s pictures implied, it was too late. I was living in an adobe house in a New Mexican village and already calling myself a photographer.
On the eve of my first trip to Havana, I looked again at Evans’s Cuba photographs. The portraits were far more complicated and mysterious than I remembered. As an undergraduate, for instance, I’d thought the woman behind the barred window was probably a housewife, photographed unobserved by Evans. Now she seemed aware of being watched, but whether by Evans, her neighbors, or a client willing to pay for her services, it was hard to tell. The stevedore I’d recalled as being a tired but stalwart worker now looked guarded and sinister. Perhaps he had a secret life and purpose beyond the loading of ships. And the campesino family wandering in a wealthy Vedado neighborhood no longer appeared so down-and-out. They looked resilient, doubtless one of many rural Cuban families who had migrated to Havana searching for work. They stare past Evans back at us, skeptical of our momentary interference in their lives. In a quiet family portrait Evans manages to hint at the masses of Cubans who resent the intrusion of the United States and put their hopes in Martí, and to predict the millions more who will one day turn to Fidel as the savior of the Cuban people. If Evans could accomplish this as an outsider on his first brief trip to Havana, perhaps I could be optimistic about the photographic possibilities of my Cuban journey as well.

Walker Evans said the secret of photography is that the camera assumes the character and personality of the handler. The mind works on the machine or through it. I am no longer the same person who looked through the lens of my camera at Eskimo and Hispanic villages, in search of family and community. I have my own family now. By the time I arrived in Cuba, I was finally interested in photography itself. My thirty-year relationship with the medium as a photographer and as an editor has taught me to follow my instincts, even if those instincts demand, as illogical as it may seem, that I photograph Havana solely from the backseats of old American cars, make an exposure only if the frame encompasses a statue of José Martí, or make portraits exclusively of young female prostitutes.

I know much more about Cuba now than I did when I made these photographs. But I do not believe that I could now make better pictures. This book is an act of faith in myself as a photographer to discover something in my pictures I didn’t already know or feel, something I wasn’t already looking for. In the thin mountain air of New Mexico, I had been drawn to the way light falls obliquely in the mornings and evenings to reveal aspects of the landscape not visible in the direct noon sun. In the dense atmosphere of Cuba, I found another way to photograph. On each trip to the island, I believed that by turning my camera repeatedly on a particular subject, I would begin to see the big picture. And I knew one crucial thing from my earlier work as a photographer that would serve me well in Cuba: how to immerse myself in a world and at the same time observe it, to step back from the moment I was experiencing and take a photograph.

I traveled to Cuba to make landscapes, and discovered José Martí. Maybe this was only luck, providing a gringo photographer with a unifying Cuban theme for three idiosyncratic bodies of work. But if this was luck, it was an odd blessing for an author trying to publish in the United States, choosing for my book a hero that few in this country know or care about. And if I assume that finding Martí was an act of chance, I’ll also have to believe that most of the things that have occurred to me amount to a series of accidents that just happen to add up to my life.

I don’t doubt that luck is involved in practically everything we do. But I’m also convinced that we can edit and shape our lives much in the way that I have chosen and sequenced the following photographs, by holding on to what seem the most valuable moments and building on these, one day or one photograph at a time. Time will tell if my photographs of Cuba have significance beyond the pleasure I had in making them, implications for those still squinting at Cuba through an old iron curtain, or relevance perhaps even for Cubans enduring difficult times on the island, waiting for something to happen.
June 2012

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