Durham photographer and writer Alex Harris says he’s learned that “the greatest depth of field is achieved by setting the smallest aperture on a lens.”
This technical insight translates to Harris’ single-minded, conceptual approach to photography. By taking a series of pictures of one narrowly defined visual subject, he excavates ideas from the surfaces of things.
Harris’ new book, The Idea of Cuba, is based on three trips he took to the island in 1998, 2002 and 2003. The project grew organically, as Harris followed in the footsteps of his former teacher and mentor at Yale in 1970, Walker Evans. (Evans’ seminal, spontaneous portraits of Cuban street life were published in 1933.)
On each trip, Harris became obsessed with a different visual subject. He used each one to reveal a different angle on Cuban-American relations: landscapes as seen from the front seat of old American cars, street scenes containing busts of José Martí, and portraits of women who trade sex in Cuba’s foreign-currency-driven, post-Soviet-era economy.
Drawn instinctively to his subject matter, Harris found that after he got home, the pictures seemed to have much more to say than he realized or could explain. “I’d done these three idiosyncratic bodies of work, I didn’t know how they fit together. And I tried to write a text,” said Harris in a recent interview at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, where he teaches photography.
So he sent the first draft to Cuban-American Yale historian Lillian Guerra (whose essay on Cuban identity closes the book). “You don’t quite understand what you’ve seen,” Guerra told him. Her extensive notes guided Harris on an eight-month crash course in Cuban history and culture. In particular, the figure of Martí fascinated Harris: “Knowing Martí seemed the key to knowing Cuba,” he writes. It wasn’t a simple task: “There are more books written about Martí than practically anyone but Jesus Christ,” says Harris.
“We don’t really have a figure like Martí in this country. He’s kind of part Abraham Lincoln, part Martin Luther King Jr.; he has the authority of Moses. Throw in a few dashes of Walt Whitman, and you begin to have an idea of what Martí means for Cubans.”
Martí was a 19th-century Cuban poet and patriot who opposed Spanish and American rule, and spent most of his life in exile in the United States. He translated Whitman into Spanish and reported on U.S. politics and culture as a foreign correspondent for Latin American newspapers. Marti enjoys saint-like status among exiles and “island Cubans” alike, and his ideals find favor among both regime opponents and Revolution hardliners. Statues adorned with quotes from his writings are ubiquitous throughout Cuba. (Martí will be familiar to most Americans, albeit unconsciously, as the author of lines later set to music from a Cuban soap opera by American folk singer Pete Seeger: “Guantanamera.”)
Taken on his second trip to the island, Harris’ photos of Martí bustsin front of schools, at sugar refineries and pastry stands, and in public squarescontrast or resonate with street scenes of life in present-day Cuba. The book’s title, The Idea of Cuba, can’t help but evoke the sometimes ironic juxtaposition, seen in Harris’ photos, of everyday reality.
On his first trip to Cuba, Harris went with a view camera (an old type of camera with a black cloth that goes over the photographer’s head) and color film, with the intention of using the windscreens of nostalgic American cars as viewfinders. He photographed landscapes through the panoramic “lens” of 1950s Buicks and Chevrolets, relics of American capitalism that reminded him of his own childhood in Atlanta. With foreground and infinity equally in focus (thanks to the tiny aperture setting on a view camera), customized dashboards and jerry-rigged sound wiring are juxtaposed with Soviet-built apartment buildings, beach scenes and Old Havana streets.
Though the car theme toys with one of the most clichéd images of Communist Cuba, Harris manages to photograph something much more complex than trite anachronism or travel poster romance. Cars are the site of transactions between interior and exterior, drivers and passengers, Cubans and foreigners, individual and public space. The perfect site, in a way, for a look at the way Cubans and Americans see each other.
“It seems that one can gaze at Cuba and always see oneself,” he writes.
In his third series, which are individual portraits, Harris documents the resurgence of prostitution in Cuba after the fall of the Soviet empire, when the loss of key trading partners meant Cuba has had to rely on tourism for an influx of foreign currency. At the street level, men and women engage in a practice known as “jineterismo” (“jockeying”), interacting with foreigners as a way of acquiring access to areas and goods reserved for tourists and Cubans working in the tourist sector.
The women in the photographs are, not surprisingly, sleek, comfortable in their bodies and self-possessed. (And, it is worth mentioning, fully clothed; Harris wants it known that he didn’t engage the women for any sexual activities.) This part of Harris’ project was the most furtive, since prostitution, though widely tolerated, is illegal in Cuba. He engaged the women at a lower fee for their time than they charge for sex, and photographed them in private or semi-private settings. Once again, small details captured in the frame suggest narratives about life in present-day Cuba. One woman fondles a gold chain; another lolls near a running TV and VCR, consumer goods she could not otherwise afford in Cuba’s official economy.
The portraits eschew names (for both their protection and his, should his notebook have been discovered) and bear simple attributes in their titles, reminiscent of Vermeer paintings: “Red-haired woman. Woman with leather belt. Woman in purple halter top.” The soft, sculptural light of the indoor portraits evokes classical portraiture as well, and the sexual power the women exude is provocative but not titillating. Their individuality is echoed by some ancillary statuary photographs Harris includes at the end, replicas of Italian nudes and baroque angels in Cristóbal Colón cemetery. There may be further gender narratives to uncover in Harris’ encounters with male and female statuary, but for the moment his photos compel viewing for their own sake.
Whether one shares Harris’ idea of Cuba or not, it’s hard to argue with his visual instincts and his intuition. He knows a symbolic minefield when he sees one.
“Photography is about the surfaces of things primarily, and the surfaces of things there are quite extraordinary to look at, the people, the landscape, the way time has affected everything,” he says.
Arguably, one couldn’t have arrived at three richer symbols of Cuba’s past, present and future through lengthy premeditation. Harris’ essay mines them for all they are worth, with impressive powers of self-interrogation. His thoughtful investigation of Cuba’s surfaces, and what lies beneath them, lays bare the unseen observer as an integral part of what is seen.
Alex Harris will discuss his work with historian Lillian Guerra and sign copies of his book Friday, Nov. 16, at 5:30 p.m. in the auditorium of the Nasher Museum on the Duke campus. The event is free. For more information, visit www.nasher.duke.edu/events.php or cds.aas.duke.edu/books/cuba.html.