I often contend that if you have never thought much about photographs, it can be hard to appreciate the art of photography with only one image in front of you. On screen or in print form, the art becomes more apparent when multiple expressions are at hand; the photographer's myriad choices embody the medium's singular, creative heart and distinguish one photo from another.
Looking at just one photography book, then looking at several, can prompt a similar effect. In the case of a complex socio-political phenomenon like late-Fidel Castro Cuba, the pictorial possibilities are many, and the seductions of the subject are rampant, tending to overwhelm the suggestible many. Familiar tropes abound, and one might be disappointed to arrive in Havana and not immediately be greeted by cold Cuba Libres, quaintly dilapidated vehicles, high-quality cigars, and musical cousins of the Buena Vista Social Club. Still, given all the photographers who've visited the island, there must be some variation within the published record. I'll say more about this in one of the other two Cuba-related books I'm covering in a three-part essay.
I am beginning with what I feel is the most successful of the three volumes, the one that appeals to this total outsider (haven't been closer than ninety miles to Cuba) - Cuba: Campo Adentro, with photographs by Susan Sweetser Bank and an essay by Juan Antonio Molina (2008). One could be excused for feeling a bit "off the island" in Susan Bank's book. Its title translates roughly to "Cuba in the field;" what Bank shows is not conventionally picturesque Cuba, and it distinguishes itself from many other currently in-press titles on this basis alone. And it is all the more gratifying for this.
These photographs operate without preconceptions. Bank's handheld, immersive, black-and-white approach acquaints us with agricultural lives in a setting more reminiscent of Hale County (Alabama, a la Evans and James Agee), than downtown Havana; appropriately, she discovered this territory in 2002 when she sought and found a weekend retreat about 100 miles west of the capital city. This Cuba compares favorably with 1930s mid-America in the eyes and lenses of Evans, Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, John Vachon, and others.
Though Bank expressly distances herself from the political agenda underlying the FSA work, her photographs, like those of her predecessors, evince the pulsing energy of life closely observed and respectfully rendered. Admiration and empathy arise for the families Bank has recorded, emotions that are shared on a level plain, not bestowed from above by some beneficent, if distanced, care-giver.
George Slade , a longtime contributor to photo-eye, is the programs manager and curator at the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University. He continues to post content on his blog, re:photographica.