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TEXT BY RICHARD CHANG, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER; IMAGE COURTESY OF WILSON CENTRE FOR PHOTOGRAPHY
Che Guevara's image appears everywhere in Cuba, including on billboards. Virginia Beahan shot this image, titled "Post-Revolutionary 'Hombre Nuevo' (New Man), Las Tunas," a 2004 chromogenic print. On view at the Getty Center through Oct. 2.
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Getty offers photographic views of Cuba

THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Cuba.

Just the name of the Caribbean island nation evokes mystery, mistrust and curiosity in the mind of the average American.

Though it's a small country compared to the United States, there's a lot of history that runs between the two nations, from the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine in 1898 to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 to the detention of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay today.

Cuba, its people and culture have also been popularized by writers Ernest Hemmingway and José Martí; musicians Ry Cooder, Compay Segundo and Celia Cruz; and artist Wifredo Lam, along with many others.

Through Oct. 2, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Brentwood is presenting "A Revolutionary Project: Cuba from Walker Evans to Now." It's a photographic exploration of Cuba and its people at three critical periods: before, during and after the country's momentous 1959 revolution.

EARLY EVANS IN CUBA

The first section concentrates exclusively on the photographic work of Walker Evans, who was in Cuba on assignment in 1933. Publisher J.B. Lippincott asked him to take pictures of Cuba to accompany a book, "The Crime of Cuba," by radical journalist Carleton Beals.

Without the fervor of Beals' specific political agenda, Evans captured the people of Havana going about their daily lives. He shot men, women, children – a plethora of working-class folks, and dozens down and out and on the streets. He happened to be there during a time of foment – the waning days of Cuban president Gerardo Machado. It was in Cuba that Evans experimented with different cameras, angles, lenses, as well as close-up and wide compositions.

These techniques would ultimately become internationally recognized in his later work for the U.S. Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression, and in his seminal, 1941 book with James Agee, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men."

Evans' Cuba photos are honest, sepia-toned portraits of a people on the precipice of a huge transition: Machado would be forced out of office two months after the photographer's visit.

His close-ups, "Stevedore" and "Coal Stevedore" (both 1933), are particularly strong and poignant, with the intensity of labor apparent in the haggard expressions of his subjects and in the black stain of coal on one man's skin. The white cigarette dangling from the coal stevedore's mouth contrasts starkly with his dark skin and hat.

Other Evans images show men in doorways, under house fronts and below painted signs. Walker seemed particularly interested in architecture and in the subtexts of Spanish signage.

Outside of his large crowd pictures, the prevailing message from Evans' images seems to be this: how poor the majority of Cubans are. With 55 images, this portion of the exhibit sometimes gets a little repetitive. But it's a rare opportunity to see Evans' Cuba photographs, which the Getty – which has the largest collection of Evans prints in the U.S. – has not exhibited before.

REVOLUTION

 

The second part of the Getty's Cuba exhibition focuses on the 1959 socialist revolution and its aftermath. Here we see the island nation through Cuban eyes, as nine Cuban photographers who participated in recording the events of the time are featured.

The centerpiece of this section is Alberto Korda's iconic picture of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, "Guerrillero Heroico, March 5, 1960." The portrait of Che at a rally in Havana is one of the world's most reproduced images, appearing on T-shirts, street art, coffee mugs and in advertisements. The print on view in the Getty exhibition is among the earliest versions of the photograph known to exist. It has identifying handwriting and stamps on the back of it, indicating that it was used as an original source for media outlets to reproduce. Even if you're not a fan, it's a pretty cool photograph to witness.

Other images in this section are by Osvaldo Salas, Perfecto Romero, Tirso Martínez, Raúl Corrales, Roberto Salas, Liborio Noval, Mario García Joya and Luís Korda (also known as Luís Pierce).

The black and white pictures capture the frenetic energy of the revolution, and many depict young men and boys with guns. Camilo Cienfuegos, Guevara and Fidel Castro emerge as leaders of the movement, and we see many pictures of Guevara and Castro meeting, leading the troops and strategizing. It's clear from the multiple poses that these pictures were meant not only for historical purposes and record keeping, but for political and propagandistic objectives.

CONTEMPORARY PERSPECTIVES

 

The final section of this exhibition highlights works by three living photographers: Virginia Beahan, Alex Harris and Alexey Titarenko.

The photographs here were all taken since 1991, or the "Special Period" termed by Castro and marked by food rationing, energy conservation and a decline of public services. Soviet troops withdrew starting in September 1991, and Cuba – heavily reliant on the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc – has not been the same since.

Beahan, who creates large, color landscape prints, focuses on Cuban physical territory and its relation to history and culture. Through diptychs and single frame works, she captures important landmarks, such as Columbus' 1492 landing site, the 1961 Bay of Pigs landing site, and the disembarking point for a mass exodus in 1980.

Despite the tremendous upheaval that occurred at these locales, they appear calm and placid in Beahan's work. She similarly juxtaposes momentous history with quiet reality in "Post Revolutionary 'Hombre Nuevo' (New Man), Las Tunas" (2004), a photo of a Guevara billboard against a nearly deserted landscape. And in "Zapatería (Shoe Store), Camagüey" (2004), another picture of hero Guevara is pasted in a store window; unfortunately, the shelves behind it are empty of shoes.

Titarenko, born and raised in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Russia, depicts a Cuba that's outdated, dilapidated and slowly approaching ruin. He uses black and white images and manipulates the tones so they're more stark and ominous.

In Titarenko's work, we occasionally see people walking down busy streets, playing baseball or congregating near a car in need of repair. But his use of blur and extended exposure make his people look more like ghosts, former inhabitants of a city that's past its prime.

In contrast, Harris, a former student of Evans, uses sharp definition and bright colors in his works. One series of photos looks at Havana and outlying areas through windshields of refurbished, 1950s American cars.

"Sol and Cuba, Old Havana, Looking North from Alberto Roja's 1951 Plymouth, Havana" (May 23, 1998) is a particularly powerful image, with the bright red interior playing against a downtown Havana street. A double exposure reveals traces of people walking down the same street at a different time of day.

During several trips to Cuba, Evans also photographed women involved in the tourist-driven sex trade. His portraits of these women are sympathetic, yet somewhat disturbing. Even in a socialist society where citizens are supposed to be provided for according to their need, prostitution not only exists, but thrives. Apparently, it's the only way for some to survive.

There's a lot to see in "A Revolutionary Project." Make sure you get to the Getty early, so you don't have to confront L.A.'s stupefying rush-hour traffic on the way home.

 

Contact the writer: 714-796-6026 or rchang@ocregister.com


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