Walker Evans: Cuba

J. Paul Getty Museum. Essay by Andrei Codrescu and introduction by Judith Keller. ISBN-10: 1606060643, ISBN-13: 978-1606060643 $24.95  

Published to coincide with the J. Paul Getty Museum exhibition, 'A Revolutionary Project: Cuba from Walker Evans to Now,' Walker Evans Cuba is a striking window into the eye of a future master. The work in Cuba is uneven. Some shots reveal the preoccupations and talent that would later make Evans a world-class artist.  Others aren’t much better than vacation snapshots. But for people who want to see how a photographic genius develops as well as those simply interested in Cuba's pre-revolutionary people and architecture, this is a valuable work. 

Walker Evans is a major figure of 20th Century photography, cited by many other giants as an influence. Henri Cartier-Bresson, for example, told Charlie Rose that Evans was one of his photographic 'fathers.' More than any other body of his work, the images Evans created during the Great Depression for the Farm Securities Administration cemented his reputation as a keen observer of people and their spaces.

This series, taken a few years before the FSA work, is not as widely known. In 1933, Evans went to Cuba on assignment for the publisher of progressive crusader Carleton Beals’s then-forthcoming book, The Crime of Cuba. He was to document the conditions under the dictator Gerardo Machado. Beals and his publisher likely wanted imagery wrought with emotion and designed to evoke outrage at the conditions of the poor. Evans, already somewhat of a non-conformist, went for something more subtle: storytelling that was more journalistic and less overtly opinionated than that of his colleagues.

While in Cuba, Evans befriended Ernest Hemingway, and perhaps Hemingway’s ability to artfully depict a moment or interaction with simple and unadorned prose inspired the young photographer. The curator and critic John Szarkowski, in his classic Looking at Photographs, accurately distills Evans’s style thus: '...puritanically economical, precisely measured, frontal, unemotional, dryly textured, insistently factual…but…Evans' pictures, however laconic in manner, were rich in expressive content.'

© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In many shots, the emerging young artist experiments with elements that would become hallmarks of his style. Evans shoots living environments that illustrate both the broad cultural context as well as telling idiosyncratic details of their inhabitants. He also consistently photographs people framed by two-dimensional graphic elements like signs, posters, or print ads. Throughout Cuba, there is a rigor to the arrangement of objects within the frame. For example, lines and planes are expertly used in one shot in a Havana courtyard. A statue’s raised fist creates a line extending into the arm of a bending man, while all around laundry sheets and ropes create parallel or perpendicular lines. Photographers who like to employ 'frames within frames' will find inspiration in Evans’s shot of the façade of a Havana movie theater, in which no fewer than seven mini frames balance out the whole.

© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

None of the photos can compare to his later masterpieces, but many of them show his original eye and vision. Evans is often credited with the ability to simply record what appeared in his viewfinder in an objective and unembellished way. These early pictures indicate that Evan’s “simplicity” is smokescreen for a complex vision. It’s no easy feat to compose a scene in a graphically pleasing way while capturing a poignant moment or a richly informative living space. The work of a rare talent is evident in his ability to do so in a manner that, upon first glance, seems hardly more than straightforward documentation, but that continues to feel fresh and new upon repeated viewing. For Walker Evans fans, or for anyone who wants to see a major photographer capturing Cuba at very specific place and time, Walker Evans Cuba is a fascinating and engaging book.