Walker Evans: Cuba

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Photographer Walker Evans became famous in 1936 for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the book on Southern sharecroppers that he collaborated on with the writer James Agee. Three years earlier, Evans had worked on another major photography book which has just been reissued by Getty Publications (which first published it in 2001).

WALKER EVANS: CUBA contains seventy-three of the photographs Evans took in 1933, when he went to Cuba on assignment from J.B. Lippincott to illustrate a book called The Crime of Cuba. Written by the radical journalist Carleton Beals, it was an expose of the corrupt regime (1925-1933) of the Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado, a puppet of the U.S. State Department.

Beals and Lippincott wanted Evans to further indict American imperialism with some politically charged images of Cuba. Instead he concentrated on the faded beauty and elegance of what he encountered in Habana. It's not that he turned his back on the poverty of daily life, just that he was more touched than angered by what his eye spied.
As Andrei Codrescu comments in WALKER EVANS, "Cuba is a finicky subject that will not let herself be surprised in an ungainly pose...Evans tried to photograph misery, but shapeliness got in the way. Cuba's streets, buildings, slums, peddlars and beggars were almost irresistibly photogenic. Evans didn't care for the picturesque, but snuck it in anyway."

The sheer expressiveness of the Cuban people is what comes through in Evans's work. Whether rich or poor, male or female, young or old, "they seem created to be photographed," points out Codrescu. "I'm sure that when the exploitation, oppression and misery stop, the Cuban people will acquire the anonymous banality of bustling moderns everywhere. Until then, they will remain what they are in these photographs, stubbornly, distinctly photographic."

The publication of WALKER EVANS: CUBA coincides with the Getty's current exhibition, A REVOLUTIONARY PROJECT: CUBA FROM WALKER EVANS TO NOW. In addition to Walker, numerous other photographers, Cuban and otherwise, are featured in the show, which runs at the Getty through Oct. 2nd.