REVIEW by Willard Manus
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,
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.