photo book review
Cuba: Campo Adentro
Susan S. Bank
Juan Antonio Molina
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The Secret Drive of History
Making documentary photographs in the Cuban context is not a naive exercise, much less for a photographer like Bank, who has had to cross not only geographical but also political and social boundaries.
These crossings have led me to emphasize the place her work occupies, between imagination and history. As a result I do not hesitate to stress her contribution to an iconography of “the Cuban.” I believe that the construction of “the Cuban” in the last fifty years has had more to do with the image than with history. I turn to the epigraph of this essay, the enigmatic words of José Lezama Lima, which translated into English mean “the image is the secret drive of history.”
I believe that Bank’s work springs from the same intuition that underlies the Cuban poet’s phrase. His words are very consistent with the tenor of this work, which is that these campesinos, photographed in the twenty-first century, do not differ from others photographed in other times, and perhaps elsewhere, in places beyond Cuba.
One might say that this observation merely reflects the fact that areas of the Cuban countryside exist in a limbo untouched by the passage of time. Provoked by specific social conditions, this limbo manifests itself like a parenthesis in history.
Yet in these photographs I sense that this parenthesis (this lapse) is nonetheless an aesthetic construction of the artist’s own making, such that the image—with all its symbolic force—makes incursions into territory seemingly independent of history.
The truth is that Bank has a special talent to capture moments and situations that, when represented in the photograph, look unreal, despite their ostensibly mundane nature. The facts of daily life appear unusual and extraordinary.
Bank’s direct and frank gaze has resulted in images that simultaneously idealize their photographic subjects and render them unfamiliar. It is this very distance that we call “aesthetic” and which is tantamount to the chasm between the photograph, as a beautiful object, and the photographed, as the starting point of the artistic act. What is most significant in this volume is that each picture retains its autonomy as an object and that such autonomy holds the key to its beauty. Thus, each image may evoke the “natural” beauty that motivated Bank to put the camera to her eye in the first place, but then it forces us to discover within it another type of beauty, unprecedented, that is possible only in a photograph, and then only thanks to the photographer.
An Adult’s Game
I tend to approach photography as if it were a way to remember moments I have not lived, a way to become persons I have not been, a way to experience the lives of others. I enjoy reading a photograph as fiction, as one reads literature or a play. At least, this was how I approached literature and theater as a child. That is to say, like a game.
If once such fantasy was child’s play, now it is a game for adults. I cannot see every photograph as a harmless object, or every photographed reality as pleasant or charming. To play at being the other also implicates us in embracing his or her pain. This is something that goes beyond compassion or complicity, since I cannot pity anyone whose pain, wants, and frustrations I have appropriated. I say this because underlying the beauty of Bank’s photographs I also sense the conflicts and frustrations experienced by Cuban farmers struggling to subsist under precarious conditions. Yet these photographs compel me to conclude that between the precariousness and the poverty there is room for hope and vitality to survive.
Although I easily become engaged when I confront a photograph, the truth is that I feel a certain detachment, too. It doesn’t matter whether these photographs make me breathe the humid earth again. It doesn’t matter that once again I feel the sandy soil of Pinar del Río beneath my feet. Or that they allow me to reimagine a series of once uncomfortable sensations—the dew falling on my back when I bent over to enter the tobacco fields, the tar transforming my shirt into a rigid shell, the mud between my fingers—as something newly wonderful. The more I try to relive such experiences, the more I get the persistent sensation that, ultimately, I continue to be an intruder. In the end, we are always there, that other and I, sharing some sort of elemental solitude.
Susan Bank’s work helps me, if only for a moment, to deal with my own solitude when facing the photograph. And with my own solitude vis-à-vis memory. I grant that photography is one of the best instruments of individual and collective nostalgia. It idealizes the past, in large part because the photograph reveals to us that the past is something irretrievable. We cannot glimpse it, barely cherish it, yet always want it. For this reason, to enjoy Bank’s photographs is also to take pleasure in feeling loss, transformed into an aesthetic experience. Ultimately, a tricky feeling. But our relationship with the image is made of such tricks.
Juan Antonio Molina
Mexico, February 2008
— read this in the original Spanish
Cuba: Campo Adentro
Susan S. Bank
Publisher: Sagamore Press
10.5 x 10.2 inches
48 black and white illustrations