photo book review
Cuba: Campo Adentro
Susan S. Bank
Juan Antonio Molina
leer este texto en español (original)
La imagen es la causa secreta de la historia.
— José Lezama Lima
I have always been haunted by this quotation from Lezama Lima, at once enigmatic and revealing. Perhaps I am unable to rid myself of it because I haven’t spent much energy trying to decipher it. Sometimes it is best not to understand too well the things in which one believes.
But the truth is that this phrase intrigues me, above all because I feel that it makes sense of my ambiguous relation with the photographic image and with history. Or rather, it reminds me of the ambiguous position in which I locate my own relation with the photograph: always caught between the image and history. I approach the work of Susan Bank with this idea ever in mind. And it is the ubiquity of this idea that I have encountered in each of her photographs.
On one level I suspect that this condition is characteristic of the photograph as a medium of representation. But it is also a particular consequence of the encounter between a sensibility like Bank’s and a reality like that of el campo cubano. Ultimately, it is a happy coincidence that has successfully implicated me in an intellectual — but also imaginative — experience that allows me to pursue the reinvention of my own history.
The Loneliness of the Image
There is a loneliness intrinsic to the artistic act that derives from the artist’s confrontation with the fullness—the sublimity—of the image he or she has created. This loneliness emerges when the artist recognizes the image as something beyond reality, beyond the medium in which the artist works, beyond the context in which the artist lives. In that fleeting instant, the image unveils itself and leaves the realm of history to enter the world of myth. I believe that in every work of art there is always a trace of the image’s autonomy that resists being positioned or colonized by circumstance.
When looking at Bank’s photographs, I experience a restlessness caused by my desire to associate each image with a specific situation, only to discover that the image resists my attempts to fasten it to such circumstance. I admit having approached these photographs looking for evidence of how Cuban farmers live and, mainly, looking for connections with my own past and origins. Instead, what I have found is evidence of the ways Bank experiences beauty. Bank has said that she takes photographs “in order to deal with personal feelings of loneliness and isolation.” I prefer to say that she takes photographs to grapple with the beauty and the fullness of the created image, understanding that the aesthetic experience is also a lonely way to fight solitude.
More Real Than the Real
The photographs of the Campo Adentro series were taken in the homes of farmers in a barrio in the Viñales Valley. This access to the private world of campesinos could not have been achieved without a previous relationship between the subjects and the photographer. I believe these photographs were born of a visceral and emotional connection with their reality.
Bank’s photographs show a respectful familiarity with the subjects. However, such familiarity does not preclude the creation of a new reality. The truth in these photographs does not rely exclusively on what once stood before the lens. Each of her photographs carries its own aesthetic truth, beyond the reality of its subject.
Bank emphasizes above all the aesthetic effect of light in interior spaces. She plays with the chiaroscuros of inner spaces, supplemented with strong light from outside: a dramatic use of the light beyond all else. The scene in which a man touches the belly of another man lying in a bed would not be so expressive were it not for the powerful use of light and shadow.
This image introduces another important aesthetic elaboration: the framing of the external space beyond the window where we can see a horse’s head and a fragment of landscape. The framing is so well defined, and the contrast between one scene and the other so sharp, that the window becomes a photograph inside a photograph. Suddenly the outdoor scene seems like a picture or a painting hanging on the wall, or a photomontage that suggests that the world begins on the other side, perhaps unreal, perhaps simply poetic.
The photograph of a room in which several turkeys strut about confidently, as if they were the sole inhabitants of the house, has a similar effect. The scene in itself is already somewhat unreal. The view through the window once again suggests an image within an image. It has the vividness of dreams and of certain memories, and it is also like a trompe l’oeil captured inside the photograph—a very paradoxical situation, because such illusory space seems more real than life itself. It is this sensation that leads me to recognize Bank’s photographs as aesthetic experiences that border on surrealism.
The Value of Distance
A surreal effect emerges, I believe, at that very moment when the real appears in a photograph as an alien element. The photograph ceases to stand in for a familiar reality and becomes the starting point of a reality that is yet to be known. I no longer cling to the belief that the photograph arises from an intimacy with its subject (“intimacy” in the technical sense, if we are speaking strictly), but rather distances us from it.
Walter Benjamin spoke of the “aura” of a work of art, suggesting that it had to do with a kind of distance. At times, such a distance arises from the mediation of the camera between the photographer and the image. The photograph seems to emerge more from the artist’s intervention than from any reality. Again and again, these interventions surface in Bank’s work.
This development becomes more explicit in the photographs where Bank has chosen vantage points that obscure the faces of her subjects. Capturing the subject’s identity seems not to be her primary concern. In the best examples, subjects practically merge with the landscape. In each case, the formal composition suggests a symbolic transubstantiation between the people and their environment.
Choosing the strongest photographs in this series is difficult. But among the more revealing are some of the faceless portraits. Two are especially provocative. The first depicts a person wearing a sombrero and a nylon cape for protection against the rain. The only visible part of the anatomy is a sinewy hand, extraordinarily expressive. The sombrero’s texture resembles the rough texture of the roof of the bohío. It is as if this person has been rooted there forever.
Only the photographer’s intervention makes such an observation possible. She has endowed this figure and its setting with a sense of timelessness and anonymity. The other photograph shows a farmer carrying a pig on his shoulder. The pig has been stuffed into a sack, such that we can see only its head, positioned as if to replace the head of the man who carries it.
I know that Bank did not intend to appeal to our sense of humor with such a juxtaposition, even though pigs seem always to smile, even after death. Rather, the image disturbs us, perhaps because of this hybridization between the human and the animal. The aesthetic power of the image seems to arise from the physical force suggested by this ambiguous figure planted solidly in the foreground of the image.
Bank’s photographs offer us a kind of psychological montage with two main features. The first is the superimposition of the photograph’s aesthetic reality upon the “natural” reality of the photographed objects. The second is the masking of the subjects depicted, transforming them into strangers, as if they originated from a place isolated from any reality. As if grasping the reality of these subjects would require us to pay attention to elements beyond our understanding of geography and history, far from logic, far from anatomy.
One of the most enigmatic photographs depicts what seems to be a person carrying a pole filled with hanging tobacco leaves, a setup that Cubans call a cuje. Interestingly, though, the photograph offers no clues to confirm that the subject is indeed a person. The leaves could just as well be supported by any other object, shaped like this mysterious figure, alone in the middle of the field.
That sensation of solitude emanates from many of the scenes and subjects Bank photographs: an old woman paused on the threshold, leaning on a stick and bathed by light that seems to go right through her; two girls walking toward a tobacco barn; family members busy in the kitchen, with the nearly fantastic appearance of a horse inserting its head through the doorway.
All are absorbed in their separate, daily lives, in a universe of immediacy that the photographer imbues with a hint of the transcendent. The solitude they reflect is not an interior solitude, but rather a sort of isolation, as if they had been captured in a private relationship with their own reality. As if the world was for them an entirely personal matter.
It is in these moments that I wonder if Bank does not transmit through her photographs the loneliness that she experiences in the act of photographing. If so, the great merit of her work is her ability to reveal the connection between the artist and the world—a connection whose disclosure should be at the core of every work of art.
— continued on next page
Cuba: Campo Adentro
Susan S. Bank
Publisher: Sagamore Press
10.5 x 10.2 inches
48 black and white illustrations