In this sampling from Cowen’s recent work, the same Havana light that once captivated the young Evans now reveals faces and artifacts of a far-less vibrant society. Except perhaps for one photo — the back of an elegant young woman in a simple white dress — any sense of glamour, style, or hope that Evans captured in 1933 has mostly vanished.
A sense of resigned poverty (or humble expectations) pervades Cowen’s images. A dog snarls from the roof of a barricaded building. A dead cat decomposes in the street. The defiant glare of a smoking man makes his missing fore-arm seem like a secondary detail.
Cowen finds beauty, poetry and timeless dignity here. Laundry looks like a musical composition, hanging out to dry in the bright light. Tough young lovers reveal instants of vulnerability. The bright geometric patterns of a pregnant woman’s dress play against the veiled, worried look of her male companion who sits closely next to her in shadow. A young girl and her bouncing ball seem suspended above the barren textures of a broad open space.
In an email exchange, Jeff Cowen talked with me about this work, and his photography in general. Here's an excerpt:
Were you intending to make a certain type of photograph or series before you got to Cuba, or did you just respond to what you discovered?
I try to work from my subconscious. I simply try to just be an open channel and let the work come through me. Sort of like a jazz musician. I am less interested in where I am photographing and more interested in the essence of the humanity of my subject and of my own humanity. For me all humans belong to the same country.
Do you consider these photos to be reportage or street photography or something else?
They are simply photographs for me. This is a complicated and interesting question. I know that when you change the way you look at something the thing you look at changes. That is what makes photography so interesting. I can tell you, that in the end I am more interested in what they are not than in what they are... labels do not interest me. Try to define silence, I think you can only do it by saying what it is not... And silence is what I am after. The silence in between a breath.
Your photos have a quiet moodiness to them — is that the general feeling you got from the people in Cuba?
I think if you look at my early New York work you will find a similar emotional tone, this is more about me perhaps and is not meant to be a report about Cuba. I am interested that each photograph should work as a single entity on its own, this is crucial in my work. I am looking to transcend the moment in search of the eternalness of that moment, that is the paradox of photography that fascinates me.
How does this work fit into your overall body of work? It seems like such a departure from your sculptural collages and nudes.
As you know, Jim, I took off several years from photography to study academic drawing and then painting and plastic space.... I look at paintings as much or more than photography. I bring this up as you might have noticed a stronger sense of formalism in this work. For me this is not a departure, but an exercise in honing my skills. For example, especially in my collages there must be a very strong formal and initial structural quality, or the piece does not work. I have been working for the past month now on a very difficult mural photo collage using multiple images. But at the base of this collage was an initial image that worked as a photograph. There is no escaping this. A photographic composition must work as an abstraction first for me. Then I can fill in the details. That is what I did in Cuba, and what I do in the studio is not different.
However, in my studio I work against a very simple background. This forces me to deal directly with the spirit and emotional world of the model which is my interest. So as much as possible I want to eliminate all of the inessentials to bring me into a more direct relationship with the subject, with truth. This is why photographing on the street is extremely challenging and difficult. Because there is so much going on out of your control than you have in the studio... However that being said, the work I do in the studio informs and strengthens my street work and the reverse. My studio images have changed this year as a result of my Cuban work. So for me there is no departure whatsoever.... In fact this is precisely why I became a photographer. It affords me the possibility to explore the exterior and interior worlds and the relationship of one to the other. I have always loved the street equally as much as I love working in the studio. And I shall continue to work in both manners. It’s all the same really, just different subject matter. I am still working from my guts, heart and soul.
Printing is like jazz for me. I won’t know until they are printed and each print in the edition will have its own quality. Do you think Thelonius Monk ever played one song the same way every time he recorded it? No way.
— Interview with Jeff Cowen by Jim Casper