“Let Us Now Praise Famous Cubans”

Walker Evans, the documentary photographer of the vernacular, probably best known for the compelling images he created of the Great Depression era for Roy Stryker at the Farm Security Administration, was commissioned to photograph the harsh conditions under the Machado regime for Carleton Beal’s book The Crime of Cuba.   This work completed in Cuba in 1933 was Evan’s first “commercial” assignment, and arguably his first full body of photographs–so it warrants attention and study of the artist Evans as a young man.  Evans created most of the images and “borrowed” a few from the files of the newspaper and police department in Havana.  He sequenced the images, and they appear in order at the end of The Crime of Cuba.  This work will be the subject of a couple of posts next week.

Evans worked for Roy Stryker at the FSA from 1932 to 1937, when he was released by Stryker for Evan’s desire for editorial independence as well as an apparent lack of productivity –which he more than made up for in terms of the incredible quality and emotion of the images that he created.

In 1936, Fortune magazine dispatched photographer Walker Evans and author James Agee to Hale County, Alabama, to document, both in words and images, the lives and hardtimes of the tenant farmers who worked in the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression.  While Fortune ultimately rejected the story for publication, it was later published as a book in 1941.  This book “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” has gone on to become a classic, studied for its innovative journalism and  compelling photographic images.

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Many of the photographs taken by Walker Evans are included in the Archives of the Farm Security Administraiton (FSA) in the United States Library of Congress.  The vernacular style…..  the dignity of the people…..

Due to the good fortune of meeting some of Walker Evans’ friends (John T. Hill, Jerry Thompson, Alan Trachtenberg) in recent years, I have tried to learn something about the life and times of Walker Evans.   It was this desire to learn about Walker Evans that initially led to my first visit to Cuba.  And, I now have started a longer term project to “walk in the footsteps” of Walker Evans in Cuba.  I plan to host a People to People Cultural Exchange in November, 2014, entitled “Havana 2014: Walking in the Footsteps of Walker Evans, 80 Years Later.”  The overarching goal is to revisualize, reinterpret, and rephotograph the people, places, and things that attracted Walker Evans’ hungry eye during his visit to Cuba in 1933–to see what has changed, as well as what has stayed the same–and ultimately reset a new baseline for the changes that are likely to come to Cuba over the next 20 years.  And, if God is willing, we will go back to Cuba in 2023 and 2033 to record this change.

While I aint no Walker Evans, and never will be; I was consciously thinking about Walker Evans as I walked around the countryside of Vinales, Cuba.   I wondered how Walker Evans would approach these wonderfully dignified people, and how he would photograph them.   While it has never been easy for me to walk up to people and ask them if I can photograph them, I think it was the inspiration of Evans that allowed me to do it in Vinales.  My Spanish is quite poor, almost non-existent.  But, with a smile, and a few words (“Tu fotografia, por favor…..Ah, los ojos, bonita…..Guapo…..Gracias Senior….Gracias Seniora….Gracias Seniorita…..Adios…..), I took these photographs of the warm, friendly, dignified, and hard-working people of Vinales.  Borrowing from Walker Evans, I tried to let these wonderful people pose themselves, and did my best to wait for them to look me (and now you) right in the eye.

Photo Credit for all Walker Evans Photographs on Left of Page:  Walker Evans Archives, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and Farm Security Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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2 Comments

  1. Karen Brown December 3, 2013 at 12:14 pm #

    Wonderful photographs, Skip, and I’m enjoying the written entries that accompany these blog posts on your journey. Well done!

  2. Scott Sheperd December 3, 2013 at 2:17 pm #

    Great job!! It has the feel of Walker Evans. I loved that book and James Agee also. Your pictures capture the essence of the people and places.

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