May 7, 2011

A Revolutionary Project: Cuba from Walker Evans to Now, an Exhibition organized by the Getty Museum, Los Angeles and a Book

A Revolutionary Project: Cuba from Walker Evans to Now 

Exhibition Marks First Showing of Getty’s WALKER EVAN’ s Cuban Photographs; Also on view are Cuban Revolutionary Photographs and Contemporary Work by  VIRGINIA BEAHAN, ALEX HARRIS, and ALEXEY TITARENKO

J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Curator: Judith Keller
May 17 - October 2, 2011 

American, 1903-1975
Stevedore, 1933
Gelatin silver print
Image: 20.1 x 15.1 cm (7 15/16 x 5 15/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Cuba’s attempt to forge an independent state with an ambitious set of social goals, all the while moored to powerful political and economic interests, has been a source of fascination for nations, intellectuals, and artists alike. The exhibition A REVOLUTIONARY PROJECT: CUBA FROM WALKER EVANS TO NOW, looks at three critical periods in the island nation’s history as witnessed by photographers before, during, and after the country’s 1959 Revolution. 

A Revolutionary Project juxtaposes Walker Evans's 1933 images from the end of the Gerardo Machado dictatorship with views by contemporary foreign photographers Virginia Beahan (American, b. 1946), Alex Harris (American, b. 1949), and Alexey Titarenko (Russian, b. 1962), who have explored Cuba since the withdrawal of Soviet support in the 1990s. A third section bridging these two eras presents pictures by Cuban photographers who participated in the country’s 1959 Revolution, including Alberto Korda, Perfecto Romero, and Osvaldo Salas.  

“The Museum’s collection of Walker Evans prints is the largest in the U.S., but until now, we have not shown his photographs of Cuba,” explains Judith Keller, senior curator of photographs. “This exhibition allows us the opportunity to showcase this body of work, alongside newer work in the collection.” 


Walker Evans (1903-1975) is one of the photographers most responsible for the way we now imagine American life in the 1930s. His distinctive photographic style, which he declared “transcendent documentary,” was nurtured in New York in the late 1920s and fully formed by his experience in Cuba in 1933.  In the spring of that year, Walker Evans was asked by publisher J. B. Lippincott to produce a body of work about Cuba to accompany a book by the radical journalist Carleton Beals (1893-1979). This book, The Crime of Cuba, would be a scathing indictment of the then-current regime of Cuban President Gerardo Machado. Leaving the country less than two months before Machado was forced out of office, Walker Evans was able to capture Cuba at the start of the revolutionary movement but almost 30 years before the 1959 Revolution. 

During Evans’s time in Cuba, he made substantial strides in his photographic practice. There he worked with different format cameras, large and small, one more deliberate and descriptive, the other more spontaneous and agile. He created both close-up and wide, inclusive compositions that he could then combine in intense sequences to best communicate his response to the poverty, the ferment, and the beauty of his environment. While in Havana, Evans met the American writer, Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), whose acclaimed avant-garde work he knew and admired.  Hemingway's terse narrative style, which he was then applying to his own Harry Morgan stories set in Havana and Key West, no doubt influenced Evans's approach to the subject of Cuba's current political and economic struggles. Evans's photographs also reflect the inspiration of French photographer Eugène Atget's Parisian pictures that Evans critiqued for an arts journal in 1931. The series that comprised Atget's thorough study of "Old Paris" seem to have provided additional motivation for Evans's selection of Havana subjects: the signage of urban storefronts, the abundant street offerings of fresh produce, the decorative balconies of old houses, the many studies of archaic horse-drawn wagons and carriages, and the portraits of women, some of whom appear to be prostitutes. 


Machado’s fall from rule in 1933 resulted in a long power struggle that culminated in the country’s 1959 socialist revolution to overthrow dictator Fulgencio Batista, anchoring Cuba to the Soviet bloc for the next thirty years and defining a relationship with the United States that still exists today. Fidel Castro, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and their new government harnessed photography as a means of keeping the project of the Revolution at the forefront of Cuba’s collective consciousness. As both genuine records of popular insurrection and propagandistic documents used for political purposes, pictures of the Revolution and its aftermath have shaped how both Cubans and Americans understand the significance of that revolutionary moment. Photographs in the second section of the exhibition are drawn from the work of nine Cuban photographers who participated in recording the political context and triumphs of the emerging state in the years surrounding 1959. 

Included in the exhibition is an iconic image of the revolutionary hero Che Guevara by ALBERTO KORDA titled Guerrillero Heroico (March 5, 1960).  One of the world’s most reproduced images, it has been adopted for political causes, appearing on countless numbers of t-shirts, banners, and street art around the globe. The print on view in the exhibition is among the earliest versions of the photograph known to exist.  Made as a press print, it was used as a source to reproduce the image in media outlets a year after Korda photographed Guevara at a rally in Havana. 

Also on display in the exhibition is the well-known revolutionary photograph Patria o Muerte, Cuba (Negative, January 1959; print, 1984) by OSVALDO SALASO, one of Cuba’s most important photographers.  Salas effectively captures and conveys the populist fervor in Cuba shortly after the movement’s triumph with an image of a patriotic sign framed by a celebratory crowd. 

The photographs included in this section of the exhibition are culled from the extensive holdings of Cuban photography assembled by the Austrian collector, CHRISTIAN SKREIN , including a number of recent acquisitions by the Museum. 


After Soviet troops began to withdraw from Cuba in September of 1991, the troubled Cuban economy suffered severe internal shortages, and Fidel Castro declared what is known as the “Special Period” (período especial), marked by food rationing, energy conservation, and a decline of public services.  In the nearly twenty years since the Soviet withdrawal, Cubans have managed to survive through perseverance, the forging of new political relationships, and the easing of socialist systems. This period of transition, which continues today with the recent transfer of power from Fidel Castro to his brother Raúl, has attracted the attention of photographers from around the world who are interested in exploring the relationship between Cuba’s revolutionary past and its uncertain future. 

The final section of the exhibition looks specifically at the work of three CONTEMPORARY PHOTOGRAPHERS with diverse approaches to documenting the island in recent decades: Virginia Beahan, Alex Harris, and Alexey Titarenko. 

VIRGINIA BEAHAN 's work concentrates on the landscape’s relationship to history and culture. In 2001, she began a multiyear project on Cuba, photographing its topography in search of remnants of the island’s diverse past. The work resulted in a publication in 2009 called Cuba: Singing with Bright Tears. Virginia Beahan’s Cuba is a land of contradictions, full of disappointments and hope, decay and rejuvenating beauty, simultaneously anchored to the past while looking beyond the present. 

American, born 1946
Post-Revolutionary “Hombre Nuevo” (New Man), Las Tunas, 2004
Chromogenic print
Sheet: 86.4 x 104.1 cm (34 x 41 in.)
Wilson Centre for Photography
© Virginia Beahan

Born and raised in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), Russia, ALEXEY TITARENKO became fascinated with Cuba in 2003, when he made his first trip to Havana. Titarenko’s goal was to represent the soul of the Cuban capital. In the artist’s photographs, the city is shown with little overt reference to its politics. Instead, Alexey Titarenko describes the conditions of life in the communist country, depicting people persevering amid varying states of ruin. Venturing out of the tourist zones of Havana into the network of dilapidated avenues beyond the old city walls, his images depict a gray metropolis whose inhabitants congregate on the streets to collect food rations, fix long-outmoded cars, and play baseball. 

Russian, born 1962
Untitled [Havana], 2006
Gelatin silver print
Image: 40.6 x 40.6 cm (16 x 16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Gift of Alexey Titarenko and Nailya Alexander
© Alexey Titarenko

A former student of Walker Evans, ALEX HARRIS made several trips to Cuba following the collapse of the eastern bloc and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, developing a powerful body of color work that addresses the country’s cultural fabric during a period of difficult economic circumstances. His photographs focus on portraits of women whose lives are affected by the tourist-fueled sex trade, landscapes made through the windshields of refurbished 1950s American cars, and monuments to the Cuban national hero José Martí. His study was published in the form of a book, The Idea of Cuba, in 2007. Through these distinct vantage points, Harris probed the country’s propensity for ingenuity as it underwent great transition. 

American, born 1949
Sol and Cuba, Old Havana, Looking North from Alberto Roja’s 1951 Plymouth, Havana
May 23, 1998
Chromogenic print
Image: 76.5 x 95.9 cm (30 1/8 x 37 3/4 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Gift of Michael and Jane Wilson, 
Wilson Centre for Photography
© Alex Harris

A Revolutionary Project is curated by JUDITH KELLER, senior curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum, and Brett Abbott, former associate curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum and, currently, curator of photography at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. 

Cover of Walker Evans: Cuba, paperback edition.  
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. 

More than seventy Walker Evans photographs of Cuba are reprinted in WALKER EVANS:CUBA (Getty Publications, $24.95), available in paperback, along with a provocative essay by noted writer and commentator ANDREI CODRESCU. Together they bring to life what Codrescu has called “the eternal Cuba.” With an introduction of JUDITH KETTER, the curator of the exhibition.

Codrescu argues that what Walker Evans saw in Cuba may not have been what he was supposed to see, not what Beals and his publisher expected him to find. Assigned to lend visual support to impassioned rhetoric, the hallmark of Beals’ prose, Evans instead created beautiful portraits not distinguished by outrage or horror. As Codrescu writes, “[Evans] tried to photograph misery, but shapeliness got in the way.” From movie theaters to shantytowns, coal miners to loiterers, these “irresistibly photogenic” subjects present us with Evans’ own Cuba, not Beals’. Looking closely at individual photographs, Codrescu shows how Evans was just beginning to combine his early formalist aesthetic with the social concerns that would figure so prominently in his later work, especially his renowned images of Depression-era America. 

To capture the spirit of the imagery, Walker Evans: Cuba reproduces, without any cropping, 73 photographs at the full size Evans intended. 

Andrei Codrescu is a poet, novelist, essayist, and commentator for National Public Radio. He is the author of Ay, Cuba! (Picador, 1999) and the founder of Exquisite Corpse: A Journal of Letters and Life

Judith Keller is senior curator in the Department of Photographs at the Getty Museum and author of Walker Evans: The Getty Museum Collection (Getty Publications, 1995).

Walker Evans 
Essay by Andrei Codrescu
Introduction by Judith Keller
J. Paul Getty Museum
96 pages, 11 ½ x 10 inches, paperback
73 duotone illustrations
ISBN 978-1-60606-064-3, $24.95 [UK £16.99]
Publication Date:  May 17, 2011