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Book Review: Isla


Book Review Isla By Ernesto Bazan Reviewed by Tom Leininger Isla overflows from your lap; the cinematic black and white panoramic photographs made by Ernesto Bazan in Cuba envelope you. Multilayered compositions textured in film grain are a reminder of the raw storytelling potential of photography.

IslaBy Ernesto BazanBazanPhotos Publishing, 2014.
 
Isla
Reviewed by Tom Leininger

Isla
By Ernesto Bazan
BazanPhotos Publishing, 2014. 200 pp., tritone illustrations, 16¾x10".


Isla overflows from your lap; the cinematic black and white panoramic photographs made by Ernesto Bazan in Cuba envelope you. Multilayered compositions textured in film grain are a reminder of the raw storytelling potential of photography. The book, Bazan’s third and final in his Cuba trilogy, tells a hopeful yet mournful tale.

Shadows and highlights create a roadmap for how each image is meant to be read. The raw pictures are a throwback to the idea of the photographer as an interpreter. Bazan’s aesthetic can be a bit heavy handed in places, but it is refreshing to see images that look this way. Seeing the blacks printed down and the highlights bleached or dodged up in places reminds me of work from the 70s and 80s, Bazan’s era. This is his vision, in all of its glorious roughness. A vision he embraces to tell his story.

IslaBy Ernesto BazanBazanPhotos Publishing, 2014.

The faces tell a story of hard times, exhaustion and the crushing reality of a hard life. In one image a woman reclines on her bed. A dog sits at the foot of the bed in the simple home, an open door leading outside to dense vegetation. The woman’s face says, “This is my reality.” The surfaces of the photograph show that her life is not an easy one.

Hope is seen in a young couple, bathed in warm light, embracing behind a billboard. Geometrical lines carry the viewer through the image where love or lust blossoms briefly in a land that has seen better days. Everything except the couple is old and worn in the picture. They offer a glimpse into the metaphorical future, one that is weighted down the by the history and modern realities of the country.

IslaBy Ernesto BazanBazanPhotos Publishing, 2014.
Boys are shown jumping and playing a version of playground baseball. The faces of the boys up front are obscured by their movements. Using the soft fading light to his advantage, what is a less than technically correct photograph becomes a study in motion and exuberance. Another image of boys shows their concentration while they are practicing boxing moves on a street corner. These pictures illustrate the universality of childhood, the serious explosiveness of their energy and joy.

Scenes where the human trace is smaller are just as dramatic. The cover image of a farmer going up stream on a horse while a dog watches a hawk pass over-head is equally stunning. Bazan hovers over the scene since he is also astride a horse, a perspective that takes the viewer straight into the landscape. Every element in the picture is placed perfectly, static yet full of motion with each participant in their own world. Photographs like this give the book its soul.

IslaBy Ernesto BazanBazanPhotos Publishing, 2014.

It is easy to say that Isla is cinematic because of the format. The panoramic scale mimics cinema well, but Bazan’s habit of weaving into and out of personal spaces adds to this idea. The vantage point of many of the photographs shifts through the book. Bazan has a tendency to photograph people from a lower perspective, though landscapes were often photographed from atop a horse. Shifting perspective, dramatic light, and moving into and out of personal spaces all add up for a rich reading experience.

IslaBy Ernesto BazanBazanPhotos Publishing, 2014.

Isla goes beyond a collection of well-made pictures in a particular format. The process of book making is important to Bazan, who has self-published this along with his two other books on Cuba. He works with students and trusted friends to create and refine the edit of the book. Quotations from different writers, poets and photographers appear throughout the book, which for me, took away from the flow. Instead of thinking about the play between pictures, I found that I was distracted by the words. On repeated trips through the story, I tended to skip the text. At times I also found myself struggling a bit due to the length of the book when it is open. Having larger photographs is important, but I felt like I had to prepare a space to read the book. It overwhelms in a good way, but it is occasionally awkward.

A three part interview with Bazan closes the book, and goes over his motivations for the work, his personal history with Cuba and the experience of creating Isla. “I might say that I’ve been photographing the unrehearsed theater of life,” Bazan states toward the end. Isla is a manifestation of this idea. With his camera and internal eye he has taken the small moments of life that are secreted away in plain sight and made them monumental. The transformation has been made with tenderness. It is in this tenderness that Bazan’s humanity is clear and the reader is able to see that this book is his farewell to Cuba, a country that gave him much.—TOM LEININGER


TOM LEININGER is a photographer and educator based in North Texas. More of his work can be found on his website.

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