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photo-eye Book Reviews: Cuba, Sí, Part 2 - The Cubans

The Cubans,Photographs by Jack Beckham Combs. 
Published by University of Virginia, 2010.
Cuba, Sí, Part 2 - 
The Cubans
Reviewed by George Slade
Jack Beckham Combs The Cubans
PHOTOGRAPHS BY JACK BECKHAM COMBS. Foreword by Jennifer L. McCoy. Essay by Julia E. Sweig. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 2010. Hardbound. 192 pp., 160 color illustrations, 9-1/2x12".

In the mid- to late 1990s, I sensed that every ninth or tenth new photobook was another photographic exploration of, encounter with, or insight into the embargoed island of Cuba. By the early 2000s, not having gone to Cuba seemed to be a handicap, or at least very unusual, among the art-world people in the know. Like never having gone to New York.

One of the earliest books I think of when I cross "Cuba" and "photography" is The Crime of Cuba, Walker Evans' 1934 collaboration with journalist Carleton Beals. Yet, despite "31 aquatone illustrations from photographs by Walker Evans" (quoting the catalogue record), Crime doesn't rate a heading that includes the word "photograph." History, economic and social conditions, politics and government, foreign relations (United States) - all of these are mentioned among its subjects.

The Library of Congress does, however, provide 102 entries when the three words "Cuba," "pictorial," and "works" are entered as subject keywords. And 601 works under the heading "Cuba--Description and travel." Some of these pre-date Beals/Evans, including the 1898 published-in-Chicago classic, Picturesque Cuba and Our Navy. Perhaps the Library of Congress is still catching up to modern understandings of photograph as text.

The Cubans, by Jack Beckham Combs. Published by University Press Of Virginia, 2010.

The Cubans, by Jack Beckham Combs. Published by University Press Of Virginia, 2010.

To his credit, Jack Beckham Combs, a Santa-Fe-based ex-lawyer, has visited many locations outside of urban Cuba, including the area near Viñales, in Pinar del Rio province west of Havana, where Susan Bank worked over five years. Combs has ranged farther afield than Bank, and over a longer time frame (fifteen visits over eight years-does the State Department know about him?); the results are evident in his well-crafted, visual/literary ode to the people of "the violet isle" (a nickname derived from a poetic description of Cuba's dark soil, and the title of Alex and Rebecca Webb's recent co-portrayal of the country, reviewed this past February for photo-eye by Alex Sweetman). Combs is clearly fascinated with everyday Cuban life; his photographs are made almost as often inside-dance studios, nightclubs, homes, schools, decrepit theatres, cockfights, weddings-as in the open, though there is a sense that many of these views are enabled in part by openness in the Cuban built environment and the gregarious Cuban character. As Combs confesses at the end of his brief essay, "The Emerging Cubans,"

Most of the people portrayed in these photographs never knew their image was captured or, if they did, never gave it a second thought....Neither did I, until I saw that as a whole these photographs represent the millions of people of Cuba and the love, admiration, and respect I have for them.

The Cubans, by Jack Beckham Combs. Published by University Press Of Virginia, 2010.

It is possible, and perhaps Combs' book reflects this, to be broadly inclusive and shallow, in contrast to the narrow and deep quality Bank fabricates in her book. There is nothing to fault The Cubans for, and much to admire, but there is a general feeling to it of travelogue crossed with mash note.—George Slade

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George Slade, a longtime contributor to photo-eye, is the programs manager and curator at the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University. He continues to post content on his blog, re:photographica.