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photo-eye Book Reviews: Cuba, Sí, Part 3 - Cuba

Cuba,Photographs by Jeffery Milstein. 
Published by The Monacelli Press, 2010.

Cuba, Sí, Part 3 - Cuba
Reviewed by George Slade
Jeffery Milstein Cuba
The Monacelli Press, 2010. Hardbound. 128 pp., 80 color illustrations, 9x6".

The third and final book in this current Cuban trio is the most puzzling to me. Jeffrey Milstein's web site shows examples of the underbellies of airplanes, published in his first monograph, along with an intriguing set of photographs from India and other portfolios that reflect his training as an architect, in numerous views of idiosyncratic houses, and orderless pictures of scrap materials that posit a visual counterpoint to architecture's tight geometries. Milstein clearly draws inspiration from the melding of design and lives. A series on airplane "black box" flight recorders demonstrates that not only are they not black, but that these crucial instruments can display a moving vulnerability. They contain, in more detail than most people have of their last moments of life, very specific information about the circumstances leading to death. Like his airplanes, flipped over like a submissive dog baring its throat, there's a vulnerability to these otherwise purely mechanical contrivances.

Cuba, by Jeffrey Milstein. Published by The Monacelli Press, 2010.

Why, then, does Milstein's Cuba seem so lifeless? Or should I say Milstein's Cuba, because I think the book itself is more responsible than either the photographer or his subject, previously known to be extremely lively. There are people, mostly at a distance within these frames who seem grudgingly engaged in the portrait making. The atmosphere is dour, with or without people. Buildings are in a state of decrepitude that doesn't pass as benign neglect or picturesque decay. Made while wandering urban areas, including Havana, Trinidad, Santiago, and Camaguey, during visits in 2004 and 2005, these photographs feel squeezed into a book that is physically half the size of the other two mentioned above. The photographs also feel deprived of their graphic autonomy, their power of speaking as images, by a design that relies largely on full-page bleeds and insistent guttering of images on both sides of a spread, a casual design that is out of keeping with these thoughtful, subdued photographs. The reproductions suggest panoramic captures, significant vertical cropping, or diptychs; none of which were the photographer's original intentions.

Cuba, by Jeffrey Milstein. Published by The Monacelli Press, 2010.

Cuba, by Jeffrey Milstein. Published by The Monacelli Press, 2010.

In Cuba, Milstein's records of graffiti, including a spray-stenciled leopard with a red balloon heart tied to its tail juxtaposed by a "Nightmare Before Christmas" Carnival grotesquerie, carry the most vivid sense of vernacular life and Milstein's vision. At this compressed scale (trim size about six by eight inches), these two-dimensional cartoons animate this ill-constructed volume. I wish I could see all of the book's images larger, set off from their neighbors, and defined by margins. I'd guess (and hope) that Milstein shares that desire. Comparing his Cuba with those of Bank and Combs, an inferiority complex would be justified.

Each of the books in this trilogy reflects admiring, affirming attitudes about contemporary Cuba. None tells its story like any other; none is done by a Cuban, or with the heart and wit that a Tony Mendoza brings to his photographs (see his 1999 book Cuba: Going Back for a good example of an insider's view). But between the three, in that little imperfect triangle where their respective photobook circles overlap, there may be a kernel of Cuban truth. The more you look, the more a kind of veracity coalesces.—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.