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Book Review: Cuba

CubaPhotographs by Anderw More.
Damiani, 2012.
Reviewed by Karen Jenkins

Photographs by Andrew Moore.
Damiani, 2012. Hardbound. 128 pp., 68 color illustrations, 15-3/4x11-3/4".

It's hard to imagine a prevailing depiction of Cuban culture from without that does not hinge upon the idea of access. Closing off and opening up happen ideologically, geographically, architecturally there, and this notion provides the conceptual framework for American Andrew Moore's photographs of Cuba made over a fourteen year period. His new volume from Damiani is billed as a refined and expanded version of the 2002 book, Inside Havana that focused largely on interior views of domestic and semi-private spaces, with the occasional jaunt into the street. Throughout this ongoing series, Moore utilized traditional, highly formal pictorial techniques to establish the dual directionality of looking in and looking out. In image after image in this oversize book, a doorway, window or corridor establishes a metaphor of permission and refusal, intimacy and intrusion. Portraits play a secondary role here, but they too situate their subjects on thresholds, those in between places of gatekeeper and guest. Occasionally underscoring these overt tropes are more subtle demonstrations of admission and reception, such as an unmade bed or a mirror's reflections. This revised edition also sees Moore going outside, leaving the city and applying his schema to the verdant expanses of a different Cuban landscape.

Cuba, by Andrew Moore. Published by Damiani, 2012.
Cuba, by Andrew Moore. Published by Damiani, 2012.

Moore first visited Cuba in 1998 to photograph its stately, deteriorating theaters and the book opens and closes with images of such teatro in grandiose decay. His views of these modern ruins connect his work with a broader contemporary practice of photographing abandoned structures– those crumbling psychiatric hospitals, schools and prisons united by their often politicized, sometimes romanticized depictions. Moore strives to establish open-ended pictorial narratives in his work, and as a site of a community's collective storytelling, the theater is a natural conduit. In their degraded form, Moore ties these theater images to his views of other communal spaces that with the passage of time, obsolescence or neglect, have been repurposed and reoccupied by some other slice of Cuban society. No longer abandoned, their functionality is reimagined in ways both pedestrian and inspired, as the prevailing story evolves. The book's striking cover image shows the Teatro Campoamor in 1999, falling in on itself, now housing a fleet of bicycle taxis and motor bikes bathed in a lovely light that enters through a nearly absent roof.

Cuba, by Andrew Moore. Published by Damiani, 2012.
Cuba, by Andrew Moore. Published by Damiani, 2012.
In an accompanying essay, Joel Smith, curator of photography at the Morgan Library & Museum, uses the term "global photograph" to describe work like Moore's that satisfies a broad demand for images and information about places outside of a viewer's reach. Smith suggests given Cuba's literal and figurative insularity, it is marked by certain over-determined characterizations such as "world capital of revolutions gone rigid, flashpoint of America's hawkish paranoia and leftist romanticism [and] exiled land of exiles." Smith contends that Moore's work addresses these notions head on; enter eclectic architecture in decay and colorful mid-century American cars. Yet in viewing this book, I often wished for either more "information," such as the specificity of a photojournalist's extended caption, or for the opposite; that the images would more fully convey Moore's particular experience. Rather than a consistently artful collection of broad (open) strokes, I want a smaller, more subjective view; one that in its idiosyncratic expressions would provide the counterpoint to those clichés and tired narratives that Moore in his years of increasing insight and trust surely has in mind.—KAREN JENKINS

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KAREN JENKINS earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.