On view through Feb. 19
Gibbes Museum of Art
135 Meeting St.
Art After Dark: Meet Me in Havana
Wed. Jan 25, 5-8 p.m.
History is littered with the adventures of dynamic duos: Caesar and Mark Antony, Stanley and Livingstone, Patrick and Spongebob. But some team-ups are less well known. When a batch of Cuban photos were dug up from a storage room after Ernest Hemingway's death, no one was sure who'd snapped them. It was only after careful research that the photographer was revealed as Dustbowl-era documentarian Walker Evans.
As a Hemingway fan, Evans jumped at the chance to accompany the author to Cuba for a short time. Evans successfully captured the destitution and political unrest that gripped the country in 1933, with candid images of ramshackle buildings, homeless men sleeping on the streets, and civil unrest.
For an exhibition of black-and-white photos, Three Weeks in Cuba is surprisingly colorful, with Hemingway artifacts and documentation. Gibbes assistant curator Pam Wall and the original organizers at the Key West Museum of Art and History have gone all out to make the show accessible, and not just to regular visitors and literary buffs. There's an audio tour, a large 3D sim of one of Evan's photographs ("Citizen of Havana"), and a screening of the Hemingway adaptation A Farewell to Arms looping in the Rotunda (which actually makes a good little movie theatre). Evans eschewed every opportunity to take Papa's picture — he was no paparazzo — but did get a shot of a Cuban theatre showing Adios a las Armas.
Other than that, Evans' choice of subjects seems to have been influenced as much by his book assignment (for Crime in Cuba) as his traveling companion. The exhibition suggests that Hemingway drew from those subjects for some passages in To Have and Have Not. Certainly, the novel's gritty descriptive passages complement Evans' documentary style; none of his commissioned photos were posed.
That's the big contrast between these early examples of the photographer's work and his later, famous shots. Although he's known for his objective realism, his U.S. work is often carefully composed — "Floyd Burroughs' Work Shoes" is a good example, with the subject placed in the middle of the frame. The Cuban work is purposefully messy. In "Street Altercation with Policemen," a mounted cop is obscured by a car hood. The stall in "Havana Fruit Stand" is slightly off-center, with wares ready to tumble from the frame.
It's possible that Evans used a right-angle viewfinder to capture some of his on-the-fly images, and a working example of the apparatus has been set up to demonstrate the theory. While viewers look one way, they can see the "Citizen of Havana" display at another angle. In this manner, Evans could take sneaky pictures of subjects without disturbing them or incurring the wrath of local hoodlums and terrorists.
Then there are the faces, or lack of them. Havana is represented as a land of concealed emotions and shadowy figures. Many of the subjects have their backs to the camera, including the curious "Newsboys." One girl, looking from a "Tenement Window," has a furtive expression. It seems that by the time he began his work for the FSA to capture Depression-era America, Evans had either got over a bout of shyness or no longer wished to distance himself from his subjects.
Three Weeks in Cuba is part of a loose "exotic travel" theme at the Gibbes, encompassing Margaret Mee's paintings in The Flowering Amazon (which opened Jan. 13), Asian art and Leaving the Lowcountry: Charleston Renaissance Artists on the Road. Of them all, Cuba seems the most relevant to local patrons. Evans' images, with their palm trees and '30s architecture, evoke parts of Charleston — a first-floor Lowcountry photograph, "Strawberry Man c. 1930-32" by Doris Ulmann, would fit perfectly in the upstairs show, where an insightful look at Hemingway's world and Evans' formative work awaits.