My second day in Havana, I was invited to a party by a wonderful Brit I’d met the previous night at another artist’s house. It’s one a.m. A modern-style 1950’s oceanfront; waves are crashing over the seawall; a roaring crowd of 200 people is dancing between the ocean spray and a turquoise pool in 90-degree heat to the music of Kelvis Ochoa and his band. These aren’t fat woman smoking cigars for tourists. These people glow, savor everything and never stop dancing. They’re beautiful in all definitions of the word and this is them in their element.
So this was where the idea really embedded and began to mature – in the steamy midst of this merrymaking and around this group of 20-or-so; what the Cubans call a farandula, an elite clique of well-connected, accomplished and comely friends. This is what it meant in the foreword to the book when it says, “a model dates a photographer who is friends with a musician whose song is chosen by a director for a film with an actor who admires the work of an artist who uses the model for a model.” That’s how they work.
I was lucky enough to fall into – and be embraced by – a phenomenon unique to Cuba. The mischief, the elegance, the privilege – and even the irony. It made the perfect subject.
But once we started familiarizing ourselves with one another and working together, the circle warmed up and started speaking to me like I was another artist in the fold. I think it helped that I made it clear from the outset that I had no intention of using my photography as third-party reportage or some “third world” voyeuristic documentary. National Geographic can do that. I was there to borrow the scene’s vibrancy and point up semblances of what I saw as a small, remarkable group in the belly of a large, misrepresented society.
WHITEWALL: When you cover these sorts of social groups do you begin to establish relationships with those in them? Do you ever maintain contact with these people after your project has ended?
MICHAEL DWECK:That’s a good question. I’m hyper-curious about people in general. I think a photograph has to reflect that about its photographer to feel sincere or expressive. A good photo doesn’t just answer the question “what do you look like?” or “what are you wearing?” but also, “who are you?” “What are your passions?” “How do you survive, succeed?” That interest in those second answers helps me disarm people in a way and, I think, allows me to go further in terms of concept and execution.
This was a huge advantage in Cuba where, like I said, I was initially greeted with some doubt and skepticism, not only by the government, but the people. Then you have my work, which leans thematically toward the seductive and revealing, which requires more trust, more amity to thrive.
When I see certain sparks or suggestions in a subject, little wild child-like glints, and I can lock that down in a photograph it creates indescribable bonds. Not only did I bond with these people as a fellow artist, but I won a lifetime of familiarity from taking their picture. So, yeah, there will always be subjects who I remain in contact with.
Rachel Valdez – the painter featured on the cover of Habana Libre – is a good example. She and I still write or speak at least twice a week and plan to collaborate on an upcoming project in Paris.
WHITEWALL: What was your experience like in photographing the sons of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara? Did you feel any sort of pressure given that this was the first time they had been photographed in this way?
MICHAEL DWECK:I find portraits work best if I don’t have a specific intention of what I’m hoping to achieve. Seeing as how both Camilo [Guevera] and Alex [Castro] are photographers, we had that base of understanding and got along quite well. Camilo and I actually lived in the same building in Havana. We shared samples with each other and spent a lot of time talking about the life of an artist in Cuba – and the US. Every time I got together with either of them, it was like a freewheeling photographic jam session – and these are men who’ve never before been photographed or interviewed by anyone.
Remember, these are literally the sons of revolution and now, as artists, they’re putting their own spin on the word; what it means to rebel. I know Alex has been reinterpreting the work of 19th century Spanish master painters and Camilo has a series of portraits that explore subjects banned and/or taboo in Cuba. One of his photos – a pair of female lovers – was considered illegal in Cuba until recently.
You have to remember that Fidel is a patron and sponsor of the arts, but artists will be artists. So the Cuban creative maintains a duplicitous position in his or her representation of the island. There’s a very curious push-and-pull to observe between endorsing talent and controlling its message.
WHITEWALL: These sort of creative groups exist in other countries as well, what was unique about these particular artists given that they have grown up in such a fundamentally different society?
MICHAEL DWECK:Well, for starters, you have a group of artists I just mentioned who aren’t really allowed to create anything that could be interpreted as critical, overtly or otherwise, of their government. And, simultaneously, they maintain certain places of privilege in a so-called underprivileged country. So what this breeds is a very tight-knit, even insular, group that’s extra-societal in one sense and the very epitome of that same society in another.
They collaborate and celebrate like they’re players in a Parisian salon in the 1930’s, but are also wired as artists to subtly provoke and defy like the same salon that was in Franco’s Barcelona. Cubans in general juggle that duality – defiant and humble, tightly-controlled and indefinitely resilient. Their artists are no different. They just have more money. They have parties. They can travel freely. But wouldn’t you know it – they always come back home.
I asked one painter why she returned to Cuba after a recent visit to Europe.
Her answer; “If all artists left Cuba, there would be no Cuba.”
WHITEWALL: What is different about this project compared to some of your other series such as The End: Montauk, N.Y.?
MICHAEL DWECK:All of the implied subtext – seduction, isolation, the individual’s interpretation of freedom – was intended to be common. I call “Habana Libre” the final installation in my trilogy about island life. (“Montauk…” and “Mermaids” being the predecessors.) And when I frame this in terms of a trilogy, it is, like it sounds, informed by film.
I thought quite a bit about cinema when making the books – Havana in particular. I mulled over David Lynch’s aesthetics in “Blue Velvet” or “Wild at Heart,” the contemporary neo-noir sensations of “Body Heat” or Billy Wilder's “Double Indemnity.”
If you allow yourself to conceptualize the breakdown of a photograph as an individual frame of some missing motion picture – one millisecond captured from a larger narrative – you can start to move beyond what might be seen as a static and limiting impression of the medium which might make a black-and-white photo seem dormant or dead. Yes, these photos are frozen in that they’re of the past and remove a colorful dimension from real space, but therein lies the seduction and the life.
I don’t know if there really are any other books that present themselves like this – maybe the fantastical “Cowboy Kate” from the 60's. I conceptualized “Montauk” with a mix of nostalgic fantasy and a real bygone youthfulness, and “Mermaids” wore its impressionistic abstractions on its sleeve, but “Habana Libre” is unique in that its entire expression and narrative is terrestrial.
We’re dealing with people living buoyant, cinematic lives and I want the audience to share in that, feed on it. A single photo won’t borrow all the corners of that cube and give it away in two dimensions. But I think a book like this that doesn’t treat itself like “just a photobook” and whose images and narratives refuse to treat their subjects like “subjects” can go further in making its points, whatever island they may reference.
It’s also interesting to note how much has changed even since these photos were taken in 2009. Last month, the Cuban government issued more than 85,000 licenses for private businesses. Obama recently relaxed the rules about Cuban-Americans sending money home to family members. Cubans can now sell their homes. The island is changing and I’m glad I was able to put this together when I did, right on the eve of what may prove to usher in a sea-change.
WHITEWALL: How is the process for putting a book like this together different than an exhibition? When do you know you have enough photographs and can stop the process?
MICHAEL DWECK:I am not very good at stopping the process. I let it stop me in a sense. If you ask anyone that I’ve photographed they’ll tell you that when I say “this is the last roll,” we inevitably keep going until the film runs out. It’s the only way I know how to work – let your excitement go until you run out material – or you subject calls it quits.
I went to Cuba eight times and shot more than 500 rolls of film over a period of 14 months. William Westbrook, who wrote the book's passages, came along for almost every trip and conducted hours and hours of interviews. So we came home with an overwhelming amount of material and, to make it more taxing, was intent on making it stream into a narrative.
WHITEWALL: Do you have a method for narrating through images for a project like this?
MICHAEL DWECK:Narratives are the most difficult photographic books to do because they need to work on many levels. Each photograph needs to be strong on its own. Spreads with side-by-side shots need to exhibit a certain symbiosis. Then all the images need to develop together into something complete and linear, again, like a film.
The editing, all said, took more than three months: My editor Jupiter Jones and I went though all of the contact sheets and pulled the strongest images – not just the best shots, but the most relevant. We had about 500 at that point and started to organize them by scene and spread them out onto tables throughout the studio like a three-dimensional storyboard. You walk through and think about flow, about pacing, about visual rhythm, about arc. We needed to connect the dots, so to speak, and make sure the sequence fit the story we wanted to tell.
Editing something like this for an exhibition was more difficult. I wanted the book to stand alone as a work of art and not be a thinly-veiled catalog for the exhibition. Each selection had to be carefully chosen for the hanging to maintain its thematic thread.
For the San Francisco exhibition at Modernism, owner Martin Muller and I each spent two weeks making separate selects and then swapped lists. We then spent a couple more days with each other’s selects and made the final order. It was a lengthy process.
WHITEWALL: What challenges did you come across when photographing this series?
MICHAEL DWECK:I mentioned the challenge of access, getting into these tight circles and gaining trust. But even getting into the position to do so, getting into the country, had its own roll of logistical and practical hang-ups.
Preparation for each trip took at the very least a month to plan. I’m not fluent in Spanish and my writer Westbrook doesn't speak any, so I had to work things out with my on-ground translator (who unfortunately didn’t speak great English. Lucky, my wife Cecilia is Argentine and helped out with a lot of the transcription when I got home.) I had to get financial situation in order since Americans don’t have access to ATM’s or credit cards. Shooting both daytime events and nightlife kept me literally working around the clock. A day that started at 6 a.m. and ended at 3 a.m. wasn’t unusual.
Then there are the bureaucratic dances – getting approvals down the line and the endless meetings with government official and cultural ministers, arranging for letters of support from Cuban artists and museum curators. It’s not like flying into Mexico and going through customs. We were functionally knocking on Cuba’s door wearing the colors of the enemy and carrying 100 pounds of photography equipment.
All said, the government was surprisingly welcoming and accommodating. I’ve even been invited back for an exhibition at Fototeca in February. If that proposal passes a governmental review, it will be one of the first solo exhibitions for a contemporary American artist at that museum since the revolution.
WHITEWALL: Were you faced with people who didn't want this side of Cuba revealed?
MICHAEL DWECK:This is a peak at a face of Cuba never before photographed, never reported in Western media, never acknowledged openly within Cuba itself. Still, everyone we met – including the sons of Fidel and Che – were welcoming and spoke openly.
It will be interesting to see if the book itself receives the same reception in Cuba that I did. I know there have been grumbling from Cuban-American ex-patriots who feel the images misrepresent the larger society, though it seems they’re missing the narrative’s intention and focus.
Of course I also expect there to be those on the island who balk at some of implied irony in the juxtaposition between the life of these artists and that of the farmers and even neurosurgeons who live on the equivalent of approximately $16 a month.
My replies to those criticisms are in the book. This is a self-justifying medium. You can’t argue with a photograph.
WHITEWALL: They’re are all meaningful in their own way, not so much for what they might represent in the context of the full work – whether that’s the social commentary or allegorical angle – but for the subjects themselves. These are photographs of artists living easy in a place where it’s not easy to be an artist – or to live easy in general. Each shot, for me, revisits some of that complexity.
There’s also the presence of a reawakening, personally, when I review the photos. I reencounter the sensuality of the island; I hear the music of Chucho Valdez, Celia Cruz, Ibrahim Ferrer. For all its shortcomings, the country Kennedy once called an “unhappy island,” overruns with visceral joy and beauty.
WHITEWALL: Are there any photos that have an interesting anecdote that you could share?
MICHAEL DWECK:I was thinking the other day that if I had the opportunity to do the book again I think I’d include anecdotes for a portion of the photographs. Just to share some of the backgrounds that enforce – or belie – certain shots.
I was thinking the other day that if I had the opportunity to do the book again I think I’d include anecdotes for a portion of the photographs. Just to share some of the backgrounds that enforce – or belie – certain shots.
The cover photo of Rachel and Gisele for one. Rachel, the painter I mentioned earlier; she just understands how to project herself in a photograph and the effects are mesmerizing. She doesn’t exude optimism and sensuality so much as she shares it. It defines a lot of what I felt about Cuba.
In another picture, one of a couple in the elevator, there’s a fundamental of island life that deserves caption. There are elevators in all these buildings where families have lived for generations and they’re always breaking down. So, if you want intimacy, you meet your lover in an alleyway or in an elevator—preferably in one that’s broken.
The photographs I made at the Tropicana come to mind too. The performers appear obsessed with games of sex, but they’re really obsessed with the game itself. It’s a pastime of signs and flirtatious signals both overt and subtle. It’s like burlesque, it take seduction to the limit without taking it overboard. I see the suggestiveness of it as a challenge. If I can freeze that moment and still make the audience feel that suggestion, I know I’m doing something right.
WHITEWALL: What are you working on currently?
MICHAEL DWECK:The “island life” trilogy, even the themes, locked so much of my attention that it’s almost a vacation to move on to some of the other things I’ve conceptualized, but couldn’t pursue.
I’m starting work on a project in Europe that will be pretty large in scope and scale. Think multimedia, where “media” can mean painting and sculpture as well as photography, film and audio.
I don’t want to give too much away, but it should be fun.