Cuba 1999 – 2000:  Photography by Mario Algaze

Exhibition Dates:  October 18, 2012 – January 27, 2013  HELD OVER
Docent Tours:  Sundays at 2:00pm

Essay by Joanne Milani, FMoPA Board of Trustees

“I know how men in exile feed on dreams”  Aeschylus

Look, but don’t touch. Reach, but don’t grasp. Dream, but don’t wake up. That is how an exile feels about the homeland he cannot reclaim, and that is how Mario Algaze feels about Cuba.  Born in Cuba in 1947, he remembers a happy childhood in the well-to-do Art Deco Havana neighborhood of Miramar. He can recall “the smell of seaweed and saltwater washing on the rocks.”
It was a magical time. He remembers his mother taking him to the ballet, and he remembers seeing the Alec Guinness movie, Our Man in Havana being filmed on the streets of the city.  All this ended when he was 13 years old. That’s when he was brought to Miami by his parents. He was 52 years old before he was able to return.

Algaze, who now lives in Coral Gables and has been an American citizen since 1979, can’t forget how he felt as an uprooted adolescent – a stranger in a strange land.   “I was thrown into a vacuum of identity,” he recalled. “In Miami, my parents divorced. Although I came from a family filled with lawyers, law school was almost impossible for me since the money was not there.”

Two things in his life helped him reclaim his identity. The first was photography.   “I was 19 or 20 years old when I picked up the camera,” he said.  “I almost identified with the camera. It became my raison d’etre, my reason for being. I decided to cover concerts and the cultural revolution of the time. My first published photo was of Mick Jagger when I was 25.”

But after five successful years of photographing rock stars like Bruce Springsteen, B.B. King and Nina Simone for publications like Zoo World and The Village Voice, he found himself dissatisfied with photojournalism.  “This wasn’t for me,” said Algaze, who wanted to turn to fine art photography. “I felt I had to find myself.”
A 1974 trip to Mexico to photograph the painter Rufino Tamayo and the photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo was a turning point for him.  That trip was the second event that helped him reclaim his sense of self.  “Since I couldn’t visit my homeland, mi madre patria, Latin America became my godmother,” said Algaze. He spent years traversing Latin America with his camera, including four years living in Quito, Equador.

He couldn’t visit Cuba until 1999. That was when he received an invitation to attend a workshop put on by Casa de las Américas, a Cuban government organization. It was formed shortly after the 1959 revolution to promote the work of artists, writers and musicians in Latin America and elsewhere.  But just to visit Cuba wasn’t enough for Algaze. Before setting out, he insisted on a letter from the authorities allowing him to photograph anywhere on the country.  “Cuba is a closed state,” he said. “I needed that letter to photograph the entire island.” And photograph the entire island is what he did.

Aware that if he carried more than 40 rolls of film upon leaving the country, the Cuban authorities might think he was a spy, Algaze was careful not to take too many shots of his subjects. His strategy was previsualization: knowing exactly what the photo was going to look like as he snapped the shutter.  “To isolate means patience,” he said, “It means not to shoot whatever comes in front of the camera.”  In these remarkable photographs, he brings you a world that is suffocating in stillness.

In “Remedios Para el Pueblo (Remedies for the People), Cienfuegos,” a woman stands behind a bare counter. The pharmacy is well stocked with posters of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara – as if their images could cure the sick.  The counter reaches back into the store, its strong diagonal leading your gaze to the empty shelves lining the walls.  If you imagine yourself standing where the picture plane is, you notice that the counter keeps you at a distance from everything in the store: you see but you can‘t reach in.

That’s the feel of many of the images here: You feel you are on the outside looking in. In most cases, you are locked out, unable to touch any pulse of life.
Time has stopped. Clocks seem frozen at the dawn of the Castro era.  However, time, although suspended, is visible on the facades of the aging,  proud buildings – their beauty fashioned in another century. The architecture is monumental, their grace and scale overpowering the pedestrians.

Meanwhile, Cubans make their way in the streets as if trapped in a vacuum and crippled by forces beyond their control. Look at “Palo a Palo (Stick by Stick), Santiago de Cuba” and “Sientate y Espera (Sit and Wait) Ciego de Avila.”  Or they wait: for papers (“Por Libreta (For Passbooks) Santiago de Cuba,” for the trains (“Los Aretes que Faltan a la Luna (Earrings Missing the Moon) Sancti Spiritus“) or for anyone approaching (“Mira Quien Viene (Look Who’s Coming), Santiago de Cuba.”)

Algaze can bring you this world trapped in a time capsule, but he cannot bring you the world he left behind at age 13. Even if time seems to have come to a halt in these images, yet Algaze has those years between 13 and 52 gaping in front of him, forming a chasm between then and now.  If he can’t physically touch the past, yet he is able to orchestrate these symphonies of grays, these musical shades and tonalities, in the darkroom. He manipulates texture, grain, solidity and light when he does his own printing. That’s as close as he can come to touching the past – and bringing it to us.

“I use a 50-year-old Hasselblad and film, of course,” he said. “If they stop making film, I’ll slash my wrists,” he declared. “Or I’ll take up piano.”                     

FMoPA gratefully acknowledges our exhibition sponsors: