Walker Evans (1903-1975) began to photograph in the late 1920s, and during the Great Depression, when he photographed for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), documenting workers and architecture in the Southeastern states. In 1936 he traveled with the writer James Agee to illustrate an article on tenant farm families for Fortune magazine and the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men came out of this collaboration.
Walker Evans in Havana
In 1933, Walker Evans visited Cuba to take photographs for The Crime of Cuba, a book by the American journalist Carleton Beals, who wanted to expose the corruption under Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado. Walker Evans stayed one-month in Havana where he befriend Ernest Hemingway. According with The New York Times “Evans entrusted Hemingway with a trove of original prints to ensure they would not be confiscated by the authorities who were violently suppressing popular outrage against the dictator Gerardo Machado.”
How I relate to the book
My mother always remembered Machado’s presidential period as the worse in her life. Only the elite had money and goods, and corruption was in place. She was a little girl at the time, but the drama at home was huge because my grandfather lost his business and had to nock doors to sell rolls of linen to survive. Therefore, the family could not pay the rent with the profit he obtained, and he spoke with the owner of the building to leave before eviction. Fortunately, the owner told him “pay me whatever you can and live the property. I would not find another tenant for it”. They knew hunger at home. My mother ate so many garlic soup she could not have it in her all adult live. A little piece of bread with guava paste was all she received before school. She had only one dress my grandmother washed and hanged in a rope waiting for the very hot temperatures to dry it in less than one hour while mom wait.
1933 Havana landscape
Summer is always inclement in Havana, the City of the Columns, as it was called by Carpentier. The “architraved columnar arcades” carried functionality and elegance. They provided shelter to the people during the unavoidable walks. Besides, those columns harbored all kind of business activities, legal or not. It’s being like this since the 19e century until present times, the same buildings are still harboring the same characters.
“Stare. It is a way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.” Walker Evans
Choosing one picture to describe: Citizen in Downtown Havana
The atmosphere in this picture from the book is so Cuban I could recognize the place without any further information. First of all, Carteles was the Cuban version of People, and the kid who reads the newspaper is waiting for customers sitting in his own cleaning shoes chair. Secondly, I am not totally sure it is the Capitol across the street, but it could be a possible scenario. Besides, there is a Cuban flag placed near the magazines.
The man in white is standing in front of the camera aware of the photographer attention. Although he is giving the photographer the “hard look” that gang members know how to produce so well around the globe, he is not confronting him directly yet, in part because Evans is taking a blind shut from a very low perspective in order to be unnoticed.
My take on the photograph
I do not know is there is a largest anecdote behind this image that maybe it is not as casual as it seems to be. This man dressed in white could be a familiar character, a pimp or one of those Machado’s executioners the dictator used to get rid of his political opponents that later on were persecute and killed by the mob during the coup d’etat. Those killers liked to dress very neat and clean.
I can see a connection between Evans’ work made during the US grand depression for the Farm Security Administration, and this assignment in Cuba; both books relate in content and style as both countries were link by history and politics. Life and photographs belonged to the same reality, all were part of the drama produced by the terrible stock market crash of 1929