Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Mario Algaze: Cuba 1999-2000 @ Florida Museum of Photographic Arts

Cuba, particularly Havana, is one of the eyes of the needle for photographers. So many, from rank amateurs to very famous pros, have visited the place that it is as hard to make a standout series of photographs there as it is in Disney World or The Grand Canyon. 

Mario Algaze was born in Cuba in 1947. In 1960 at the age of thirteen, he left, but never forgot his native land. He taught himself photography and became a successful editorial photographer for Zoo World and Vanidades. He photographed rock stars, writers and celebrities, while reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Graham Greene, Paul Theroux, and, from the early 1960s onward, watching
films by Fran├žois Truffaut, Carol Reed, and Vittorio de Sicain between. He wanted to return to Cuba but could not, and traveled photographing in South America.

Thirty-nine years after his exile, he was able to return to Cuba. Algaze, now a grown man was confronting his memories and a very different and Communist Cuba with a well-worn Hasselblad and film.

This is not an innocent's vision of an exotic, beautiful and foreign place. It is a fully formed and informed vision, a highly individuated one of an exile who can't go home again, even if he can return. That estranged familiarity, concern for his fellow Cubans, and politics are palpable in the work.

Amanecer en Matanzas
Mario Algaze, "Amanecer en Matanzas"

On top of the aforementioned concerns, Algaze has a sophisticated, highly developed sense of light and composition. In "Amanecer en Matanzas" (Dawn in Matanzas) these aspects of his talent come to the fore. The dappled light cast by trees like multiple gnomons across the face of a sundial, upon two old buildings is legible as poetry, like a narrative about time. Note the modernist planes of the buildings and road, how they simultaneously diverge and come together, depending on how the viewer reads the picture, like a horizontal letter "V".  Then we see a small figure, a man on a bicycle, riding toward us. De Chirico might have done this composition if he had been a photographer.

Mario Algaze, "Por libreta"

These photographs are all done in the square format, using an old Hasselblad and medium-format film. At the time these pictures were made, one could only take 40 rolls of film into the country, meaning the artist had to be frugal. Each roll can only be a maximum of 24 exposures.

In "Por Libreta", we see four men standing, waiting. They are bathed in beautiful angled window light. The upper compartment of that light cast on the wall looks like a cross the men are bearing. This, like many of Algaze's images has a strong political element. The men are waiting to buy food -- by the Libreta de Abastecimientos -- a rationing book that limits what they can have. It is a Communist convention, and it should be said citizens pay about 12% of the real cost of the food.

Work by Mario Algaze.
Work by Mario Algaze
Algaze's Cuba is a ghostly island, sparsely populated. The few people visible are waiting like characters in an existential play. Waiting for food, the bus, a roof to be fixed, in line for something, for Fidel to die, Communism to go away, or the US embargo to end. On the left, we have "Haciendo Cola" (Making a line) and on the right, "Paradero de Guagua" (Bus stop).

There is a photograph of a pastoral plain with some hills in the background. It looks like a beautiful but otherwise innocuous landscape until one reads the title: "Sierra Maestra" . It is the location from which Fidel began the Cuban Revolution. To a lot of viewers unaware of Cuban history and politics, the pictures are merely beautiful, lyrically lit and composed, but there is a lot more here.

Congratulations to Mario Algaze and FMoPA for a very good show.

Through Jan. 6th, at FMoPA.

Museum Location

The Cube at Rivergate Plaza
400 N. Ashley Drive
Cube 200
Tampa, Florida 33602


Tuesday – Thursday 10:00 am – 5:00 pm
Friday 10:00 am – 8:00 pm
Saturday 10:00 am – 5:00 pm
Sunday 12:00 pm – 5:00 pm


FREE for Museum Members
$10 Suggested Donation
$8 Students/Military

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