Cuba revisited

Michael Eastman’s “Red Couch — Havana”

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

After an eight-year interval, acclaimed photographic artist Michael Eastman returned from Cuba with another collection of visually stunning and emotionally evocative images that are now on display at the Duane Reed Gallery.

Eastman, a member of the St. Louis Jewish community, began his photographic career 30 years ago. His work has been published in the New York Times, Life and Time magazines (which featured his work on the cover four times).


With this show, Eastman confirms his status as one of the world’s most gifted photographers. “I waited eight years to return to Cuba,” Eastman said. “I was most concerned that I would repeat myself. I had been tempted to go back, but resisted it. It took me time to feel like I had become a better artist and could return to Cuba and make different photographs and maybe make better photographs.”

Eastman added that he believes that his entire Cuba corpus could form the basis for a book. “It is rare to find a place so completely frozen in time. I think more than anything this is what draws me back.”

Indeed, Cuba is “frozen in time,” largely as a result of the nearly complete embargo clamped on the island nation since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Visitors of Cuba are amazed to find vintage 1950s and 60s American Chevrolet and Ford automobiles that are kept going by a cadre of highly skilled Cuban garage mechanics. And the architecture of many of the private dwellings and public spaces in Cuba has remained “frozen in time” as well.

Viewing Eastman’s Cuba collection, one is again struck by his uncanny ability to photograph an entirely empty space, a hallway of a once elegant and now decaying building, and to draw the viewer into the space. One can almost feel the presence of the people who occupied the space either recently or in decades gone by.

Back in 2008, Eastman published “Vanishing America: The End of Main Street-Diners, Drive-Ins Donut Shops and Other Everyday Monuments” (Rizzoli, $49.95), which has some elements in common with his Cuba work. Eastman’s image are like the technique of highly-skilled realist painters of trompe l’oeil, which looks so real that it almost invites the viewer to touch, or to attempt to enter the image. A photograph entitled “Green Hallway, Havana, 2010,” shows a tile floor that could easily be mistaken for a carpet, quite similar to an image of a diner’s tile floor in ‘Vanishing America.’ Only Eastman can cause a cold, hard surface to look warm and comforting.

Of particular interest to Jewish viewers is the six-pointed star that appears prominently in the image titled “Yellow Room, Havana, 2010.” Eastman said, “It was quite a surprise to me to see the Star of David in this beautiful Moorish home in Havana. I do not think it was a synagogue. The layout was definitely that of a private home. As are many things in Cuba, it was difficult to learn the origin of this place. But it is this ambiguity that I find so intriguing. Not knowing is what leads to imagination both on the part of the viewer and the artist. And this imagination leads to narratives that are at the heart of my work.”

He adds that he had tried to contact “Carlos, the gentleman who introduced this place to me as ‘The Jewish House.’ But as with much of my communication with Cuba, I never received a response.”

Jews who have visited the Jewish sites in Cuba will be reminded by Eastman’s image of the long-time presence of Jews on the island nation. Many European Jews escaped the Holocaust by fleeing to Cuba, although the Jewish passengers aboard the ill-fated St. Louis were not permitted to land there or in Miami in 1939. When Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba in 1959, there were about 25,000 Jews living in Cuba. Many of them left the island, mostly to settle in Miami, not because of discrimination, but because most were middle- class merchant families who could not earn a living in a Communist economy. Castro and his brother Raul, now President of Cuba, have for the most part protected the Jewish community and have allowed U.S. and Canadian Jewish groups to provide assistance to the 2,000 who remain there.

Eastman has honed his technique over the years so he can achieve the enveloping, haunting realism of his images. Asked if it takes him a lot of time to decide where to place his camera, he explained, “I almost immediately know where I want to place the camera and then I might move it up or down a few inches or left or right. By moving the camera ever so slightly, the objects in front of the camera change in relation to other objects in interesting and surprising ways. But there is one place that seems best. I tend to photograph directly and find myself feeling awkward and it feels forced when I move the camera to an oblique angle to the subject.”

Another striking image among the Cuba photographs is that of the “Flat Iron Building, Havana,” quite similar to the iconic, Art Deco era Flat Iron Building in New York City. In contrast to the New York’s Flat Iron Building, the one in Havana is not hemmed in by other tall, Manhattan buildings. Therefore, the image of the building can “breathe” and stand on its own. One is also reminded of a straightened out version of the Tower of Pisa with this image.

Quotidian objects, such as chairs, desks, pianos, couches and sewing machines also attract Eastman’s artistic eye. Among the photographs featuring such objects in the Cuba exhibit are “Red Piano,” “Rocking Chair” and “Red Couch, Havana.” In the latter image, the “Red Couch” vividly stands out in its drab, fading surroundings, almost like a still-beating red heart showing through an ashen and aging body.

A building facade shot, titled “Havana, 2010,” shows a cheerful green building exterior with hanging white laundry on one of its balconies. This sweet, evocative image contrasts with the architecturally impressive “Moorish Columns, Havana,” and “Moorish Facade, Havana.” Moving to inside spaces, Eastman captures in “Hollywood Theatre” a Havana cinema where one can almost hear the sound of the film projector, and “Deco Stairwell, Havana,” which invites the viewer to climb to the top to see what lies beyond the empty scene.

Looking back on his most recent trip to Cuba, Eastman reflects, “The conventional wisdom is that one can not go back, but it was nice to be able to revisit a subject with a fresh approach and learn that art is something that gives the artist the potential to continue to grow and learn and create more. I am indeed fortunate.”

Michael Eastman-Cuba 2010

When: 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday through Jan. 29

Where: Duane Reed Gallery, 4729 McPherson Ave., St. Louis

How much: Free