On Walker Evans’ Havana Citizen, 1933

/ 1 December, 2018

On a spring morning in 1933, Walker Evans (1903-1975) strolled the streets of Havana with a camera in hand, “dressed in a lightweight suit, straw boater, and a pair of perfectly round glasses.”1 Around mid-day, given the light in the photograph, he shot one of the most iconic photos of his brief visit: Havana Citizen, which genesis and iconography I would like to explore.

Walker Evans acquired the theoretical framework for his future photographic vision in 1926-27 Paris reading French literature, particularly Charles Baudelaire (…); he became smitten by photography in New York City 1928-32; and matured his craft during a three weeks working visit to Havana. Early in 1933 he accepted an offer from the J. B. Lippincott publishing company to photograph life in Cuba under the dictatorship of President Gerardo Machado. The photos were for a polemical book, entitled The Crime of Cuba, by the leftist journalist Carleton Beals. (…)

Evans accepted Lippincott’s offer on his own terms. He made his intention clear from the beginning: “I am not illustrating a book, I’d like to just go down there and make some pictures but don’t tell me what to do.” The closest he came to show the violence in the streets under the repressive Machado dictatorship was to appropriate a few graphic photos from newspaper archives and include them in his final selection for the book. His own work in Havana consists of portraits, such as that of José Antonio Fernández de Castro (1887–1951), a Cuban journalist who was one of his main contacts and whose photo has been widely reproduced, but rarely identified. He also photographed cityscapes, sometimes reduced to a sign on a wall, a few landscapes, and for the most part people in the streets, like the print Havana Citizen. (…) He took some 400 photographs and published 31, which he chose and organized for Beals’ book.

Evans was highly conscious that he had arrived in Cuba at a time of political strife and street violence (…)

As usual at that time in his career, Evans was prone to strolling,being a fláneur, and taking multiple views of a scene in one encounter. One day (…) Evans walked under one of the many arcades that characterize the center of the city (Centro Habana) (…) he joined the crowd of people, took in the myriad of sights, sounds, and smells, actively discovering the place and looking for the subject of his next photograph (…), Havana Citizen, which is an early manifestation of Evans’ stealth and feel for stance, framing, and light, all in a moments notice.

The figure of the Afro-Cuban citizen projects a strong presence due to its classical contrapposto pose, the dramatic black and white contrast of skin and suit, the man’s impeccable dress down to the sparkling recently shined shoes, and the intimate yet distanced view of the subject, who is looking intensely and suspiciously in the general direction of the photographer, but not at him. This almost crossing of stares between the subject and Evans creates a certain psychological tension, which is one of the captivating aspects of the image.

Havana Citizen offers a compelling composition, a protagonist role for marginal Afro-Cubans, and a highly strikingimage of 1930s Havana street life. In the context of Evans’ work, Havana Citizen and for that matter his entire work in Cuba, contain many of the elements he wanted to achieve in his photographic exploration of the modern city. More broadly, the Cuban experience significantly furthered Evans’ spontaneous, cool, lyric free documentary style. It should be added that his neutral documentary style does not lack a point of view, which in the case of the Cuban photos ranges from social criticism to sensuality. Evans brief Cuban period laid the foundation for the style and content of his better known and influential later work.

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