Book Review: Cuba by Elliott Erwitt
Written by Miabelle Salzano
Witness the shocking transformation, or lack thereof, of Cuba from their “glow” period in 1964 to present day in Elliot Erwitt’s Cuba. Literary critic and historian, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. writes the introductory essay entitled, “Seeing Cuba” in which he talks about Erwitt’s uncanny ability to capture the essence of a place through still images, each layered with a thin film of ironic humor making it iconically Erwitt. Through these photographs we get to see Cuba as it truly exists, stripped of any American preconceptions.
Part 1, photographed in 1964 while Erwitt stayed in Cuba as a guest of Fidel Castro, highlights the joy of hope on the horizon the people of Cuba once held. It’s surprising to see a careful side of Fidel Castro since we’ve been out of contact with Cuba for decades due to his political antics. We often forget that there was more to him than that. With these photographs we see him smoking cigars with friends, holding babies, petting cattle and interacting with the people of Cuba who receive him with joy and wonder. We also see the people working or happily attending school dressed in new, clean clothes fashionable for 1964.
Part 2 is a stark contrast to Part 1, shot in 2015-2016, where almost everything is opposite while at the same time remaining the same. The mood of the people is no longer joyous and hopeful and the clothes aren’t new or clean. It’s as though Cuba has been stuck waiting for a moment that never came, living in perpetual anticipation of a change, social and technological, that is definitely coming the day after tomorrow. The photographs do not convey the romantic 1950s movie set ideal that we may imagine it to, but instead the hopelessness and hardship that comes with living in a stagnant society. Gates, Jr. states that he has had many Cuban friends “who can scarcely hide their outrage at American tourists smitten with the magic of the island.” Erwitt is sure to exclude any sensual tropes of primitivism we may believe and show us instead the ugliness of what it’s really like to live 50 years behind the rest of the world.
The ironic humor that makes these photographs iconically “Erwitt” lies in this contrast; in the hopefulness for the revolution and the failure that inevitably came. It’s a depressing joke that makes us think about the role we’ve played, as foreign countries, in the deterioration of Cuba’s economy. Elliot Erwitt has once again perfectly documented the essence of his subject in Cuba, raising awareness about what the people are going through.
Order a copy of Cuba here.