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Question of the Week: Do Americans See the World through a Distorted Lens?

Initially designating himself an “ignorant American,” photographer Alex Harris went to Cuba in 1998, camera in tow, without preconceived notions. He simply wondered what photography could tell him about this neighboring country that he, along with so many other Americans, knew little about.

At first, Harris saw Cuba through his American viewpoint. Due to the trade embargo of 1962, which halted all trade relations between Cuba and the rest of the world, the cars on Havana streets are not the newest hybrids and Hummers, but rehabbed 1950s Pontiacs and Plymouths. These clunky vehicles set against the crumbling architecture give the urban landscape a strange sense of time: of being stuck in time, or perhaps in a time warp.

What better way to visualize this experience than by shooting a view of an Old Havana street from behind the windshield of a 1951 Plymouth, literally looking at Cuban reality through an American viewpoint?

<em>Sol and Cuba, Old Havana, Looking North from Alberto Roja's 1951 Plymouth, Havana</em>, Alex Harris, negative, May 23, 1998; print, December 2007. Chromogenic print, 30 1/8 x 37 3/4 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2010.90.3. Gift of Michael and Jane Wilson, Wilson Centre for Photography © Alex Harris

Sol and Cuba, Old Havana, Looking North from Alberto Roja's 1951 Plymouth, Havana, Alex Harris, negative, May 23, 1998; print, December 2007. Chromogenic print, 30 1/8 x 37 3/4 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2010.90.3. Gift of Michael and Jane Wilson, Wilson Centre for Photography © Alex Harris

Harris felt pity for the Cuban people and their poor living conditions. But after spending more time in the country, and the cars, he realized that Cubans’ ingenuity and resourcefulness—completely overhauling these 50- to 60-year-old contraptions and setting them in working order—was not a state to be pitied, but admired.

Harris created his series of photographs through American car windshields on the first of his three trips to Cuba. Later he was able to traverse the country on his own, without the help of a guide or interpreter. The succeeding photographs—on view with his car series in the exhibition A Revolutionary Project: Cuba from Walker Evans to Now—demonstrate his growing intimacy with the culture.

Eventually, Harris conceded that images cannot capture the nuance of any person, place, or culture. In the epigraph to his book of photographs, The Idea of Cuba, Harris quotes revolutionary leader and Cuban hero José Martí:

Who could photograph a thought

as a horse is photographed at full gallop
or a bird in flight?

What do you think: Do Americans—do all of us—see the world through a distorted lens? Can art help us see the world more clearly? Or is the world too complex to be captured in an image?

Question of the Week is a series inspired by our Masterpiece of the Week tours. Featuring an open and upbeat discussion among visitors and gallery teachers, the tours feature a new object and pose a new question each week. Harris’s Sol and Cuba, Old Havana is the object for the week of July 18, 2011.

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  1. Anna
    Posted July 22, 2011 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Absolutely. We all see the world, each other, and ourselves through a lens shaped by our own upbringing, preferences, and social and cultural frame. That’s the human condition. To me, Harris’s car photos capture this perfectly — not only do they show us slices of the world through the lens of an American consumer product, but they create a sense of being cramped in, encased in the tomb of our perceptions. Really enjoyed this analysis.

  2. Posted July 22, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your comment, Anna. I liked your concise analysis of the small scope of the human condition as well.

    I hope everyone will come see the show in person. Taken with the rest of the body of work, it is inspiring to see that eventually, Harris outgrows that limited viewpoint through the American windshield to encompass the beautiful landscape, heroes, people and culture of Cuba.

  3. Posted July 22, 2011 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    I love the idea of framing the scenes through the windshield of a 50s American car. Brilliant. These old cars are so tied to the American fantasy of modern Cuba.

  4. Jennifer S. Li
    Posted July 22, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Hi DCScorpiongirl. Thanks for your comment. I’m glad the photograph speaks to you. Your comment reminds me of my longing to see Cuba firsthand. Another gallery teacher, Nancy Real, was able to visit Cuba a couple weeks ago for vacation. I’m looking forward to reviewing her vacation shots to see what it looks like through the eyes of an American tourist.

  5. Posted July 22, 2011 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    I would so love to see Cuba with my own eyes! Until then…

  6. susan o
    Posted July 23, 2011 at 1:39 am | Permalink

    Complexity is of one’s own mind. I am a music nut and feel that those who do not have music in their lives aren’t complete. Artistic people are usually dubbed ‘odd’ by society. I like to look at the simplest aspects of life and find something wonderful. If you open your eyes, mind and heart the world is one big canvas. Unfortunately I believe Americans are too busy to enjoy the beautiful things in life that are all around them. I plan on visiting your museum on my vacation next year. I honestly can’t wait to take in the views of the grounds.

    ~Stop and smell the roses…but take time to admire the weeds.

  7. gogirl
    Posted July 25, 2011 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Art gives us a perspective that is international and beyond linear time. It often reflects its historical context and the issues of the day, yet from a very personal perspective. In this way, art always communicates self to self: to the part of us that is universal yet interconnected. In this way, art makes us global citizens, and is at its best an antidote to all nationalisms or dogmas, including our Americanism.

  8. gogirl
    Posted July 25, 2011 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    And i can’t wait to enjoy this show! I also love those old cars and think the whole concept is lushly sexy!

  9. Posted August 24, 2011 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    That’s incredible, I went to Cuba last year and photographed the same street as is being shown in your picture above. The lighting was a lot more subdued but loved the sense of atmosphere that I captured. Very interesting piece, thank you. And yes, Americans do look at the world through a distorted lens :)

  10. Paulo Brazil
    Posted November 20, 2011 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Yes, you do. For instance: there is all this obssesion with Fidel Castro and Chavez… Well: Cuba and Venezuela are the SMALLEST COUNTRIES, SMALLEST ECONOMIES of Latin America. Can you imagine that there is 99% of Latin America that you have never seen in your biased media?

  11. Posted May 15, 2012 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    Here are some photos that I’ve taken to help people understand a little of what it is like in Cuba..

    Groups of photos from the cars, the streets, the buildings, the people and more… It can give you a better idea but still you probably won’t understand what they are “thinking” as Jose Marti suggested.

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