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?
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.