Sunday, August 3, 2008

Three books by Ernesto Bazan

The first issue of Doubletake magazine from the Center for Documentary Studies at DukeUniversity featured a suite of photographs by Ernesto Bazan made in Cuba in the early 1990s. At the time I was impressed by what I saw as energetic and smart street work made even more seductive by my increasing interest in the world that exists outside of the United States. Photographers like Gilles Peress, Carl DeKeyzer and Larry Towell (with whom Bazan has a lot in common photographically) were increasingly on my radar. Dekeyzer's Homo Sovieticus and Towell's El Salvador were two in particular that I spent a good deal of time with and I found a common denominator with the few images of Bazan's that kept him on my list of photographers to keep an eye out for.

A few years later while in Paris, I found a copy of Passing Through for the equivalent of around 4 US dollars. Passing Through was published by Peliti Associati in 1992 and as the title suggests, the book is a collection of Bazan's photographs made in many locations. New York, Mexico, Cambodia, Pakistan, Haiti, Turkey, India, China, Tunisia, Japan, and Bazan's own Palermo. The locations and people are described in his signature grainy black and white style that embraces blur and unsharpness. The best of which handle the elements with a grace and lyricism - the unsuccessful seem forced and exhausted by all of their energy spent on cliché.

Although I like the collection, it does, like many books structured in similar ways, suffer from the randomness that comes with a "greatest hits" assemblage. The randomness is minimized by the title, Passing Through, which conveniently gives reason for the continent skipping where one page we are in Haiti and the next, a place called Shiprock in the United States.

What I like about the book beyond many of the photos is the size and sequencing of the images which lends to a graceful flow. The design handles the photos by running most of them across the gutter. Thankfully the designer has shifted the pictures left and right depending on where the division would land and the binding allows the book to sit flat when opened so the gutter becomes less of a distraction.

I haven’t seen listings for Passing Through on ABE or Amazon but there are listings in France through the FNAC chain of stores although for a rather inflated price of 32 euros.

In 2004, the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America at Columbia University held a small show of large-scale digital prints by Bazan called Italiani d'America. These photographs are from Bazan's earliest extended project photographing the Italian American community in New York. Accompanying the show, a small catalog was published containing ten black and white photographs.

This show and catalog contains the best of the images from this extended project and one aspect that is more noticeable here than in Passing Through is a tendency towards heavy handedness in Bazan's printing. He or his printer excessively dodge and burn while manipulating the prints and the result is an unevenness that shows the printer's hand (so to speak). People's faces are dodged almost pale white while the surrounding tonalities sink into pits of black. This kind of manipulation is common to photographers like Christina Garcia Rodero and Sebastio Salgado who insist on unnatural looking darkening of skies where printer's "halos" appear around the figures. For me this always removes me from the photograph and gives more attention to the process which, as a professional printer myself, is simply poor technique.

This catalog was not for sale but given away free at the show. The ten photographs are printed on long sheets of card stock which are assembled as an accordion fold. This accordion folded horizontal booklet is housed in an outer folder of tan cardstock with printed titles that adds elegance to the whole package.

Bazan's latest book is the self published BazanCuba. Where Passing Through was of a photographer on a stop and go tour of the world, Cuba is Bazan settling into 14 years of life on the island of Fidel and the embargo.

In 1992 Bazan first visited Cuba on a package tour entering through Mexico and return visits would eventually lead to his finding a wife and starting a family there. His afternoons of photographing and teaching photography workshops would draw him to discover the streets and people of the island that probably could have only been obtained through vast amount of patience and persistence. The result is 118 photographs in this thick, one foot square book.

Cuba, like India, has stood as a rite of passage for many documentary photographers although most choose color as their descriptive choice - Cuba's light is strong and color saturated. Bazan however has gone to the opposite extreme. His photographs are devoid of light and his dark grey-scale tones reduce the natural color scheme down to dense blacks and white that, at its brightest, is rendered chalky grey. His choice of amplifying dark tonalities turns the island into a phantasmagoria of weathered characters and worn buildings where any stray highlight seems hard pressed to stay unsmudged.

In one, a man carries a clear glass bottle of water on his shoulder that traps the image of decrepit buildings across the square like a ship in a bottle - a visual treat set amongst ruin. In another, a man carries on his head a pig on a platter while three young girls, one with a hoola-hoop play in the background. Others have Bazan's camera weaving through the streets and upon unspecified ritual that seem trapped in the dark corners of a cellar. Figures emerge from the black and the density of tone is in stark contrast Bazan's apparent enthusiasm for the place - perhaps metaphor for the inability to break the human spirit and perseverance during the "special period," Fidel's euphemism for the embargo. This is his Cuba, Bazan's Cuba. A fiction posing as a documentary that tells us we should love what we are seeing as he obviously does.

Like Passing Through, in the best pictures, metaphors are strong and the photographs interesting beyond their visual energy and in the worst, he drags us through the same tired clichés that immediately come to mind when we think of Cuba. Do we really need another low angle photo of a bunch of men playing dominoes? Or an old woman smoking an over-sized cigar? Or a portrait of a guy holding floppy tobacco leaves? Thankfully he somehow avoided including sugar cane cutters.

Bazan seems to experiment with lenses wider than the 28mm and the results splay the perspectives which almost always contain someone looming into the frame at an absurdly close distance. These have so much distortion and attention getting manner of the lens that it leaves me further from the subject. Those photos seem to be about less the subject and more about the photographer proving levels of comfort with the subjects. I have had a problem in the past with some of Eugene Richards’s mannerisms and in Bazan I would point to the same thing.

BazanCuba was self-published by Ernesto's new book publishing arm called Bazan Photos Publishing out of Brooklyn, NY and some of the design of this title highlights the pitfalls of working on self-published projects. Namely my biggest critique would come with the use of text and the typography. Bazan starts the book with huge quotes justified into clunky blocks to type that cross the gutter in extra long lines. The first by Rilke is quite possibly the worst, illegible, headache-inducing use of type I have seen. Rilke's quote is about how art does not follow usual measures of time, and ends with 'Patience is everything' - an appropriate quote considering photography's elusive nature but unfortunately who ever set the type here is testing everyone’s patience. The next pages have the same treatment given to quotes by Robert Frank, John Szarkowski and Raymond Carver - although much shorter that the Rilke, all could have been left out entirely. Those quotes are followed by pages covered with contact sheets. In my opinion, this is where the book should have started.

For Vicky Goldberg's essay at the back called Cuba: A Love Story you will need to keep the bottle of Tylenol handy for that too. The line length is far too long and the spacing between lines is so tight for the font size that I literally gave up trying to follow along after several attempts to get through the essay.

Bazan's also includes several pages of diary-like entries reproduced in his scrawling handwriting - he begins with, 'I look at my contact sheets. A feeling of utter depression seizes me. I sense a huge loss within me. And what's wrong is that there is nothing I can do about it. I want to cry in the silence of the empty room. A reminder of how difficult it is to take a damned good picture. I can only accept the verdict as a sentenced prisoner. EB.' The biggest pitfall when working on your own book is you don't have a strong editor hanging over you that would tell you when you are embarrassing yourself. ‘Verdict as a sentenced prisoner’??? Bazan's handwritten texts do not get any less embarrassing in their tenor. 'When I see beautiful photographs, my heart smiles.' 'I had strongly desired Cuba, as if longing for a woman that you meet only once and can't get out of your mind. I’m almost certain to have lived there in another life' Vicky Goldberg even gets into the spirit relaying a story about a young Bazan, 'At age seventeen, he had a dream in which he clearly heard the words, "You need to be a photographer." The next morning he announced to his parents that that was what he was going to do.' All of this after he starts the book with a quote from Raymond Carver stating, 'Everything is important in a story, every word, every punctuation mark.' Like Carver, Bazan needs the help of a great editor.

The other criticism I would point to is his insistence on the excessive dodging and burning in the prints. In BazanCuba it is out of control and has to be seen to be believed. Personal vision sure, I am certain that is his choice, but the manipulation just builds walls between me and the work. (Note: I took most of my comp scans from Ernesto’s website and they are a lot more open and less manipulated than what you will find in the book.)

Good books are hard to make yet I hate to see 14 years of hard work degraded simply because of the package and some poor design choices. The key to success was with the very quote that starts the book; I sense that somehow Bazan himself overlooked the part that reads, 'With deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born.' That would have helped, along with a aid of a good book designer.

BazanCuba will be for sale via Internet and through some specialized bookstores starting in July, 2008 at $90 per copy + shipping.