This guy knows how to take a photo.
That was my first thought when I entered the gallery space at Mesa Arts Center. Fine-art photographer Michael Eastman's interiors of crumbling Cuban mansions are breathtaking -- and they're enormous, about 5x4 feet on average. Each work, with its large scale and intricate detail, is designed to be experienced like the grand paintings of the old masters. The large prints invite the viewer to step into the photograph and visually "walk around" the space. The exhibition "Cuba -- Havana Interiors" was created over a period of four years, as Eastman traveled to Cuba and explored the dilapidated architecture of Havana's Ambassador Row.
As I wandered the old mansions, I learned more about Cuba than I could from any textbook.
Fidel's Stairway offers the ghost of a grand aristocratic estate. This photo captures the ascending architecture of the elite -- only it is now cracked, moldy and broken. The stained, crumbling wall frames each stair step. The partial handrail ends at an elaborate pedestal, supporting a statue -- a classically draped female figure -- with no head.
Dining Room makes me thankful for the invention of color photography. From a sunlit window off-frame, the sea-foam-green walls bounce off one another and create an incredible glow. It is easy to imagine that Eastman's skin looked green as he took the photo. He showcases his skill by capturing the light -- anyone who has snapped a photo of an Arizona sunset knows how challenging this is.
After the novelty of the outrageous color wears off, the curious facets of the space come to light. Again, each splinter, water streak, and structural bruise is captured in such fine detail that you can almost smell the dank atmosphere. But each surface is freshly dusted. White, unfaded paperwork is neatly stacked on the table, and -- is that a bag of takeout in the background? And yet, the racks of books under the archway are riddled with curling covers and browned pages.
The photographs in this exhibition are amazing, but left me wanting. The decaying interiors sprinkled with evidence of habitation create a mystery, and I wanted to know more, to know the stories behind the people living between them.
So I called Eastman. I found out that, yes, people live in these spaces -- with much love and care. I also learned that Eastman does not change a thing when he takes a photograph. His background is in landscape and architecture photography, and with this work, he emphasizes the "pride in poverty" that he noticed during his time in Cuba -- creating a portrait of the people by photographing their homes.
He met many Cubans who were both pro-American and pro-Castro, obviously a curious contradiction. But Eastman says he tries to avoid making any political comment in his work because, as he puts it, he doesn't know enough about the politics of Cuba to do so. Eastman wanted to simply present a moment -- the place in which the Cuban citizens were during the time of his visit.
He does it successfully. His technical skill allows him to capture visual moments that are usually only seen firsthand. The light and colors are so brilliant, it's almost as if you're seeing these images through his eyeball instead of his camera.
"I believe in honesty," Eastman says. "I never set up a photograph. I just try to record the subject in a documentary style."
I must say, I've never seen a documentary look this good.
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