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Freeze frame

Stewart Oksenhorn

To Michael Eastman, one of the attractions of photography – aside from its relative ease, compared to other art forms – is how the medium can serve as documentation. Eastman has long been impressed by the work of Walker Evans and Eugène Atget – the way Evans’ photos of the American South and Atget’s images of early-20th-century Paris became more than just a series of pictures, but powerfully captured a time and place and culture for future generations.Of Atget, Eastman said his series “turned out to be one of the great records of Paris, and of the time. He documented almost every great building in Paris.”I always wished for an opportunity like that,” continued the 57-year-old Eastman, from his home in his native St. Louis. “It was a longing, as a photographer, to visit places that were frozen in time. When I saw Evans’ photos of the South, and Atget, who shot Paris at the turn of the century, I’d think, I’d give anything to revisit a place like that.”Eastman found just such a place in Cuba. Viewing photos of late ’90s Cuba, Eastman saw how the passing of time had effectively been banished from the island for some four decades, since the revolution that put Fidel Castro’s socialist regime in charge. “I realized it hadn’t changed much. It was frozen in time for 50 years,” said Eastman.

After jumping through the hoops of the United States’ travel restrictions, Eastman finally went to Cuba in 1999, and returned in 2000 and 2002. Finding just what he wanted in Cuba was elusive. But by his third trip, his vision had taken shape.Eastman’s Cuba series, part of a show of the photographer’s work that opens at the David Floria Gallery on Friday, Nov. 26, features interiors of houses that capture the sense that Cuba is a land that time has forgotten. Most of the spaces are grand, with palatially high ceilings, meticulous and ornate staircases, artistic furniture. But decay is as evident as grandeur: In “Isabella’s Two Chairs,” two once comfy and plush chairs sit below a massive chandelier in a monstrous room. But the space between the chairs and the chandelier is interrupted by laundry drying on two clotheslines. The paint on the walls has peeled; there are holes in the ceiling through which water leaks.When Castro assumed power, many of Cuba’s nobility and wealthy fled, usually to Miami. But Eastman seems most interested in those who stayed. Five of the houses he photographed were occupied by those who remained in Cuba. And with huge houses and little income, maintaining those residences became a full-time occupation. This is the main story line of Eastman’s series.”They couldn’t afford to do anything,” said Eastman, who adopted the habit of paying people – $100 or so, which could represent a few months’ income – for the privilege of shooting their homes. “That was the Catch-22. You could sell the house, but you had to sell it to the state. Or you could spend your whole existence keeping the house up.

“There’s a sadness and a kind of dignity that co-exist.”There is also arguably a political element to the work, about the failings of Castro’s socialism, though Eastman declines to elaborate on any specific narrative in the work.As with Atget’s Paris images, Eastman largely leaves the people out of the picture. But his intention is to give the sense that the residents of the houses are standing just outside the frame (as they often were). The photographs don’t give the sense of a place abandoned, but of a place where the walls and furniture and decorations tell the people’s story.”When my work is most successful, it has the sense of a human presence who has just left or is just about to enter,” said Eastman. “There’s a narrative that we’re witness to. It’s like a portrait without a person there. It’s the viewers’ job to wonder about who lived there and who they were and what they are.”

Eastman is stunned at how those viewers consistently come up with the same scenario for the photographs. “As subjective as art and photography are, there are truths that are fairly objectifiable, and evident to most people,” he said. “When people comment on this work, I’m amazed at how people consistently reflect back to me exactly what I felt staring in these houses. What the photo felt like to me is communicated to the people who see the photos.” Also like Atget, Eastman sought to leave his more artistic side out of the photographs. So, in a sense, the photographs are remarkably straightforward, in the manner of an old-fashioned portrait.”Atget saw his job as recording Paris without any artistic temperament at all. The recording was more important than the artistic approach. But they’re beautiful,” said Eastman. “My job was to get out of the way and record these things. Because I know that in the not-too-distant future, these things will be renovated and the essence of these buildings will be torn down.”Like Atget’s work, Eastman’s attains an unquestionable element of beauty. The spaces, the composition of objects, even the faded but still rich colors are affecting. And to heighten the effect, Eastman blows his digital C-print images to a huge scale, often 6 feet tall. As a student at the University of Wisconsin in the late ’60s, Eastman studied marketing. As the Vietnam War escalated, Eastman, who readily identifies himself as a liberal, wanted to change his course of study to art. But the school thought he would have little chance of graduating on time and, as a fifth- (or sixth-) year student, he might lose his student status and be eligible for the draft. So it wasn’t until a few years out of college that Eastman finally pursued art. With such a late start, he found photography to be the ideal – maybe the only – medium in which he stood a chance.

“The great thing about photography is that you can make it right away. It can be competent right away,” he said. “It seemed manageable and democratic. By the time I figured out I was no good, it was already a year, and I was sold.”Eastman was sold on more than how simple photography could be. He grew to love that intense way of looking at a world through a lens, where you become aware of every object, every little nuance, and how you get emotionally attached to seeing.”You see a world that other people aren’t looking at,” he said. “And the more you do it, the more it becomes the way you look at the world. When I put that camera down, I am so in tune with the world in a way that I never am otherwise. You enter a state of seeing that is so intense.”So it was with Cuba. “Everywhere I looked, there was something to see, something I connected with, something I felt about.

“It’s hard to do that in the U.S. We tend to tear things down, replace things. We keep moving ahead with this notion of not really honoring the past. We think the future is better than the past.”It is no surprise, then, that Eastman’s latest project is photographing places in America that are in danger of being swept away. He aims to include all 50 states in his “American Portraits,” and it’s not unlikely that Aspen would land in the series. Eastman first came to Aspen in the late ’60s, and was shocked to see how much had changed when he returned a few years ago: “It looked so much bigger,” he gasped.”These places that are vanishing are the ones I want to record. We’re Wal-Marting the world and losing the ma-and-pa shops that made this culture great.”The Cuba series may represent Eastman’s ultimate project. It had a sense of time standing still just before moving forward. The work unfolded slowly, giving Eastman a chance to savor the experience and sharpen his vision. As he says, “there’s nothing like being involved in a body of work, knowing what you’re looking for.”

Alongside Eastman’s Cuba series at the David Floria Gallery hang examples of his horse series. The images share with the Cuba series Eastman’s lush tones and large scale, and they were made over the same time frame. Apart from that, they are markedly different. The subject matter bears no resemblance to the Cuban interiors; the hues – saturated colors for the Cuba works; sepia tones for the horses – and even the paper they are printed on – make them stand separate from each another. And Eastman took opposing approaches to the two series. The Cuba work reflects a slow, studied arrival at the subject; the horses are the accidental byproduct of a failed project. Eastman was commissioned in 1998 to shoot landscapes in New Mexico; the only image from the entire series that he liked was of a horse. Realizing there was a paddock with 100 horses 20 minutes from his home, he started shooting horses on a daily basis.”It’s kind of an anomaly for me,” noted Eastman, adding that the work was inspired in part by the horse paintings of New Yorker Joe Andoe who, coincidentally, is also represented by the Floria Gallery. “Because I’m not necessarily interested in horses.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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