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Figueroa on Figueroa

Screen shot 2013-06-21 at 4.33.54 PM
Cuban Photographer José A. Figueroa. Photo by Ray Carofano.

By Andrea Serna, Arts and Culture Columnist

Figueroa Street has drawn world-renowned Cuban photographer, José A. Figueroa to Los Angeles. Curious about the street, which shares his name, the artist set out to explore the 30 miles of Los Angeles beginning in San Pedro and ending in Eagle Rock.

Cuban photo documentarian José A. Figueroa is known for his work presenting everyday life in post-revolutionary Cuba.

His work demonstrates the “transitional generation” of Cubans whose customs and styles paralleled western styles and customs. In his 50-year career he has captured every stage of the country’s development.

In the 60s and 70s he worked as a photojournalist for Cuba International Magazine, Cuba’s version of Life magazine.

As opposed to his mentor Alberto Korda, who shot the famous “Che” photo known around the world, Figueroa spent much of his career photographing private lives of Cubans. The result is a fascinating documentation of street life in Cuba. His photography is in collections and museums around the world.

Stuart Ashman, the director of the Museum of Latin American Art, recently invited Figueroa to California to work on a long planned photo project. Not coincidentally, Ashman was raised in Cuba. His father worked for Kodak photography and Ashman has his own history in the field of photography. When Ashman was 12 years old, his family immigrated to the United States.

We caught up with both men at the San Pedro home of his host, Al Nodal of Cuba Tours and Travel. Figueroa’s trip was made possible through the invitation of MoLAA and the generous hospitality of the Nodal family. Figueroa and Ashman recently sat down to discuss Cuba and Cuban photography.

RLN: What brings you to Los Angeles?

Figueroa: My family name is Figueroa and in the 90s I learned about Figueroa Street in Los Angeles. I had an idea: Why not shoot a series “Figueroa on Figueroa?” When I received the invitation from the museum I also received sponsorship from the travel agency. This is the main reason I am here to finally begin this project after many years of planning. The street is 29.7 miles long. It happens that in Havana we also have a Figueroa Street, only one mile long. I began my work on the street in Havana.

Ashman: My family lived on Figueroa Street in Havana for four years when I was a child. I wanted to bring Figueroa to Los Angeles because he is so well known in Cuba. He is a trained photojournalist in what is really a dying breed because nobody works in silver anymore. We wanted to build a relationship with him, maybe at some point do a talk at the museum.

RLN: MoLAA has always been focused on painting and sculpture. Does this mean MoLAA is interested in showing more photography?

Ashman: There were some photography shows before I came. Mexico Unexpected was curated by Idurre Alonzo. In a way photography is a classical form, there is no reason not to include it. Particularly when you are talking about silver or platinum photography, which is a craft as well. You have to learn chemistry, you have to learn to use light and work in a dark room, which sanctifies it even more. Right now, we have an exhibit called “Fourteen Travelers in Mexico”, which is exactly the kind of photography Figueroa is doing today.

RLN: Exactly the same in the technique or in the approach?

Figueroa: In the approach. In the feeling, in the way you approach your subject.

Ashman: He (Figueroa) is very close to the traditional photojournalists. Danny Leon is in the show [at MoLAA], and he is very close to José. Street photography is basically capturing a moment, being a witness.

RLN: Can you tell me what you see as the Cuban esthetic in photography?

Figueroa: I think photography has been very important because it was the best way to show the world what was happening in Cuba. Raúl Corrales said something I think was very important. He said that at the beginning of the revolution, 40 percent of the Cuban population was illiterate. Corrales said “when you say there are one million people in the square, many people cannot comprehend [that number], but when you show a photo of one million people in the Revolutionary Square, everyone can understand.” That created an esthetic of “epic photography.” I am not fond of that term. At the same time there was another kind of photography going on. In my archive, my wife discovered the other side of the coin. She discovered during this time I was photographing my friends in a private more interior view. I discovered my compatriots in these old photos from the 60s.

RLN: This became a show at the Coutuier Gallery?

Figueroa: Yes. I was turning 60 and the photos were from the 60s. We called it “Mis 60s” or “My 60s.” Next year, I am going on 50 years in this field. I began to look at my work from the 70s through the 90s. So I started to put together all these images [in] a series. Havana in the 90s was known as a “special period” for Cuban art. It was very difficult. We were hungry, we were without lights.

Ashman: Cuban photography paralleled photography that was happening elsewhere. Cuban photography started in 1840. By the beginning of the 20th century Cuba had as many photographic studios as Paris. So there are major figures in Cuban photography in every decade of the 20th century. I separate it into three categories. One is 1840 to 1920, 1920 to 1960 and 1960 to the present. From 1920 to 1960 it was very political. It was all documentation of the political upheavals that were going on in Cuba. Then in 1960, right after the revolution it re-synched itself with the rest of the world. Now you have surrealist photographers like Juan Carlos Alóm. These guys could be European photographers. Some of the images obviously relate to symbolism from Cuba, but to the uninformed, they could just be artistic statements.

Figueroa: The result is the local point of view became the universal point of view.

Ashman: What he points the camera at happens to be in Cuba, because that is where he lives, but the emotions in his photography could happen anywhere, in any part of the world. When I look at the photos of Figueroa St. in Havana, I think it looks like Figueroa St. in Los Angeles. Here is a guy who has lived in an isolated country and he knows everything about world photography. You can name a Scandinavian photographer and he knows who it is.

Figueroa: I was here in 2001 for the show Shifting Tides at LACMA and I was interviewed on the radio. The interviewer asked me “How do you Cubans [function in the arts] you are so isolated? You can’t do this kind of work.” I said “ I think the people who are isolated are you here in the U.S., because we are open to all the world in Cuba” When I return to Cuba after this trip, everyone will ask me “What’s new? What did you bring back for us to see?”

Details: (562) 437-1689;
Venue: Museum of Latin American Art,
Location: 628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach


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