In the early 1970s, Mario Algaze’s career got off to a quick start when he landed a job as a Miami-based freelance photographer for Zoo World, a music magazine and competitor to Rolling Stone. For the then-20-something, Cuba-born photographer, the gig meant a chance to immerse himself in America’s revolution of sex, drugs, civil rights and artistic expression.
“These were wonderful years, which I was right in,” Algaze recalls. “I said, let me pick up the camera. A lot of young photographers were making their careers at the time. Some of them went to Vietnam; some of them established a studio and took portraits, photographed weddings and bullshit. I said, I want to drop some acid and smoke some weed. I’m gonna go to festivals.”
Today Algaze’s website includes a scrapbook of '70s rockers and folk stars from Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to baby-faced Kiss members and Arlo Guthrie. The photographer speaks candidly about venturing out on the road, through Florida and into the South, to track music-makers for Zoo World and its appeal. (“We loved to party,” he says.) But he’s equally frank about the turn of mind that inspired him to ditch the rock scene several years later and begin working in photography as an art form.
“I had made a shit load of money doing concerts and going on tour with Dave Mason,” Algaze says. “In 1974, I said, I’ve gotta go to Latin America because that’s where my heart lies. I started photographing these artists [legendary photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo and painter Rufino Tamayo] ... They said to me ‘What the hell are you doing, working nickel-and-dime for a newspaper? You should be an artist.’”
Algaze took their words to heart. For the next two decades, he traveled throughout Latin America (Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama, Argentina, Mexico and so on, living for four years in Quito, Ecuador), equipped with an already-vintage Hasselblad camera (he still uses it today), developing a style of image-making that fused what his progenitors of poetic street photography (Alvarez Bravo and the globetrotting Frenchman Henri Cartier-Bresson among them) had taught through their pictures with his own reflexes and insights. Over time, his work earned him inclusion in many exhibitions, art gallery representation, grants (including several from the National Endowment for the Arts) and a place of prominence among American and Latin American photographers.
Then, in 1998, a letter arrived from Havana inviting Algaze to return to the country of his birth as a visual artist and guest of CASA, a Cuban organization founded after the revolution to promote artists working in Latin America, for the first time since 1960, when he departed at age 13.
Through Sunday, visitors to the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts can see nearly 30 of the photographs Algaze made of Cuba’s cities and countryside during his visit in the exhibition Mario Algaze: Cuba 1999-2000. In dramatic black-and-white, the images offer glimpses of the island where time stood still filtered through the lens of the photographer’s aesthetic preoccupations with time, light and the surreality of the everyday.
Algaze, whose father, a lawyer and judge, initially supported the Cuban revolution but eventually opted to leave the country and work for the U.S. Department of State, waited a year before accepting CASA’s invitation. Then he promised to come on one condition: if he was met at Havana’s airport with a letter permitting him to photograph the entire island, barring military facilities. Algaze got the letter — and during the winter of 1999-2000, he spent 21 days roaming Cuba, striding through cities and rural expanses just after dawn and during the pre-dusk golden hour, pausing to photograph whatever caught his eye. The letter didn’t keep people from harassing him, but after they read it, “it was all ‘Sí, señor,’” Algaze explains.
“It was a ‘Don’t fuck with me’ letter,” he says.
Since his turn to photography as art, a sense of momentous stillness has always characterized Algaze’s images. He cites Greek-Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico, whose so-called metaphysical paintings combine looming architecture and stark shadows with vulnerably tiny human figures, as an influence along with Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa. His Cuba photos are no exception. One example is “Amanecer en Matanzas,” staged at the wide mouth of a street in Matanzas at dawn. As daylight begins to dapple the facades of crumbling but stately, European-style residential buildings, no creature stirs in the street save a lone mustachioed bicyclist, who appears in miniature against his surroundings.
“Los aretes que le faltan a la luna,” though filled with people, is another. Titled after a hit Cuban song from the 1940s (roughly, ‘the earrings missing from the moon’), the image depicts a scene of people waiting at a train station; in the foreground, a woman — a chicly coiffed platinum blond wearing extravagant earrings, looks forlornly to the ground as a young girl, presumably her daughter and more modestly bejeweled, tries to capture her attention.
“[Algaze] is an artist in the way he composes,” says FMoPA curator Joanne Milani. “He makes a point of going out either in the early morning or late afternoon, when the sun comes in at the angels. It rakes the side of the building, so you get the texture and these really dynamic diagonals. It’s a contrast with the people, who look trapped in amber.”
Each image appears carefully composed, rather than an instantaneous snapshot, because it was. In order not to attract notice from Cuban authorities, Algaze limited himself to taking 40 rolls of film into the country. Out of necessity, he “previsualized” each shot, composing a portfolio of Cuba images in his head as he went, and even taking the nerve-wracking risk of pre-selling editions of twelve photographs to private and corporate clients beforehand to fund his travels.
“I was shitting bricks at Havana airport on the way back,” Algaze recalls. “The woman looked at me and said, ‘What are all these rolls?’ You know the first thing that pops into your head? I’m going to have to return all that money. I had to come through. And you know what, I came through.”
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