Whitewall Magazine interview with Michael Dweck
Whitewall Magazine interview with Michael Dweck
Whitewall: How did you first get involved in this exclusive creative class of Cuba?
MD: I guess the impetus came from my initial attractions to Cuba, both the romantic and realistic: the danger, charm, sensuality. There had to be a way to capture it all – particularly the seductive elements – and use participation and observation in parity to pull out a more authentic picture of life – and art – on the island. So even though I didn’t know exactly where I’d be pointing the camera, I knew access would be key – especially there in Castro’s Cuba. Luckily, as my friends always say, I’m very lucky at getting lucky.
My second day in Havana, I was invited to a party by a wonderful Brit I’d met the previous night at another artist’s house. It’s one a.m. A modern-style 1950’s oceanfront; waves are crashing over the seawall; a roaring crowd of 200 people is dancing between the ocean spray and a turquoise pool in 90-degree heat to the music of Kelvis Ochoa and his band. These aren’t fat woman smoking cigars for tourists. These people glow, savor everything and never stop dancing. They’re beautiful in all definitions of the word and this is them in their element.
So this was where the idea really embedded and began to mature – in the steamy midst of this merrymaking and around this group of 20-or-so; what the Cubans call a farandula, an elite clique of well-connected, accomplished and comely friends. This is what it meant in the foreword to the book when it says, “a model dates a photographer who is friends with a musician whose song is chosen by a director for a film with an actor who admires the work of an artist who uses the model for a model.” That’s how they work.
I was lucky enough to fall into – and be embraced by – a phenomenon unique to Cuba. The mischief, the elegance, the privilege – and even the irony. It made the perfect subject.
Whitewall: What was their initial reaction to an American taking these pictures and covering this lifestyle that previously has been in the dark?
MD: As expected, the artists were wondering where the hell I came from. How did this American get invited into their “secret world?” (They seemed reluctant to speak to me, firstly because I was American – which comes with its fair share of baggage – and secondly because this was so obviously a privileged class of people living in a classless society.
But once we started familiarizing ourselves with one another and working together, the circle warmed up and started speaking to me like I was another artist in the fold. I think it helped that I made it clear from the outset that I had no intention of using my photography as third-party reportage or some “third world” voyeuristic documentary. National Geographic can do that. I was there to borrow the scene’s vibrancy and point up semblances of what I saw as a small, remarkable group in the belly of a large, misrepresented society.
Habana Libre explores the allegory of worldly paradise in surroundings anything but paradisiacal – the threats besetting it from outside parties and inside hierarchies, its relationship to the less fortunate… But it also pokes an eye into everyday Cuban life and asks subject and audience (Cuban and American, respectively) to question whether the thing we’ve been told about one another is true.
Whitewall: When you cover these sorts of social groups do you begin to establish relationships with those in them? Do you ever maintain contact with these people after your project has ended?
MD: That’s a good question. I’m hyper-curious about people in general. I think a photograph has to reflect that about its photographer to feel sincere or expressive. A good photo doesn’t just answer the question “what do you look like?” or “what are you wearing?” but also, “who are you?” “What are your passions?” “How do you survive, succeed?” That interest in those second answers helps me disarm people in a way and, I think, allows me to go further in terms of concept and execution.
This was a huge advantage in Cuba where, like I said, I was initially greeted with some doubt and skepticism, not only by the government, but the people. Then you have my work, which leans thematically toward the seductive and revealing, which requires more trust, more amity to thrive.
When I see certain sparks or suggestions in a subject, little wild child-like glints, and I can lock that down in a photograph it creates indescribable bonds. Not only did I bond with these people as a fellow artist, but I won a lifetime of familiarity from taking their picture. So, yeah, there will always be subjects who I remain in contact with.
Rachel Valdez – the painter featured on the cover of Habana Libre – is a good example. She and I still write or speak at least twice a week and plan to collaborate on an upcoming project in Paris.
Whitewall: What was your experience like in photographing the sons of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara? Did you feel any sort of pressure given that this was the first time they had been photographed in this way?
MD: I find portraits work best if I don’t have a specific intention of what I’m hoping to achieve. Seeing as how both Camilo [Guevera] and Alex [Castro] are photographers, we had that base of understanding and got along quite well. Camilo and I actually lived in the same building in Havana. We shared samples with each other and spent a lot of time talking about the life of an artist in Cuba – and the US. Every time I got together with either of them, it was like a freewheeling photographic jam session – and these are men who’ve never before been photographed or interviewed by anyone.
Remember, these are literally the sons of revolution and now, as artists, they’re putting their own spin on the word; what it means to rebel. I know Alex has been reinterpreting the work of 19th century Spanish master painters and Camilo has a series of portraits that explore subjects banned and/or taboo in Cuba. One of his photos – a pair of female lovers – was considered illegal in Cuba until recently.
You have to remember that Fidel is a patron and sponsor of the arts, but artists will be artists. So the Cuban creative maintains a duplicitous position in his or her representation of the island. There’s a very curious push-and-pull to observe between endorsing talent and controlling its message.
Whitewall: These sort of creative groups exist in other countries as well, what was unique about these particular artists given that they have grown up in such a fundamentally different society?
MD: Well, for starters, you have a group of artists I just mentioned who aren’t really allowed to create anything that could be interpreted as critical, overtly or otherwise, of their government. And, simultaneously, they maintain certain places of privilege in a so-called underprivileged country. So what this breeds is a very tight-knit, even insular, group that’s extra-societal in one sense and the very epitome of that same society in another.
They collaborate and celebrate like they’re players in a Parisian salon in the 1930’s, but are also wired as artists to subtly provoke and defy like the same salon that was in Franco’s Barcelona. Cubans in general juggle that duality – defiant and humble, tightly-controlled and indefinitely resilient. Their artists are no different. They just have more money. They have parties. They can travel freely. But wouldn’t you know it – they always come back home.
I asked one painter why she returned to Cuba after a recent visit to Europe.
Her answer; “If all artists left Cuba, there would be no Cuba.”
Whitewall: What is different about this project compared to some of your other series such as The End: Montauk, N.Y.?
MD: All of the implied subtext – seduction, isolation, the individual’s interpretation of freedom – was intended to be common. I call “Habana Libre” the final installation in my trilogy about island life. (“Montauk…” and “Mermaids” being the predecessors.) And when I frame this in terms of a trilogy, it is, like it sounds, informed by film.
I thought quite a bit about cinema when making the books – Havana in particular. I mulled over David Lynch’s aesthetics in “Blue Velvet” or “Wild at Heart,” the contemporary neo-noir sensations of “Body Heat” or Billy Wilder's “Double Indemnity.”
If you allow yourself to conceptualize the breakdown of a photograph as an individual frame of some missing motion picture – one millisecond captured from a larger narrative – you can start to move beyond what might be seen as a static and limiting impression of the medium which might make a black-and-white photo seem dormant or dead. Yes, these photos are frozen in that they’re of the past and remove a colorful dimension from real space, but therein lies the seduction and the life.
I don’t know if there really are any other books that present themselves like this – maybe the fantastical “Cowboy Kate” from the 60's. I conceptualized “Montauk” with a mix of nostalgic fantasy and a real bygone youthfulness, and “Mermaids” wore its impressionistic abstractions on its sleeve, but “Habana Libre” is unique in that its entire expression and narrative is terrestrial.
We’re dealing with people living buoyant, cinematic lives and I want the audience to share in that, feed on it. A single photo won’t borrow all the corners of that cube and give it away in two dimensions. But I think a book like this that doesn’t treat itself like “just a photobook” and whose images and narratives refuse to treat their subjects like “subjects” can go further in making its points, whatever island they may reference.
It’s also interesting to note how much has changed even since these photos were taken in 2009. Last month, the Cuban government issued more than 85,000 licenses for private businesses. Obama recently relaxed the rules about Cuban-Americans sending money home to family members. Cubans can now sell their homes. The island is changing and I’m glad I was able to put this together when I did, right on the eve of what may prove to usher in a sea-change.
Whitewall: How is the process for putting a book like this together different than an exhibition? When do you know you have enough photographs and can stop the process?
MD: I am not very good at stopping the process. I let it stop me in a sense. If you ask anyone that I’ve photographed they’ll tell you that when I say “this is the last roll,” we inevitably keep going until the film runs out. It’s the only way I know how to work – let your excitement go until you run out material – or you subject calls it quits.
I went to Cuba eight times and shot more than 500 rolls of film over a period of 14 months. William Westbrook, who wrote the book's passages, came along for almost every trip and conducted hours and hours of interviews. So we came home with an overwhelming amount of material and, to make it more taxing, was intent on making it stream into a narrative.
Whitewall: Do you have a method for narrating through images for a project like this?
MD: Narratives are the most difficult photographic books to do because they need to work on many levels. Each photograph needs to be strong on its own. Spreads with side-by-side shots need to exhibit a certain symbiosis. Then all the images need to develop together into something complete and linear, again, like a film.
The editing, all said, took more than three months: My editor Jupiter Jones and I went though all of the contact sheets and pulled the strongest images – not just the best shots, but the most relevant. We had about 500 at that point and started to organize them by scene and spread them out onto tables throughout the studio like a three-dimensional storyboard. You walk through and think about flow, about pacing, about visual rhythm, about arc. We needed to connect the dots, so to speak, and make sure the sequence fit the story we wanted to tell.
Editing something like this for an exhibition was more difficult. I wanted the book to stand alone as a work of art and not be a thinly-veiled catalog for the exhibition. Each selection had to be carefully chosen for the hanging to maintain its thematic thread.
For the San Francisco exhibition at Modernism, owner Martin Muller and I each spent two weeks making separate selects and then swapped lists. We then spent a couple more days with each other’s selects and made the final order. It was a lengthy process.
Whitewall: What challenges did you come across when photographing this series?
MD: I mentioned the challenge of access, getting into these tight circles and gaining trust. But even getting into the position to do so, getting into the country, had its own roll of logistical and practical hang-ups.
Preparation for each trip took at the very least a month to plan. I’m not fluent in Spanish and my writer Westbrook doesn't speak any, so I had to work things out with my on-ground translator (who unfortunately didn’t speak great English. Lucky, my wife Cecilia is Argentine and helped out with a lot of the transcription when I got home.) I had to get financial situation in order since Americans don’t have access to ATM’s or credit cards. Shooting both daytime events and nightlife kept me literally working around the clock. A day that started at 6 a.m. and ended at 3 a.m. wasn’t unusual.
Then there are the bureaucratic dances – getting approvals down the line and the endless meetings with government official and cultural ministers, arranging for letters of support from Cuban artists and museum curators. It’s not like flying into Mexico and going through customs. We were functionally knocking on Cuba’s door wearing the colors of the enemy and carrying 100 pounds of photography equipment.
All said, the government was surprisingly welcoming and accommodating. I’ve even been invited back for an exhibition at Fototeca in February. If that proposal passes a governmental review, it will be one of the first solo exhibitions for a contemporary American artist at that museum since the revolution.
Whitewall: Were you faced with people who didn't want this side of Cuba revealed?
MD: This is a peak at a face of Cuba never before photographed, never reported in Western media, never acknowledged openly within Cuba itself. Still, everyone we met – including the sons of Fidel and Che – were welcoming and spoke openly.
It will be interesting to see if the book itself receives the same reception in Cuba that I did. I know there have been grumbling from Cuban-American ex-patriots who feel the images misrepresent the larger society, though it seems they’re missing the narrative’s intention and focus.
Of course I also expect there to be those on the island who balk at some of implied irony in the juxtaposition between the life of these artists and that of the farmers and even neurosurgeons who live on the equivalent of approximately $16 a month.
My replies to those criticisms are in the book. This is a self-justifying medium. You can’t argue with a photograph.
Whitewall: Which images from this book mean the most to you?
MD: They’re are all meaningful in their own way, not so much for what they might represent in the context of the full work – whether that’s the social commentary or allegorical angle – but for the subjects themselves. These are photographs of artists living easy in a place where it’s not easy to be an artist – or to live easy in general. Each shot, for me, revisits some of that complexity.
There’s also the presence of a reawakening, personally, when I review the photos. I reencounter the sensuality of the island; I hear the music of Chucho Valdez, Celia Cruz, Ibrahim Ferrer. For all its shortcomings, the country Kennedy once called an “unhappy island,” overruns with visceral joy and beauty.
Whitewall: Are there any photos that have an interesting anecdote that you could share?
MD: I was thinking the other day that if I had the opportunity to do the book again I think I’d include anecdotes for a portion of the photographs. Just to share some of the backgrounds that enforce – or belie – certain shots.
The cover photo of Rachel and Gisele for one. Rachel, the painter I mentioned earlier; she just understands how to project herself in a photograph and the effects are mesmerizing. She doesn’t exude optimism and sensuality so much as she shares it. It defines a lot of what I felt about Cuba.
In another picture, one of a couple in the elevator, there’s a fundamental of island life that deserves caption. There are elevators in all these buildings where families have lived for generations and they’re always breaking down. So, if you want intimacy, you meet your lover in an alleyway or in an elevator—preferably in one that’s broken.
The photographs I made at the Tropicana come to mind too. The performers appear obsessed with games of sex, but they’re really obsessed with the game itself. It’s a pastime of signs and flirtatious signals both overt and subtle. It’s like burlesque, it take seduction to the limit without taking it overboard. I see the suggestiveness of it as a challenge. If I can freeze that moment and still make the audience feel that suggestion, I know I’m doing something right.
Whitewall: What are you working on currently?
MD: The “island life” trilogy, even the themes, locked so much of my attention that it’s almost a vacation to move on to some of the other things I’ve conceptualized, but couldn’t pursue.
I’m starting work on a project in Europe that will be pretty large in scope and scale. Think multimedia, where “media” can mean painting and sculpture as well as photography, film and audio.
I don’t want to give too much away, but it should be fun.
Huffington Post Welcome to Cuba, Asshole by Michael Dweck
Huffington Post Welcome to Cuba, Asshole by Michael Dweck
In preparing for my first trip to photograph in Cuba, I prepared myself for a country for which my country had already prepared me.
The "unhappy island" Kennedy cursed. A place Bush, the younger, warned was devoid of pleasure, "a tropical gulag," a slum where it was "against the law for three Cubans to meet without permission," (something I imagined him researching when drafting the Patriot Act).
I scrambled before my flight to get my hands on the best anti-depressants, anti-perspirants, anti-freedom necessities (film, lenses, the name of a good lawyer). I told my family and friends where they could reach me -- not that they'd be able to. Reagan told of a Cuba that lacked basic material possessions, much less freedom. Horse carts were apparently the norm, so phones and mail, it could be assumed, were out of the question.
I arrived to a March heat I can't describe without breaking a sweat. This was the mattress-thick humidity of which I'd been warned. It hung over coastline palms and Havana's worn charms with a stubborn omnipresence. Bush's voice rang its caveats in my ear: "this is the first invisible gunman guarding the prison that is Cuba" and I felt a palpable sense of dread in my stomach lined with the scarcest trace of hope.
That was 6 p.m.
by 11 p.m. the next night, I was soaked in sweat and picking my jaw up from the ground like a cartoon duck recovering from an anvil-whacking. Just twenty-seven hours into my stay in poor, sad, hellhole Havana, I walked into a seaside party that could refute six decades of American rhetoric; a tropical shindig that could wow Caesar, Cleopatra, Bond, Warhol, the Rat Pack, the cast of Jersey Shore... you get the point.
Waves crashed over the seawall on a 1950s-style oceanfront as 200 beautiful Cubans danced poolside in a 90-degree mist to the music of Kelvis Ochoa and his band. This wasn't an assembly of fat, disgruntled women rolling cigars and cursing Gringos while their grandchildren begged in rags. This was paradise -- for a tourist, for an American photographer, for anyone. And the best part? It happened every night.
My own voice rang in my ear:
"Welcome to Cuba, asshole."
What I was lucky enough to have stumbled into (with the help of a friend I made at my hotel) was a farandula -- a clique of well-connected, influential Cubans. In this case, they were artists (painters, photographers, actors, film directors, dancers, musicians, models, etc.) and they represented a side of Cuba that our well-informed presidents either missed, dismissed or intentionally ignored. These folks were glamorous, obstensibly well-off and, above all else, free. Watching them dance and mingle around the pool, I stopped worrying about my impressions and started worrying about theirs -- their dark-eyed glances both sexy and suspicious. Did they see a wild-haired photographer cut from their cloth or some dumbass capitalist American with a pricey camera around his neck? Thankfully, after a few introductions, a few drinks and some enjoyable mingling, the group seemed to accept me as another artist in the fold. And like that, I became their pale tagalong; an honorary part of a farandula.
On a typical night on that trip (and on my seven return trips) I'd catch up on the group's whereabouts via text message (yes, they have phones, mostly smartphones, though reception is spotty and Words With Friends has yet to catch on) and we'd meet at an artist's or musician's studio somewhere in Havana. Things would start out like they must have in the Parisian salons of the 1930s and then, as we drank more, chatted and migrated about the city, they'd evolve into scenes from Studio 54 of the 1970s.
The artists (people like Rene Francisco, Rachel Valdez, Roberto Fabelo, et al.) danced, painted, drank, screened films on giant stucco walls in their courtyards, collaborated with one another, wrote and chatted while I photographed (and eventually joined them in the dancing, painting, drinking, etc.).
Now -- if it's not yet clear -- my intention was never to use my photographs to prove a social or political point -- no more than it was to use them as an excuse to drink 18-year-old scotch with glowing actresses and smoke Cuban cigars with famed directors like Jorge "Pichi" Perugorria (though I didn't shy away when the latter offers presented themselves). My goal, as I've said before, was to peek into everyday life on the island and pose the question to subject and audience (Cuban and American, respectively) whether the things we've been told about one another are true.
And the answer, it seems, was "yes" and "no."
Yes, Cuba is as poor as America is rich -- maybe poorer -- though neither country is without the notable exceptions they keep under wraps. Cuba's poverty is economic, not social. So, no, Cuba isn't unhappy, isn't a tropical prison, isn't a torrid police state. Cubans carry the burden of their government's restrictions -- and our government's embargo -- but they do so with a sincere hope and visceral joy that even America's well-off seem to lack.
In a way that won't make sense to many Americans, the well-off Cuban artists I met and photographed seemed the embodiment of the hopes of their poorest neighbors. (I know what you're thinking, that'd be like calling the Kardashians "signs on the road to America's recovery.") But this is different.
The existence of this farandula, for me, doesn't paw at the disparity between the haves and the have-nots, but rather provides a vision of what the island can be. Its members serve, in ways, as ambassadors for a country that needs ambassadors more than anything. They travel freely, spend lavishly and live lives of relative luxury. (The operative word being "relative." by U.S. standards, the artists -- which include the sons of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara -- would still be considered middle-class). And as for the rest of Havana -- well, take a stroll on the Malceon after dark on any weekend and tell me if the denizens seem to be quaking in cloistered groups; if the teens are faking their smiles and the lovers' their passion. Then go ahead and scan my photos of the all-but-unannounced Peace Without Borders concert in Revolution Square featuring Juanes and Miguel Bose.
Fewer than three people? Try more than a million.
All porcelain hope and horsecart mobility? Don't fucking bet on it.
I think it's important to note again that Habana Libre wasn't assembled as propaganda or counter-propaganda or anything in between. It doesn't represent its photographer's point, so much as his point-of-view; my vision of Cuba and no one else's. It represents an island -- or my idea of one -- ripe with seduction, mystery, sensuality and, yes, a little danger. The Cuba depicted in my book isn't an overtly political place, but a thoroughly human one both accepting and defiant as it teeters on the cusp of change. At least that's what I thought when I took the photographs. When I flip through the pages of the book now, or prepare photographs to hang at the Fototeca de Cuba Museum in Havana, there are moments when I'm surprised to find definite points -- political or otherwise -- rising up from my overarching narrative. The images are mine, the impressions mine, but the meaning belongs to the subjects and their country and no one else. And with this dichotomy in mind, it's only fitting that these definitions and serendipitous points rise from a place that most Americans -- most Cubans, for that matter -- will never get a chance to see: a talented heart beneath the ribs of a misrepresented society.
A diamond in the rough making the best of its burial.
A pearl polished by political sands.
And, I'm coming to see, that at a certain point the analogies do more harm than good.
Cuba is just Cuba.
And leaving, for me, felt a lot like arriving -- that is, it had me doubting my destination once again.
Despite what our leaders would like us to think, there are parts of Cuba and clusters of its people that bursts with joy, with creativity, with hope -- it all just happens to be filtered through a lens through which some Americans (and some of their leaders) would prefer not to peer.
Are we being lied to? Not exactly...
We're just not being told the truth.
Paris Match interview with Michael Dweck
Paris Match interview with Michael Dweck by Michel Peyrard
Paris Match: Who introduced you to this underground intelligentsia? How did that happen? Did they trust you right away?
Michael Dweck: Looking back, I think my first trip to Havana was like walking into a nightclub – and actually connecting with that group was like picking up a woman at the bar. You see a confident, sexy woman across the dance floor. You catch her eye. You look one another over. You flirt. And, in my case, you stay together for a while and have some fun.
Only here there was something of a matchmaker – an artist friend I’d met who was part of this extended scene. He took me to this party – and it was just like seeing that woman across the room. Only now, the room is an oceanfront villa and waves are crashing over the seawall. Kelvis Ochoa and his band are playing around the pool for this wild crowd. And now the beautiful woman is a clique of 200 beautiful people.
Same rules though – I mingle, we flirt, we get to know one another. Remember these are all artists – filmmakers, painters, dancers, photographers. We spoke a common language.
I’m sure if I stumbled into this tightly-knit group of artists – this farandula – wearing a suit and talking about investment banking, they would have brushed me off. But as an artist, the attraction was mutual. We knew one another and developed a trust that allowed for an amazing amount if access.
PM: How did the various groups form? What do they have in common?
MD: I’m not sure how any group forms – not just in Cuba, but anywhere.
I suppose you start with geographical convenience and mutual interests. A lot of the notable artists in Havana went to university together or trained in the same places. They’re all creative-types so, again, they have this common language and it blooms and balloons from there. No different than the painters in the Barbizon school or the writers in Beats movement. Talented people – and in this case, beautiful people – have a tendency to flock together.
The foreword of the book touches on this – the group’s almost incestuous interconnectedness: “a model dates a photographer who is friends with a musician whose song is chosen by a director for a film with an actor who admires the work of an artist who uses the model for a model.”
That’s how things work.
PM: How could you explain us their motto (« Por un mundo mejor »)?
MD: Por un mundo mejor means “for a better world.” The group usually abbreviates it “PMM” and that’s the text message you’ll get in the afternoon if there’s a gathering that night. If you see PMM on your phone you know you’re in and you know, in less than 12 hours, you’ll be drinking a 15-year rum and surrounded by top-notch musicians and an endless supply of beautiful women who seem to salsa with an extra gear in their hips. That’s the best part of the day, hands down – getting that text is almost arousing.
Depending on your reading, the motto’s definition can list in a few directions. There’s a certain optimism and ambition when you point it outwardly: these are artists using their respective crafts to improve the world – or, at least, their world, Cuba’s world.
The more narcissistic tilt, though, is that this farandula considers itself its “the better world,” as in, “This party is only for the better world.” You can spin it both ways.
I’ve been asked if it can also be read as a motto of rebellion – which, no, I don’t really see. This isn’t Che’s “Hasta la victoria siempre.” These are artists whose definition of a “better world” is in terms of social happenings, not necessarily political ones. They’re not concerned with upheaval, so much as sex, music, art, alcohol, etc… The important things.
PM: Did they take any political positions? Do they want political changes? Are politics one of the topics of those parties? Do they talk about Castro?
MD: Most people in Cuba want things to improve: They want the embargo lifted. They want to travel restrictions ended or eased. They want more access to money.
The artists are no different but, that said, politics were never really discussed at any of the happenings I attended. These weren’t Occupy Havana rallies, they were the parties of a well-connected clique. Artists relaxed, talked about their work, drank, gossiped, collaborated on paintings, played dominoes, flirted. Why complain about foreign relations when you can salsa? Why debate the role of government when you can make love?
That said, artists will be artists – minor political points will be made in their works, albeit subtly; certain pieces will be crafted to be interpreted in different manners. But there’s a code, silent or spoken, and most of these artists know where the lines are and aim to stay well behind them for obvious reasons.
As far as Castro goes, no one I met talked about him and I attributed that to different things on different days. On one hand, there might be repercussions for anything approximating sedition. On the other hand, Castro’s government is like the weather. It’s omnipresent. It’s a fact of life. It’s there and no amount of yammering is going to break the clouds.
PM: What do they like? In fashion? Music? Do they have fetishes/mascots?
MD: Like most Latin cultures, Cubans are very sexually charged – and very open about their sensuality. Maybe it’s this confidence that makes them more beautiful – or the general seduction that hangs wet in the air like fog on shaft of a jetty. I remember passing by a hospital in Havana and seeing these nurses in their 50’s and 60’s who were just stunning in fishnet stockings and high heels. I wanted to break my leg just to have an excuse to talk to them. It reminded me of Joseph Cotten’s line in “Citizen Kane” about the myth of the attractive nurse being false – well, you can tell Orson Welles had never been to Havana.
You can’t get “Vogue Paris” in Cuba – or any magazine for that matter – but you wouldn’t glean that from looking around. The people glow with what seems to be an effortless style sense. Maybe it’s the effect of La Maison, where there are two fashion shows nightly. A lot of the women make their own clothes, but you’d never know it – you get the feeling they could walk naked in the jungle and come out dazzling in glamorous leaf-and-vine ensembles. They’re amazing.
The music is in it’s own league too – an extension of the island’s passion and pride. Seeing Kelvis Ochoa, Descemer Bueno, the sexy Sexto Sentido, the beautiful Diana Fuentes; Cubaton bands like Gente De Zona; jazz acts like Pablo Milanes’ daughter Haydee, Roberto Fonseca – that, to me, is what the Buena Vista Social Club must have been like in its prime.
Our largest concerts in the States draw 70,000 people – and those are the huge ones. The Peace without Borders concert in Revolution Square drew 1.5 million people. Imagine a million and a half beautiful people dancing, smiling, singing? That tells you all you need to know about music in Cuba.
PM: Where do these Beautiful People wander? Where and what are the hypest places (bars, clubs, restaurants)?
MD: One of my favorite aspects of the farandula is that these folks don’t need to be seen in any particular hot-spot. They are, in effect, their own scene and almost seem to prefer the exclusiveness of an “open house.” There are three or four different places – owned by people in the group – where you can walk in on any given night and expect a party. That might mean walking in with a bottle of Bordeaux and playing dominoes at Pichi’s house with Benicio Del Toro or Juanes. Or showing up to an artist’s studio and spending the whole night watching 1960’s Mexican music videos projected on walls while dancing with the beautiful Yoindra Perez and roasting a pig.
When we did go out, the places to be were La Zorra y El Cuervo, maybe the Tropicana on a misty night with its six-tier stage, el Emperador in the Fosca building, or Tondes de Vallanueva where Renaldo my cigar roller works.
PM: How do they earn their living? Is everything linked to the cash and the things that are sent by the expatriates in Miami?
MD: How does any artist anywhere earn his or her living? You create, spread the word, and rub elbows with the right people, right?
You know, these are just like any other artists. Dancers might work for the government’s contemporary dance company, but other than that, these people do like any other independent artist in their field. Painters and photographers have studios in Havana, but sell and exhibit all over the world. The elusive K’cho has pieces in the MOMA in New York. Roberto Fabelo exhibits in global arts shows. The beautiful 20-year-old painter Rachel Valdez – who’s featured on the cover of “Habana Libre” – is studying in Barcelona at the moment – she just had a solo show in Havana and has a show in New York next week. And the same goes for filmmakers – they get funding from, say, Mexico or Spain and place films in festivals from Sundance to Cannes.
Remember that Fidel Castro has always been an exponent of the arts. It’s just like Cuba’s baseball team – these are the people that he wants to be the face of the country. These are the folks for whom travel-bans don’t apply; they’re the ambassadors that Cuba sends out into the world.
PM: The cuban socialist elite has always exist. Is the big change that now they don't mind being seen and known as they are? Why did it change now?
MD: What you describe as the “socialist elite” is a purely political manifestation. Yes, since the revolution it’s always existed and, yes, it is, by definition, it’s own farandula – but this and the artists’ sect I photographed are mutually exclusive groups. They – the politicos – I’m sure they have their own meeting places, their own members, their own style but, frankly, I wasn’t really interested.
As for the artists I photographed, I’m not really sure why they’re finally comfortable with being seen outside of Cuba. I think it’s partially situational. I’m not a National Geographic stringer trying to make a documentary, so I was able to gain their trust from the inside. I knew who they were and they knew my work – I’m sure that helped.
Also, there’s the fact that Cuba itself is changing. Cubans can have cell phones and run small businesses and sell their homes. Starting next week, they can begin to own property too. Talk about a metaphor for change – in a week’s time Cuban citizen will literally be buying back pieces of the island from the government. The regime’s tight restrictions are lessening and maybe these artists recognized that and saw my project as I saw it: as a chance to capture a culture and a way of life on the cusp of change, at a turning point in history. Cuba will never be the same again – I was lucky to capture it when I did.
PM: How do Alex Castro and Camilo Guevara live? Where? How do they earn their living? Did they impose you their own terms for your shootings? and publications? Where did the shoots take place?
MD: A lot of people I talk to about the project get caught-up in name-recognition and I try to right them on a couple points related to Alex and Camilo. Firstly, they’re by no means the epicenter of this farandula. If anything, they’re in the fringes and loosely associated with the group. Both Che and Fidel Castro had other children – I was only interested in photographing Alex and Camilo, as both are also photographers. They fit into one of the missions of the book, which is to explore the creative class of the island.
Secondly, there’s an idea that, because they’re literally the “sons of the revolution,” these guys must live in opulent flats, have servants, etc. – which is categorically false. Alex and Camilo basically live like every other photographer in Havana – which is basically. On one of my return trips to Cuba, we exchanged gifts. Alex and I swapped some hard to come by books and I gave Camilo a tripod, which isn’t the easiest thing to track down in Cuba.
As for access, there were no issues, no restrictions, no requests – not during shooting or during interviews. The shoots were like a photographic jam session after we got acquainted. I photographed Camilo and Alex at will; Camilo and Alex photographed me at will. If you didn’t know their respective surnames, you might mistake us for any three photogs playing-around. We met in hotel lounges, in a friend’s house, in cafés and restaurants – just like I did with many of the book’s other subjects.
PM: Are all the people we meet in your book exclusively heirs of the system's executive elite?
MD: If by “heirs” you mean the literal successors or children, then no. As I said, the political and the artistic factions of Cuba wouldn’t form but the slightest overlap in a venn diagram. If, however, you’re asking if these artists benefit from the stances of the government, I’d say that’s a more appropriate – if not entirely accurate – assumption. Cuba is a place where social connections trump politics, status or wealth - and it's a country that looks after its artists. So, you can deduce that a well-connected artist in Cuba is going to court certain privileges.
But don’t all talented artists court privilege in one way or another? During this project, I went to countless parties with some of the world’s more inspired artists, saw a culture my country embargoes, and had unannounced Cuban beauties appearing on my terrace in the moonlight. Am I privileged, or do I just have, as you say, le cul bordé de nouilles?
PM: How do they deal with the « other » Cuba? with the Cubans that live in much more modest conditions? Do they mind those social differences? And you, how did you feel about that?
MD: Well, by our standards – American standards or European standards – these artists themselves are living in “modest conditions.” Even the most well-off painters or filmmakers in this group don’t have anywhere near the rank of luxury or wealth you’d expect to be aligned with the notion of “success.” The gap between the haves and have-nots in Cuba isn’t the chasm to which we’re accustomed and that makes its hard for us to conceptualize what really constitutes “wealth” in a poor nation. (Just as we have trouble qualifying the terms of poverty in wealthy nations.) I think a lot of people would be surprised by how “well off” Cubans live. Do they have it better than some? Yes. Are they living like Saudi princes? Hardly.
The whole notion of the book depicting “a privileged class in a classless society” leaves a sour taste in some mouths, but of course there are stories that belie that impression. The artists René Francisco is a good example – he’s single-handedly building a school in his hometown. There’s really no charity-mechanism in Cuba and here he is selling paintings outside the country, buying materials with the money and building a school without any assistance.
I can’t really speak to my own impressions on any Cuban inequality as I spent almost all my time in Havana. I wouldn’t want to extrapolate that into a judgment of the entire island. Again, I’ll let National Geographic handle that business.
I stand by the book as an artistic impression of a group of people and their setting – a sensual and participatory account of one group of friends in a changing Cuba. It’s not an almanac or a UN humanitarian report. Any social commentary is microcosmic: the allegory of a worldly paradise beset by threats from without and by new hierarchies from within. I can dissect each photo and concoct a thesis, but that was never the point. “Habana Libre” is a narrative project as much about seduction as anything else. It’s a film in stills about the sensual curve of a woman’s side when she waits in bed for her lover and how, in the right light, it might resemble the southern coastline of her country.
PM: Could you tell us the story of a typical night out in Havana?
MD: A typical night out would come after a typical day out – so basically, I would shoot from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. and then go out again with my cameras to wherever the PMM text indicated. On an average night, we’d start with drinks at someone’s studio, have dinner at a different artist’s house, then maybe catch a set at a jazz club like La Zorra y el Cuervo, go hear Kelvis play at Don Cangrejo, see a show at the Karl Marx Theatre. Some nights I’d run loose down Avenue de Presidente, right in front of my apartment, and just watch the groups of kids ‘til 4 a.m. – 50,000 of them on a 25-block stretch, mostly 14-15 year-olds who form their own mini-farandulas on different street corners. Musicians. Magicians. Skateboarders. Fashion kids. Or I’d just follow my camera and end up where the beautiful women ended up: with lovers on the Malecon, in a club, a stalled elevator, a terrace or the back seat of a car.
But, yeah, I think the best parts were hanging out in the artists’ homes – you never knew who was going to come in or what was going to happen. Just show up with a bottle of rum and an open mind and the night does the rest… And that’s how I imagine the famed Parisian salons in the 1930’s – a writer would come in and, after a conversation, you realize you’ve read two of his books. Same with a filmmaker – “Oh, I know him because he won an Oscar for…” There’s a woman who looks familiar. Of course! You saw her in Pavel’s film “Flash.” Kelvis is writing a film score with Lester Hamlet while Pablo Milanes’ son plays along on piano. When they’re done, they’ll all run out and shoot the scene they just scored.
It was an amazing thing to see – even more amazing to photograph. And it happened every night – ‘til 3 a.m. Then it was time to roll home, have a cigar on the veranda and tuck in for three hours of sleep.
PM: Who are the persons that most impressed you in Cuba? Why Rachel is she your muse?
MD: René Francisco is one, for sure. I mentioned his charity work earlier. His gratitude for his talent and his attempt to give back to his community without looking for any recognition is an inspiration. You get the feeling that Rene’s work is very personal to him, as art should be.
As for Rachel Valdez, from the moment I first photographed her, I knew she had something special – some seductive charm, a glance that grasped out for pleasure. She just intuitively understands her body and how to move to achieve some perfect, intangible effect in a photo - sensuality and a playful type of candor. It wasn’t until after I started photographing her that I learned she was a wonderful painter – and when I saw her work it made total sense. Her control of form is the same on the canvas – breathtaking and evocative, tantalizing and vexing. Slowly, she became something of an unconscious muse, the running thread of the project like some gorgeous personification of Cuba with a raw self-aware sensuality that glued everything together. She was the book’s respiration.
PM: We know that prostitution is very common in Cuba. Even in the upscale social circles of the country. Do the glamorous and sexy creatures that you shot resort of that activity?
MD: I see you’re a man who’s had his share of fun in Cuba’s “upscale social circles.” So you know how things work. Even if you’re not dealing with prostitutes, a beautiful woman has never been at a disadvantage in the company of an older man with money, right?
In reality, I’ve been asked this question before and always fall back on the same reply: If these photos were shot in Paris, Leeds, San Francisco, wherever else – would anyone ask if the subjects were prostitutes? When I photographed beautiful women in Montauk, Tokyo, Barcelona, Fez – no one asked me that.
PM: Did you have a response from the Cuban Authorities after the publication?
MD: There hasn’t been an official response from the government, but I do have an exhibition in Havana in February 2012 – what will be one of the first exhibitions for a living American artist at the Fototeca de Cuba since the revolution.
I think that’s a good sign. If Cuba doesn’t like you, you usually don’t get those opportunities. They’re not shy about that stuff.
PM: Did you have news from Alex Castro and Camilo Guevara? And from the others?
MD: I stay in touch with several of the subjects from the book - Rachel, especially. She’s having a show in New York, as I said, and we have plans to collaborate on something for my next project in Paris.
The Cuba-related news I’m hearing is pretty much the same news you get from the papers – the things I mentioned earlier. People can sell their cars and homes and open businesses. Obama’s allowing Americans to transfer more money to the island. These are relatively small changes, but on an island that hasn’t really changed since 1959, they amount to a lot – another reason I’m glad I was able to get in there and work when I did. Who knows what Havana – or this farnadula - will look like in another five years.
PM: How many trips did you take? When and how long was the first one? How did you decide you were going to do that?
MD: I took eight trips to Havana over 14 months, the first of which was in March, 2009, and lasted a long week.
I can’t really articulate the reason for the decision. It’d be like trying to definitively explain why I prefer steak to chicken or, better yet, a brunette to a blonde. It’s a matter of taste, attraction, flavor.
I knew I wanted to photograph Cuba emotionally, but it took time to understand what that meant to me. Cuba, since the revolution, has come to represent some semi-dormant danger to America. Of course, there’s more to it than that – but, yes, mystery and danger’s part of it. And, to a person like myself, allure comes hand-in-hand with danger. There’s an edge there too – like that which gives film noir its mysterious tow. I tend think in cinematic terms and that’s the vibe I came to feel from the island: something from the shadows of Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard,” the lure of Louis Brunel’s “Belle du Jour,” the lush filters of Claude LeLouch’s “Un Home et Un Femme.” There’s danger, but there’s also sensuality, beauty and singular charm. That was my idea of the island and I knew if I could just get down there and point a camera around, something would come of it. Call it intuition, I guess.
It’s like the “typical night” I described earlier. You jump into the mix and you see where it takes you. With my previous works, everything was very premeditated – not always staged, but framed out in a certain regard. And that works for some projects, but, you know, you can only spend so much time in the driver’s seat before the back seat starts looking tempting.
PM: What is your best memory in Cuba?
MD: I guess the most vivid and enjoyable memory would have to be that first night I described earlier, the one where I saw the farandula in action for the first time.
You have these ideas about a place or a population – for Cuba it was that sensuality and beauty and charm – and to see all of that flood toward you when you walk into a room, it’s like a fight scene in a film where everything is slowed-down to let your mind catch-up. Maybe a love-scene is a better analogy – it’s steamy and pulsing and seemingly choreographed all to push toward some arousing effect in its audience; to make you feel like you’re there. Except in this case, of course, I was there.
I swear that night is going to ruin every party I go to for the rest of my life. It set this standard for first impressions that will never be topped.
Meeting the sons of Fidel and Che was surreal. Working with Rachel and some of the other beautiful women was amazing. But I don’t think anything will top that first glimpse – that revelation that, yes, there is joy in Cuba. You wink at it and it winks back.
Artinfo interview with Michael Dweck
Artinfo interview with Michael Dweck
Artinfo: How did this show come about? Did you have an initial interest in Cuban society as a subject, or did you stumble into it?
Michael Dweck: I suppose I stumbled onto the subject matter: the “farandula,” the parties, etcetera, but, you can't really stumble into Cuban society — not as an American. But I knew I wanted to go to Cuba for a while — there's a draw to the island I can't really describe, some kind of dangerous and sensual beauty. And there's also the factor I've mentioned before: "There's something going on here that people have no idea about."
When my friends asked about the first trip — the reasons for it — I told them "I'm going fishing," as a joke, but the joke became the truth. I spend a lot of time out in Montauk and I love to fish, but even the best fishermen in the world will tell you that there's a lot of guesswork to the sport. And that became the apparent tie — the realization that, in some cases, all you can do is do the prep work. In the case of photographing in Cuba, that meant having the Visas, the lenses, and the right mindset: "I'll talk to whoever I need to get to the bottom of something." It sounds easy when I talk about it now, but it took a lot of humility in a sense to go to this tiny, insular country as a true "outsider" and try to sneak up on beauty, truth....
I guess it snuck up on me, as much as I hunted it down. It took the bait, if you will, but not in a sinister way. And the end result was the body of work I shoot for — something in which each photograph stands on its own but also contributes to a larger spirit that informs the body's overarching narrative. Here the final narrative depicted a privileged world unknown in the West and still unacknowledged within Cuba.
Artinfo: Since the show has traveled internationally, how does showing it in Cuba affect the meaning of the photographs?
Michael Dweck: That's a good question. I'm not sure I have a good answer though. I always find it interesting to see how people react to my exhibitions, but this was definitely the show I worried about the most, given the subject matter and the audiences.
On one hand, you have domestic reactions from people who have been told what I've been told — the Cold War rhetoric about Cuba being an evil, unhappy island; a police state. How would these people react to images of Cuba in celebration? And what about the Cubans themselves? How would they feel about the glitz that surrounds the group depicted? It was never my intention to showcase the "rules" or "exceptions" of Cuba — but would this come through?
The answers have been reassuring. American audiences, for the most part, have received the project for what it is: a document (but not documentary) reflecting a privileged class of people in a classless society. They seem to have been able to understand the political nuances, without letting that corrupt the humanity and depth of the portraits.
As for the Cuban reaction — that's been phenomenal. The opening attracted a record 2,300 people to the Fototeca de Cuba Museum, and the reception's atmosphere mirrored the reception of the work. Cubans welcomed it as what it was: an honest look into a world both foreign and local that offers escape, potential and maybe a wink of irony. And that's all it was supposed to be.
Artinfo: Are there any political tensions surrounding the making and showing of this body of work, either from the Cuban or American side?
Michael Dweck: The short answer is "no." The long answer is "not really." No, Cuba was great about everything — the government, I mean. Even before I knew the full scope of the project, the officials I worked with were very forthcoming and welcoming. They set me up with all the papers I needed, the visas, etc.
The artists I photographed were a little more reticent at first — as well they should have been. Americans with cameras haven't always gone to the island with objectivity — much less art — in mind. But once I hung around for a while and made the details of the project known, they were very kind and receptive.
I think they understood that the point of my art ran parallel with theirs — in that it had the potential of exposing certain truths about Cuba to the rest of the world. I've said before that Cuba's artists serve as ambassadors for a country that needs ambassadors more than anything. And that tugs on the book's political pant leg... the one that doesn’t depict people moving about cocktail parties, but moving "around" political ones.
That ties to the only tensions that I encountered in the US — the large ex-pat community, especially that in Miami. There are misguided individuals among them who have accused the book of being "pro-Castro," to which I counter, "It's not pro-Castro, it's pro-Cuba." I try to explain to them that you can have pride in a country — or at least, concern for it — without having pride in its leadership. (If you hung a flag after 9/11, you may know the feeling.)
I think "Habana Libre" is for them — the ex-pats in Miami — as much as it's for the Cubans in Havana, or the Americans in Washington: it's about being mature enough to put aside prejudice and the past and see things as they truly exist… whether you like it or not.
Artinfo: The participation of figures like Alex Castro and Camilo Guevara makes your work inextricably linked to Cuban and American politics, yet the photographs present a group of people that seem to come and go, and live life without restraint from the government. What impact does the "farandula" have on Cuba's political present and future?
Michael Dweck: I’m not sure you can separate the impact the "farandula" has on government from the impact of the government on the "farandula," you know?
For starters, this scene exists — the art scene and the celebration within it — because Castro allows it. He's a self-proclaimed patron of the arts as much as he's a fan of baseball or a proponent of medicine. For him, having a vibrant art scene is essential to have a vibrant population — and that's why these artists receive the considerations they do. That's why they're allowed to travel freely and the like. As I said, they're the ambassadors.
That said, this isn't 1959 anymore. The increasing ease of communication and travel has led to a certain global community and that's going to be felt everywhere — even in countries where communication and travel is difficult. That's where these artists come in. They show the rest of the world Cuba and they show Cuba the rest of the world. It moves slowly, but it moves surely, and while they may not be frontline activists, they're helping to inform Cuba's evolving 21st century policy.
In the last year, we've seen increasing freedoms granted in regard to travel, home sales, business creation, money transfers… Sure, part of it is that the country's functionally broke and not receiving the foreign aid it once had. But I believe the soul of the artist contributes, as it does anywhere.
Artinfo: You make life in Havana look absolutely decadent — sexy and full of the leisure afforded only by privilege, money, and youth. However, if "Habana Libre" depicts "the other" Cuba, it must have been hard to avoid the rest of the populace that doesn't feature in the book. What else did you experience in Cuba, which affected your work and made an impact on you?
Michael Dweck: I don't think I made a conscious effort to "avoid the rest of the populace that doesn’t feature in the book." I made artistic decisions about the book's subject and held my focus.
I think it's important to remember that "Habana Libre" doesn't depict Cuba, nor Havana, but a group of people in the city, in the country — my ideal vision. It's no different than the photographs that come out of Fashion Week in New York. They depict a very small subset of a very large and complex society. When publishing photographs of a model on a catwalk, the photographer doesn't have a responsibility to juxtapose them with images of impoverished children in the South Bronx or remind the audience that to get to the shoot, he or she had to share a subway car with a homeless man who soiled his pants. It's the same city, but a different focus.
Cuba is a diverse place with no shortage of suffering and poverty. I’m not pretending that it's not, but I'm also not presenting that as my thesis. When the Cultural Ministers open the doors for a National Geographic crew, they can field those questions. I went to Cuba with long and short lenses, but I aimed them very carefully.
Artinfo: Now that you've left Havana, what projects do you have coming up?
Michael Dweck: I’m working on a tantalizing project called "Checks and Balances" featuring candid shots of "pro-family" US Congressmen engaged in extramarital affairs. No. That's a joke (though it's not a bad idea… plenty of material for fodder).
If you know me, you know my next move is dependent on the prior move — like I described before about my arrival in Cuba. You can see the process in all my work. I pick settings, set-up the cameras, then I zoom-in on elements of note. With Montauk, it was Island — Beach — Youth. With Mermaids, it was Water — Impressionism — Female Form. All I can do is give you a hint of the next keywords floating around in my head: Film. Paris. Growth. Now you know as much as I do.
Indagare interview with Michael Dweck by Simone Girner
Indagare interview with Michael Dweck by Simone Girner
Indagare: What first brought you to Cuba and what were you initial impressions? What would you say is the biggest misconception Americans have about Cuba?
Michael Dweck: I’d had ideas about working in Havana for a long time – though I didn’t know the scope or the focus until I got there and started poking around and making connections. I knew I wanted to photograph the island emotionally, but what that meant, I wasn’t really sure.
I knew I had to go, though. Doesn’t everyone want to go? Here’s a place that’s always been painted as dangerous and sensual; a country that my government denotes as “off-limits.” Well anytime you dangle something in front of an artist that’s risky and seductive and supposedly forbidden – it’s only a matter of time before the artist bites – before anyone bites. It’s human nature to want what you can’t have and, I suppose, artists’ nature to find a way to approach that and synthesize it.
I think that method really allowed “Habana Libre” to sneak in the backdoor, so to speak; to break down some of those misconceptions you mention: it depicts an overall joy that permeates Cuban life, in spite of the government; and it depicts artists leading fine lifestyles thanks, in part, to the support of the same government.
Indagare: How has the country changed since your first visit?
MD: The most significant changes have actually come since my last visit. A lot has loosened in recent months: Cubans are allowed to have cell phones. The government has issued 390,000 small business licenses. You can sell your house or own property.
One of the best examples is the woman who I met when I was in Havana. She’s making 20-cents a day as the assistant director of a contemporary arts gallery, and now she owns a house that can be sold for $1.2 million. How do even begin to understand the implications of that?
Beyond that, the island’s also seeing some new construction. Golf courses and hotels are slowly being restored. The government is obviously short on money and they seem to be making capitalistic concession, which is good and bad, depending on how you look at it. There will be more money coming in eventually, but at what cost? Already, some of the under-the-radar clubs I’d visited have been overtaken by tourists. It all kind of goes against the ideals of the revolution, but money is money, I guess.
I had a feeling that something like this was going to happen, which was another reason I made the first trip. And I’m I got there when I did. If I’d waited even a year or two, it would be a much different scene; a much different book.
Indagare: Were people welcoming to you taking their picture when you first started shooting in Cuba?
MD: Once the artists knew who I was – once they knew I wasn’t just some joker with a nice camera – they were very welcoming. It helped that we shared some common ground and that, in some cases, we were familiar with one another’s work. Without that I would never have gotten the access I had.
This isn’t DisneyLand – it’s illegal to photograph in most places without approval. So, if you make it to Havana, don’t expect to be able to go into a nightclub or a café or an artist’s studio and start snapping photos. I’m sorry, but “Michael was allowed to do it,” isn’t going to fly there.
Indagare: Your book is divided into sections, eg models, cars, art, etc. Did you chose to photograph these separate subjects, or did you notice your themes as you were compiling the works for this book?
MD: I had themes in mind, but conceptualized them more so as “scenes” – as in a film. That’s part of what makes the book unique – I tried to direct a narrative thread that carries the reader through the work. It’s similar to what I did in “Montauk: The End” – and there aren’t many art books like this. Maybe “Cowboy Kate,” but outside of that, the nearest examples are in cinema.
The flow is chronological and fluctuates between the nocturnal and the diurnal: You’re in a nightclub; then it’s the next day at a concert, an amusement park; a party at an artist’s studio at one a.m.; the backseat of a convertible; The Tropicana the next night; you’re driving on the highway when your car breaks down; you’re at the beach; you’re beside a pair of lovers in an abandoned elevator; you’re on Avenue de Presidente with 50,000 teenagers on a Saturday night. The whole thing plays out like the stills of a sensual trip through these elite circles in Cuba. It’s like a movie on paper in a dream.
Indagare: What do you miss from home when you are traveling?
MD: What do I miss? I miss my family. I miss speaking English. I miss the conveniences, the predictability, the internet access. I missed everything that I’ll take for granted again when I’m back home and begin missing what I’d wasted my time resenting. And that’s what I tried to remind myself every time I went back to Havana: Just go with it and enjoy where you are and what that means.
There’s something charming about the isolation too. Sure, I wish there was wifi or 4G, but there’s also something priceless about relaxing and smoking a cigar on a terrace overlooking the Malecon without constantly feeling compelled to check my email every eight minutes. After all, you can’t really appreciate something for what it is if you’re hung up on what it’s not. Luxury is a relative term and only a fool tries to escape a place with the hopes of it following him.
Indagare: Do you have a favorite Cuban artist? What limitations do Cuban artists have in selling their work to American collectors?
MD: I have a few favorites. Carlos Quintana is probably my favorite contemporary Cuban painter. Then there’s Rachel Valdes – she’s featured on the cover of “Habana Libre.” She’s only 20-years-old, but her paintings are phenomenal… you’ll be seeing a lot more of her in years to come. Traditionally speaking, I’d have to go with Wilfredo Lam – his style wanders from cubism to surrealism and should be up there alongside Picasso. He has a museum in Cuba where I wanted to have an upcoming exhibition – they don’t show contemporary work, though, so it’ll be at Fototeca de Cuba.
I’m not aware of any complications that a buyer or seller wouldn’t encounter in an art transaction in any other country. You, as a buyer, need to get a permit - which will take 20 minutes - and then you’re all set to take art home. It’s the same as Italy or Mexico – they want to inspect the purchase, make sure it’s not from antiquity; make sure they’re collecting all due taxes. But there’s no issue for the artists. They’re free to exhibit outside of Cuba as well.
Indagare: Have you ever visited anyplace that felt like Cuba or is the country totally unique in the world?
MD: I think every place is unique, but Cuba’s singularity takes things a step-further as the originality is cultural, geographical and, in ways, generational.
Until recently, Cuba was pretty much the exact same country it had been since the revolution in ’59. The buildings and cars haven’t changed, the government hasn’t changed, the society hasn’t really been influenced by outside media. It’s like Pompeii after Vesuvius erupted. Everything seems preserved from some lost moment of impact.
Prior the revolution, though, there was a lot of foreign money pouring into the country, which accounts for the surprisingly durable infrastructure. The water is drinkable from the tap – there are roads there that seem better maintained than the Long Island Expressway. But, yeah, the nostalgic element of the island underscores everything, as does the unavoidable existence of Fidel’s regime. Those are inescapable realities that make Cuba remarkable in all definitions of the word.
Indagare: Cuba has a vibrant urban culture but no widely available internet. Is this a shock when you first visit? Do you notice this instantly when visiting?
MD: Well, you could make the case – like I said before – that this vibrant culture is precisely because there is no internet, no outside influence. That explains the societal quirks, but, you’re right – there is a surprising amount of communication and interconnectivity despite the lack of internet and high price of modern, technological contact.
I like to use the example of the recent Peace Without Borders concert held in Revolution Square in Septembet 2009. This was the country’s first big outdoor concert and they were expecting more than a million people, but in the days leading up to the concert, no one knew when it was. There were no posters or commercials like we would have. Even the sound engineer didn’t know when it was. I asked Juanes who was the featured performer, and he wasn’t sure. But somehow, people found out. At midnight that Friday, I heard people coursing through the streets and the next day there’s 1.5 million people in the square for the start of the show. It’s an old-school system of communication – how life worked before cell phones and email. And, what’s odd, in many ways it’s more efficient than our modern methods, because it boils down information into necessity, it forces people to rely on one another and it makes us interact face to face in ways Facebook never will.
Indagare: Which artists influence/inspire you?
MD: It really depends on the body of work. For the “Mermaids” series, I was moved by the French impressionists – Monet in particular.
For “Habana Libre,” as I mentioned before, I thought of scenes in more cinematic terms, so I found myself looking to filmmakers for inspiration. I really like Billy Wilder, the aesthetics he played with in “Double Indemnity” and “Sunset Boulevard.” Or some of the French masters, Louis Brunel’s “Belle du Jour,” Claude LeLouch’s “Un Home et Un Femme.” The vibes David Lynch brought to “Blue Velvet” or “Wild at Heart.”
I’m thinking of shooting a film in future – something in Paris maybe – and a lot of the classic noir motifs keep coming fogging up my mind. That’s my problem with inspiration – it gets inside me and I can’t shake it until I’ve re-interpreted it somehow.
Indagare: What are some of your favorite things to do in Havana and elsewhere in Cuba? What should a first-time visitor not miss?
MD: I’ve really only spent time in Havana and Playa Del Este, but my favorites activities are the same anywhere: jazz, dinner with artists and friends, smoking cigars and, in this case, drinking 18-year-old rum on a veranda overlooking the Malecon.
I found Havana a terrific place to bounce around spontaneously. If you know enough Spanish and are willing to have an adventure, you should talk to people, ask around, make friends and see where things take you…
Personally, I would have a Mojito in the back garden of Hotel Nacional. Visit the Partagas Factory to see the best cigars in the world being rolled. There’s a band called Los Kents, which is like a Cuban version of the Rolling Stones – you can catch them in Miramar. Eat in La Guarida, the restaurant featured in the film “Fresa y Chocolate.” Get a grilled lobster at Malecon 107, or some Spanish food at El Templete in Habana Vieja. I’d see the 10 PM show at The Tropicana too. (Some people say it’s touristy, but there’s something amazing about seeing a show that hasn’t changed since 1928. It’s incredibly sexy and timeless.) You should request a table in the front.
For nightlife, you have to hear some jazz at La Zorra y El Cuervo, if your lucky you'll catch Roberto Fonseca playing a late session - he is single-handedly changing jazz piano. Or go to Don Congrejo late on a Friday night and try to see Kelvis Ochoa. And make sure to walk the Malceon after 11 p.m. on the weekend. That should keep you pretty busy.
If you happen to find yourself in Havana in mid-February, come see my show at the Fototeca de Cuba Museum. Afterwards, I can take you to some places we can’t tell really talk about.
Digital Photo Pro Magazine interview with Michael Dweck
Digital Photo Pro Magazine interview with Michael Dweck
DPP: Why black & white? That’s a totally unfair question, I know, because when I interview a photographer who works solely in color (or even mostly in color) I would NEVER ask “why color.” Yet, maybe because in the digital era when every image is captured in color first, it seems like a different decision must enter into making an image into black & white. (It almost seems like in your case, making an image color is the one that requires the conscious choice.) So, even if you’re shooting film… Why black & white? What does it bring to your work that you can’t get from color? Does it add to the fantasy? What determines which projects will be in black & white (or at least partially b/w)? And how/why did you reach the decision to have some color photos—skies, flags, etc—in the The End body of work?
Michael Dweck: I don’t think that’s an unfair question, any more than “why film and not digital?” would be unfair.
They’re both primarily aesthetic choices, but there’s also a lot of sensory input that I can’t really qualify. It’s like trying to explain why you like a certain flavor – you could use a thousand adjectives to describe taste or texture but never get close to explaining any immediate sensation. What I’m trying to say is that there’s a definite “feel” to it.
When I shoot on film – which is probably 99% of the time – I try to keep a lot of camera bodies, maybe four or five, around my neck. It’s like working from a palette. So maybe I’ll have color in one or two and the others will be black and white and then I can switch off as needed. See, I tend to set these scenes in my mind before I go about photographing them, even if I haven’t staged them outright. So once those impressions filter through, I reach for the camera that I think can best capture what’s already imprinted in my head. Again, it doesn’t really make sense. That’s as far as I understand it too.
As far as fantasy is concerned, you’re on the right track, but I don’t think the lack of color adds to any fantasy so much as it takes things one step away from reality. It also lends scenes a more cinematic air, in my opinion. Of course you can shoot things cinematically in color, but for me, B&W tows that line further and it drags it to a place that sits nicely between reality and fantasy.
That’s a realization that came from my work in Montauk. Once I realized I was framing a narrative, B&W just seemed to feel right. It lent itself well to a mixture of fantasy and documentation in ways that would have been lost if the colors of the ocean, sky, skin were popping off the page. I feel like there’s not much room to sway your audience when they’re distracted by sunsets. Subtle contrast can be much more suggestive. The question brings to mind Man Ray. I always thought his photographs were more colorful precisely because they were in black and white, if that makes sense… That’s what I aim for – capturing essentials starkly and not relying on any unnecessary effects.
The only exception for me is Mermaids, which I shot half and half: in black and white at night and in color during the day. But that was a much more abstract body of work, which color couldn’t really interrupt.
Color was much more dangerous with Habana Libre. I made a conscious decision to avoid the clichés shots of Cuba – the contrast of bright paint and rusty cars. That’s too obvious, too easy and didn’t really serve my purpose. I needed stark ideas to come out of those images and draw the eye without manipulating it. It is intended, after all, as a cinematic narrative, and not a desk calendar. It’s also about the future in many ways and not the past.
DPP: I’d like to stay with black & white for a second; not that it’s the most interesting part of your work. It’s just that I find a lot of photographers wonder about how a photographer goes about converting color digital image files into black & white. So I’m wondering if you can offer any insights into how you approach actually creating black & white image files, if you have any preferred techniques, or if you have any specific rationale behind what you’re trying to achieve when you make that conversion. Meaning, do you always have a specific agenda in mind for the tones, or is it a question of simply seeing what works best for a given image? (I don’t actually know if you shoot film or digital or both, so please feel free to adapt this question as needed.)
Michael Dweck: I don’t really work with digital images too often, so I don’t have much experience moving between the two. What I have done on occasion, though, is change color film to black and white by scanning color negatives and converting them. I try to avoid this. It gets hard to control the contrast and keep things natural at the same time.
I had to do it twice with Habana Libre for different reasons and I wasn’t really happy with the process. I mean, I don’t think people can tell which photos were swapped, but I can – maybe just because I remember the process and what a pain it was. Either way, I try to avoid playing with color like that.
That’s why I use so many cameras at once… It’s a literal pain in the neck, but it saves time and makes for better end results.
DPP: Okay, on to the important stuff. Your work has a very youthful feel to it. As Chris Robinson said to me, “It feels young even before you see the subjects.” So what is it about youth that appeals to you? Are you simply tapping into a youthful exuberance that you observe and photograph, or are you orchestrating it in any particular way? (The logistics of your work seem, for some reason, particularly interesting to me as a photographer.)
Michael Dweck: I’m glad you got that impression. I try to explain the difference between focusing on youth and focusing on young people, but it’s lost on many. I’ve described it as “the difference between boiling water and steam,” but that doesn’t really clear much up. [laughs.]
I guess I just like the idea of what youth represents and how a well-framed photograph can capture that essence and make it last forever. The irony, of course, is that you’re preserving something ephemeral, but that’s what makes it particularly poignant for me. I’ve always been intrigued by, you know, the idea of “forever young” and eternal youth. And there’s a very exact age where that surfaces that I try to capture in my work. It’s that a period in someone’s life when they’re say, 17-19 yrs old, when their hormones are racing; when they’re becoming independent, but aren’t completely sovereign yet. It’s a magical time to photograph someone… Put that on a beach, like I did in Montauk, or underwater, as I did in Mermaids, and that moment and its personality really blooms for me. This is where the suggestion borders on escapism – you have youth looking into the infinite in a setting where natural identity can emerge. So much of my vision is about getting the hell out of where we are at a particular time and reflecting on where we want to go and why. So youth is a big part of that, particularly that segment of youth; that age where you stop wishing you were older and aren’t yet wishing you were younger. Your dreams stop involving where you are and start encompassing what you want to do and where you want to do it. And that’s a beautiful point from which the rest of your life will bloom – though you don’t always see it that way at the time. To see images of that exact moment, I think, can take you back to that place – and maybe from there, you can think magically again and stop wasting time on wishes. I don’t know – it’s just a thought.
So, I guess there is a certain amount of orchestration there. I’m not a street photographer, so these definitely aren’t candid images. At the same time, though, I don’t really use professional models that often. I find people who can display something that they don’t know they have. And that’s the only way to do it. You can’t tell somebody how to be young, right?
DPP: When I see pictures of casual, sunny youth, lounging sans clothes… I often wonder if this is a real phenomena that I was just never fortunate enough to encounter, or is this something that is entirely a creation of the advertising/art world? I guess the bigger question is, what is it that you think this combination of frequently nude bodies and youth and authenticity… what does it create that makes your images so darn dynamic and interesting? I’m also wondering about the practical aspects of these shoots. Are they as freewheeling and casual as the images make them appear, or are they in fact carefully orchestrated productions?
Michael Dweck: Don’t feel bad. If that’s a natural phenomenon, I’m missing out on it too.
No, these scenes are my “creations” to a certain extent. I mean, I’m not claiming to have invented nudity or the notion of nude sunbathing or skinny-dipping or whatever it might seem like. But I do direct these arrangements to fit into narratives. I think that kind of goes without saying – that I directed a lot of these scenes for the individual projects… It’s not as if I’ve repeatedly been lucky enough to stumble upon perfectly-lit nude bodies when I happen to have five cameras dangling from my neck…
To deviate for a second: I always find it interesting that this idea of arrangement seems to be considered more in photography than other arts. There’s a large amount of ignored participation by the subjects and audiences of, say, painting or music or film. In the end, I think, if the art is good, it can ultimately allow you to forget all that – forget that Manet or Renoir had Berthe Morisot sit still in a chair for 30 hours or that Godard had Jean Seberg repeat the same scene 30 times before it felt natural. When you listen to music, you don’t really think about overdubs and session musicians or the set-up and break-down of gear. You can interact with the art itself and not the process that created it. It takes a bit more convincing for this to work with photography, I think, but that’s what I try to do – and a big part of that begins with controlling your environment.
When this is successful, in my opinion, is when the artist – in this case, the photographer – really knows his or her subjects, really puts them at ease and makes them feel comfort. My work tends to deal with suggestion and some sort of alluring nuance, and to achieve that requires very careful orchestration – not total control, but a real understanding of setting and subject and how to blend the two comfortably. So, I guess, the answer would be that I try to create a freewheeling atmosphere within very controlled environment. Maybe not as complex as atom collisions at the CERN, but that’s a nice metaphor, isn’t it? [laughs.]
I think I might be a tad more hands-on than other photographers, only because I hold closely the notion of the narrative. I tell little stories in photographs, but they all play into larger arcs that thread their way through my books. That’s largely achieved though editing, but it definitely begins on the beach – in the case of Montauk – or in the hotel room in Habana Libre, etc…
I don’t want to come off as a control-freak or ruin your image of spontaneity - but I want to show how little the margin of error there is when you’re trying to make an audience forget the man behind the camera; when you’re trying to lead them carefully through a narrative; and, really, when you’re trying to seduce them without appearing too-subtle or too-suggestive…
I don’t want to be dull and I don’t want racy. I want suggest, lure and pleasure and tell a story without eliciting lust or desire. Does that make sense?
DPP: Tell me a little bit about the nuts and bolts of your career, if you don’t mind. I gather that you’re less a commercial photographer taking advertising and editorial assignments, and more a fine artists who creates work for “personal” projects that then become books and exhibitions. Is this a fair assessment? Do you take on commercial assignments? Either way, how do you feel about seeing the “youth in paradise” vibe turned into a marketing device via Levis et al. Does it change the dynamic for you, or the way you think about it, or does it make you more deliberate in the way you work or what you photograph? Or is it completely inconsequential to you and your photography?
Michael Dweck: I haven’t taken on any real commercial photography assignments – and that’s not because I’m opposed to it. The right ones just haven’t presented themselves… It’s funny though, because I originally started photographing in Montauk to put together something for a portfolio. The project just took on a life of its own before I could present it like that. It became a deeply personal project. That then became an exhibition at Sotheby’s, and then a book and then there were more exhibitions… But that was never the intent off the bat. I just kind of allowed myself to follow the trail.
And that’s been the way my path through photography has been too. I mean, I never had any ideas of becoming an “artist,” so to speak. My father gave me a camera when I was seven. My first photographs were of the beach in the natural light, and then I took some photos at the World’s Fair. Eventually, the camera really became my way of introducing myself to girls. I didn’t have the looks and I wasn’t the musician or the surfer kid, but I had this camera and that didn’t hurt. [laughs.]
As far as the “youth in paradise” thing goes, I honestly don’t worry too much about it. I may have contributed to some kind of trend that been rehashed for this or that, but it doesn’t really concern me too much. Having a background in advertising, I know that art is always going to be referenced (or ripped-off) to try to sell things, whether that means music or photography; shoes or jeans. I don’t let anything like that change my ideas about my personal projects…
DPP: Let’s talk a little bit about the specific bodies of work that Chris mentioned, and which I think is reflected in his image request. First, if you don’t mind, Mermaids. Because I feel like this work reminds me of Andre Kertesz, and that’s about the highest compliment I can provide. But they don’t seem at all like an homage; they’re very contemporary. Can you tell me at all about what inspired this series? Are there any particular images from the series (and from Chris’s selection) that you’d like to discuss the creation of?
Michael Dweck: I appreciate the comparison. I know Kertesz’s photo you’re talking about – as well as some of his other works that play with body and forms. I can’t say I really considered them – or any other photographer’s work – when I was photographing Mermaids, though. I never really do – not consciously anyhow.
Mermaids, like Montauk, was kind of an accident that became a project. I was dividing my time between Paris and Long Island, shooting some of Mermaids in Montauk and studying some Impressionism at Musée d'Orsay, which was right down the street from my hotel in Paris. So, slowly those two worlds kind of merged and I starting thinking about a project that was as much about light, lens and water as much as it was about form and visual perception. I needed a location that had clear, warm water and eventually found a spot in Aripeka Island, Florida, where a fresh water spring fed into the Weeki Wachee River.
Then I met these girls who had grown-up down there, right on the river. They could hold their breath underwater for amazing amounts of time and actually called themselves mermaids. So the work is kind of about them, life underwater, escapism, refracted light, a lot of things, really... It was a really fun project to work on – I call it, “painting with a camera,” because it allowed me to step away further from reality and play with abstractions – channel my inner Cezanne and Cousteau simultaneously...
DPP: Next, Havana Libre. So, my first question is, is this a work of documentary or fiction? The world seems in a way too good to be true. But based on what I’ve read on your site, it sure appears to be a glimpse inside a special world of privilege, which becomes even more intriguing within the context of this country trapped, literally, on an island frozen in time.
Michael Dweck: Too good to be true is right. That’s how I felt when I stumbled upon that scene – this really complex circle of privileged artists, a “farandula”. But no – it’s all real. This wasn’t quite like Montauk, which I described earlier with its carefully controlled scenes … That’s why I had to make eight separate trips to Cuba – I wanted Habana Libre to be a narrative about real people in a real place and a real time.
At the same time, though, I never wanted to present “Habana Libre” as “documentary.” Yes, it documents something, but so does, I don’t know, “Gone with the Wind.” And I don’t know anybody that would call “Gone with the Wind” a documentary. Maybe that’s not the best example. If I had to frame it in terms of a film, I’d place it with Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” or “Wild at Heart,” – maybe with a neo-noir like “Body Heat” or Billy Wilder's “Double Indemnity.” Because I do approach my work like a filmmaker, just not an objective one who has an exact editorial agenda in his pocket.
The point is that the project was never meant to be “about” Cuba, it was meant to take place “in” Cuba… it was meant to “be” Cuba; my ideal vision and impression of it anyway. For me, it’s a work that continues to realize the same themes as my other works – nothing political or overly heavy. It’s about escapism, not socio-political tourism; seduction and pleasure, not a winking endorsement or criticism of a regime. That’s why it annoys me to hear a handful of critics complaining about the political or social intentions, blah, blah, blah. The only intention I had in crafting this narrative was the intention to capture a story of an island and a certain group as I envisioned it or them...
Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of ways to read Habana Libre, and I’m not suggesting any are wrong. But when it comes down to it, it’s a work of art about a very particular story arc involving a very unique group of people. I love when people explain to me their interpretations of the work, I’m just not keen when they explain my intentions to me...
DPP: You used the word “alluring” in your profile on your site (photographing alluring people, in alluring places, doing alluring things. This seems particularly appropriate to your work in general, and the Havana Libre work in particular. Is “allure” really the basis of the magic in your images? Are you simply showing us something we desperately want to see more of, a world we would love to inhabit? Is it really that simple? And then, of course, I assume it’s not at all that simple to create such allure?
Michael Dweck: I definitely do like that idea of world-building, like you said – giving people the setting they want to inhabit, so to speak. And, yes, I guess the idea of the allure is that simple in a sense: “hey look, these are places/people you want to be; mindsets you want to inhabit.” That’s where it starts at least. There’s much more than that, as you suggested.
If all you want is to be teased by something you can’t have, you can find that anywhere. Pick up a travel brochure or watch a Corona commercial or, hell, rent a porn video. The real allure in art, for me at least, lies in the relatable humanity of its images and in the meaningful direction of its narrative. Even that seems simple in a way – and the concept, again, is simple – though the execution is quite difficult.
I approach that – alluring people with art – like a filmmaker might in shooting a movie. My job is to layout the basics, draw a dotted line and then allow the audience to connect it all. If I do it right, the trip seems natural while blending the process into the background. Again, it’s hard to describe…
Part of it is premeditated, requiring me to identify my visions of a particular time/space. The next step involves distilling it. And then I pass it on. Unlike news or sports photographers who pass on what’s already there, dealing in suggestion and allure mean passing on intangibles; without, you know, making it obvious. And this is much harder than it looks.
The other part – the part that isn’t planned – is the “freewheeling” aspect you mentioned earlier… It’s the place where that “magic” happens – that is, the surprising things that you hope for, but can’t “plan,” per se. It’s the moment where everything’s set-up and I can be, um, Werner Herzog or Jim Jarmusch and sort of let the actors be themselves, whatever that may mean.
DPP: How important is the concept of “place” to your work? It seems to me that without the particulars of a given location tied to the images, they would simply be “pretty people in a pretty place.” But the context seems to elevate them to something greater. Anyway, I’m wondering how much your work is about the places as much as the people inhabiting them?
Michael Dweck: Again, I’m really glad you can see that. Yeah, “place” is hugely important to my work. I always ask, “What would Habana Libre be if it took place in Miami Beach? What would Mermaids be if I just shot it in a swimming pool?” You know? It’d be like playing soccer on a basketball court. [laughs.]
Seriously though, the setting is the uncredited character in any work of art - like Manhattan in a Woody Allen movie. These places are as much a part of the narrative as the actors and it’s sad to think that this is often lost on people – how much of an effect setting actually has.
I mean, it’s easy to reduce appeal to what you said, “pretty people in pretty places,” but that only accounts for the attractiveness of a particular image in a larger setting. Again, say Diane Keaton in “Annie Hall.” Pretty person, pretty place, is that all there is? Is that all it takes? No, the setting and the way it informs the narrative is important.
Artists invest their personality, joy, heat, love, hate, whatever into their work and that’s what makes an image more complex than the items on its surface. That investment of the artist and that collaboration with setting is what makes something like Montauk so much more complex than, say, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. I don’t care if things look beautiful… I want them to feel beautiful, feel reflective of ideas and the places in which they’re set.
I don’t know if I fully understood that until after I finished the first few shoots in Havana. I started to lay-out photograph after photograph, but the narrative just wasn’t developing. It was flat – there was no heat. I tried to capture my vision of Cuba, the music, the heat of the people. I wanted the place and its essence; something sensed more than seen. And that’s why I went there 8 times, why I spent 4 ‘months editing. When you’re dealing with vision and emotion and a real living/breathing location, you have to throw away surface impressions, because those are cheap… You have to look deeper.
The photograph of the Malecon in Habana Libre is a great example. I shot that damn scene a bunch of times and every photograph looked like a postcard. The only shot I kept was an impromptu one I snapped while jogging in the morning… I took it with a cheap digital point-and-shoot and when I looked back at it, it had also personality of Cuba that every other had lacked. Go figure.
DPP: Lastly, the End. You hail from Long Island yourself. So that prompts my question about this body of work, as well as your work in general: Is any part of this biographical, or at all reflective of your own youth? As a teenager were you a surfer? Did you lounge your summers away on the beach? Or is it just the opposite and you’re now living vicariously through your subjects? In fact, is that what we’re doing as viewers—living vicariously through your photos?
Michael Dweck: That’s a good question. The answer is “yes,” “no” and “I don’t know.”
Next question. [Laughs]
No, I mean, there’s some biography in there I guess. I spent most of my childhood by the beach on Long Island, so capturing images of youth on the coast has to be personal in some sense, even if it’s on levels that I don’t totally understand. I don’t read into it too much, though.
I wasn’t a great surfer although I did spend a lot of time at the surf beach,– but I don’t know if I’m living vicariously through shots of surfers. I couldn’t say. All art kind of allows the artist to investigate something close to his or her heart or something that’s intriguing… And then, in turn, the audience can take the journey with the artist. I don’t know if anyone’s living vicariously through anyone else or anything else, though… We’re all just living, right?
Next question. [Laughs]
DPP: Okay, actually lastly—at least for now. My understanding is that you came from the advertising world, but not as an advertising photographer. And prior to that you studied at Pratt, but I don’t get the impression you studied photography. Is it fair to say you came to the medium fairly late, or is it something that you’ve always worked with and only “lately” turned it into your passion, your profession? How do you think art school, and a career as a creative director, has shaped your photography? I get the feeling it may make you more focused on the work itself, rather than the trappings of equipment and technique that so many photographers spend so much time caught up in. But that’s just my baseless assumption, so please feel free to correct me. The point is, how do you think coming from “the outside” has impacted your photography? Has it made you a better artist, more concerned about the work than the process?
Michael Dweck: Yeah, I think it’s safe to say that I came to the art of photography rather late. As I said, I started photographing when I was seven, but it wasn’t until recently that I started considering it an art, per se. I don’t even know that I do consider it an “art.” That’s how it’s classified, but I don’t know. I guess that’s neither here nor that.
Yeah, you’re right though. I’m a self-taught photographer. I studied architecture and fine art at Pratt and that greatly informed my work, exposure to films helped too – but I learned the mechanics and possibilities of photography by myself, playing around with light and texture on the beach.
As an advertising alum, I guess I understand imagery in a certain sense and that’s maybe what has helped me bury suggestion in my work – not in a subliminal sense, but in a manner that respects subtlety and, really, respects its audience. In advertising too, I never wanted my work to seem too obvious or cliché. A lot of my work dealt with irony and didn’t even show or mention the product. And you can see that in my work now – not the irony so much, but the very careful exposure that isn’t reductive and makes the audience work for the win.
As far as gear, you’re right, I’m not a technical guy. I know lighting and I know how to photograph in all manner of scenarios. I understand what I can control, but I don’t spend a lot of time on equipment – I use what I know can get me what I want, if that makes sense.
I’m more concerned with the things you can’t teach than all that technical business. There’s something that the Spanish call el duende and that’s what I want in my work. It’s a dark and magical thing that moves and inhabits art and artist. It’s the soul of the work and it’s not in the paintbrush or the guitar or the camera… it’s in the artist. They say, if you’re sincere and you’re insightful and you’re humble and you really, really, really feel and believe what you’re doing, you can suffuse your art with that spirit. I know, it sounds fluffy, but it speaks to the heart of the process… it’s the intangible thing that you have or you don’t. It doesn’t come from an electronics store. It comes from the soul.
DPP: Equipment. I wanted to ask for an equipment list anyway (it makes our advertisers happy), so if you wouldn’t mind listing your essentials (or favorites) of cameras/lenses/films… I’d appreciate it.
Michael Dweck: My go-to is a Pentax 6x7, but as I said, I like options – so I’ll go out with maybe that and two other Pentax bodies, as well and an old Rolleflex. I also have a small 35mm Contax t2 wide-angle auto that I keep in my pocket and use for discreet impromptu shots… I don’t really like it all that much, but it’s the best I’ve found for shooting quickly from a car or on the go.
As far as lenses and film go, I don’t know if I can lock-in a favorite. I always adapt to the job. I tend to favor Kodak films, but I’m not married to one particular film grade. Does that answer your question?
DPP: But staying with equipment for a second… I’d like to ask a little more about the cameras slung around your neck. I can imagine this gets to be quite a cumbersome arrangement. But I’m wondering how much changes from camera to camera. i.e. are three of them loaded with Tmax 100, one is Tmax 400 and then one color? Or is it more like one medium format 100 b/w with a telephoto, one medium format 100 b/w with a wide angle, one 35mm color wide, one high-speed black and white… I guess what I’m wondering is about the basics of that setup, and just how much variety you have in the format/lenses/films that are around your neck at any given moment. And just how often do you stare down at them blankly forgetting exactly what’s going on in what body, and what on earth you were thinking about doing? (I feel like half the time I shoot with two bodies, I spend half that time grabbing the wrong one.)
Michael Dweck: The set-up I described is my very basic one – almost a hypothetical one, as it changes from location to location and subject to subject as I said. I guess I don’t really have an ideal arrangement, or ideal camera/lens configuration. I map out the plan in my head, relative to the particular shoot, then I throw something together. It’s more thought-out than that, of course, but you get the idea. Versatility is the only real constant. So: different bodies, different lenses, but no standard, per se.
Once I get my equipment together, I use a color-coded organization system that involves crayons. That way I can glance down and grab the right camera at any moment without having to spend a lot of time fumbling around with bodies.
DPP: We didn’t really talk much about lighting, but it’s clearly central to what you do. (A beautiful nude on the beach has a totally different connotation on a sunny day and a cloudy day, right?) How much is ambient that you’re taking full advantage of, and how much is carefully illuminated by hand? And when it comes to adding your own lights and/or modifiers, what are your preferred tools and techniques?
Michael Dweck: If possible, I’ll take natural light 99 times out of a hundred – especially when I’m working outdoors. It would have to be a very special scene for me to favor something fabricated when the sun is shining for free, you know?
Indoors or in low light, I’ll usually just fall back on a flash strobe and play around until things feel right. I’ve tried everything, but kind of settled on that as the basic approach. I mean, I try not to fake anything with light. It just takes too much time and feels cheap to me. I prefer the simple set-ups or – in the right scenarios, something improvised: a bedside lamp or a pair of headlights. I’ve used candles in the past, the light from a projector.
It ended up being great that I work that way, because this was the way it had to be in Cuba. I had to travel with my equipment, so that ruled out any elaborate rigs. Plus, we were constantly moving and it was often 100-degrees, so big laborious lighting set-ups weren’t really an option. I don’t think I had anything but natural or ambient light and/or an on-camera flash for anything in Cuba. It was like a “found light” treasure hunt at times… “Oh, there’s a car broken next to the beach – let’s hurry up and get this photograph before he fixes it.” [laughs.]
Montauk was all natural light too, obviously – all true-to-life seaside work. Mermaids is the only real exception, as it was shot in fresh water at night… That’s when I got to have some fun with rigs. We mounted 20k HMIs on a 60-foot crane that sunk itself into the mud like you might imagine it would on a river bank. It was like taping a flashlight to an Erector set and trying to stand it in a bowl of oatmeal. [laughs.]
DPP: Cinema. I also didn’t really ask much about the cinematic nature of your work, but I think you addressed it pretty well when discussing the idea of setup vs. documentary, and its relation to the other arts. It’s such a fine line because of course it must be carefully orchestrated (whether it’s your photographs or a motion picture) but being able to forget that (or transcend it) is where some of the magic happens, right? i.e. part of the magic of youth in these pictures comes somewhat from that illusion of pure reality. Seems like quite a fine line to have to work with. How do you know when you’ve crossed it too far in either direction? Oh, and are your shoots cinematic in execution too (in a Greg Crewdson sort of way)? Or are the techniques and crews more minimal in the execution of what becomes a very cinematic story?
Michael Dweck: That’s a great question.
I agree with your read of the “magic moment” or the place where “transcendence” takes place. (Again you read on most things has been very good.) You know, It is a fine line, but it’s the type of boundary that is pretty clear when you’re hovering around it. Like I mentioned with the initial edits on Habana Libre – I couldn’t tell you why my first group didn’t capture the heat I had hoped for, but I knew they just didn’t have it, just like I know the final narrative does. There’s a sensation I have before I start shooting – the vision I described – and that’s what I want to feel when I look back at the photographs. I want to see – feel, really – the narrative that I storyboarded in my mind. I can’t really explain why it works or why it doesn’t, but I definitely know.
Crewdson is a friend and I really love and admire his style. He has incredible patience and a very precise eye. That storyboard I just mentioned – I feel like his is very vivid and he does an incredible job and bringing that out and actualizing it in his photographs.
I don’t quite have the flare for that sort of work though… I don’t try to do anything too large. I mean, the ideas are large, but I like to frame them in simpler settings and let them bloom, so to speak. That is, instead of arranging the final product and controlling every last element to match what’s intact in my mind, I prefer to start with a notion, find subjects that embody it, then pull it from them and their motion. I’ve heard it described as the difference between cooking and baking, which I guess makes sense. Though, in ways it’s more complicated – if less exact – because I have to use 10x more film to get that perfect vibe. But it’s worth it, of course – it allows for surprises, which can be wonderful.
That said, I do think a lot about composition, end product, the grain of the film, which is so important, and, yes the very mise en scene of scenes. That goes without saying. It’s just that the final consideration is a hunt for things that can’t be prepared or arranged.
DPP: I think it’s interesting what you said about not wanting to elicit lust or desire. Because typically, nudes or barely clothed young bodies, particularly when they are—for lack of a better word—cavorting on a beach… Well those are used so frequently for precisely that—to elicit lust and sexual desire. And while your work is very sensual, and as you said luring (rather than lurid) I think that’s something I might not have thought about too explicitly—that while I’m drawn into these stories, and I have a strong feeling of desire… it’s not that sexual desire so much as the desire to be that person in that place at that time. It’s the desire to be young again. Crazy?
Michael Dweck: Crazy, yes, but pretty damn accurate. [laughs.]
I remember debating the point even before I started photographing full-time: it’s not just a semantic argument. There’s a very noticeable difference between allure and desire; between something like burlesque and a porn film. And it’s not just a tease; it’s a suggestion. It draws you in without pulling you by the tie, whereas something like a porn does all the work for you. (Well not all the work, but you know what I mean.)
That’s another line, as you mentioned, that I’m very, very careful about respecting. I try to stay on the side that allows you to see exactly what you saw: the realm where you want to be someone or be somewhere; not just one where you want to fuck something. I mean, there’s always some jackass at an opening who will make some comment to the contrary, but what are you going to do? I just try to remind he or she (and it’s usually a “he”) that you can think about desire if you want, but you’re going there on your own – and it says more about that person than it does about my work. That’s what I tell myself.
And this all goes back to my choice to shoot in black and white (removed from reality, slightly) and in film (retaining something that reminds you that you’re dealing with an artistic medium and not a bedroom window). Because, for me, hyperrealism isn’t seductive. That’s the problem I have with digital in general. It’s too real. There’s no exchange between the artist and the audience; no seduction. Digital feels like perfection and that doesn’t seduce or insinuate. Like porn again – it’s the technical perfection of sex the same way digital is the technically perfect perspective of vision… and without the filtered exchange, a body is just a body and nudity is just nudity and you’ve just reduced a very complex thing like seduction to crude and simple lust.
DPP: Lastly, books. Are the books what you’re imagining as the primary “finished product” of any project? Or are they simply the best vehicle to show the work and, forgive my indelicacy, be able to finance more work? What I’m really asking is, I’ve spoken to some photographers who really think of themselves as “book photographers” with the shows and prints and galleries as something adjacent to that. So I’m really wondering if the books are the end, or simply a by-product of producing wonderful artwork to be shown and sold in galleries? (Again, kind ofa specific technical question, but given an audience of somewhat professional photographers, I always think these subtleties are interesting to our readers.)
Michael Dweck: Yeah, I definitely see the book as a finished art pieces and the most actualized version of my vision (which is, you know, always my impetus). I see all my books that way. We talked about narratives and I don’t think you can really create a story of that scale if you just see your book as “a catalog for the exhibition,” which is how some photographers seem to treat it. Don’t get me wrong, the exhibition is hugely important to me too… I spend a lot of time figuring out how to retain the narratives in hangings, but I’m ultimately trying to recreate the solidity and sense of the books. Those are the real investments.
But yeah - for me, the book is never meant as a “souvenir” from the exhibition… It’s a stand-alone narrative conceived in a way that you don’t really see anymore with art books – and haven’t seen since, maybe, “Cowboy Kate” in the mid-60’s.
I’d really like to see more of that.
Okay, one more quick one. You said “I don’t even know that I do consider photography ‘an art.’ I’d like you to elaborate on that, one way or the other, just because that pricked up my ears a bit. Here’s an artist, clearly, who uses photography as the primary technical means to his end. So how is it that you might not see it truly as “an art”?
Michael Dweck: See, now, I’m going to argue semantics again. [laughs.]
I mean, I do consider myself an artist. I’ve always preferred the term “visual artist” to “photographer,” just because of the connotation and the depth it extends. We’re entering a time when people think downloading Instagram on your iPhone makes you a photographer – and I think it’s important that any real photographer, one who has heart and true vision, distances his- or herself from that.
But art, even the word, can be cheap. It’s a tool and part of a palette at times. And the thing that I was trying to point to by not calling my work “art,” is more of a personal point. It’s a reclaiming of the images – a way to say, “This is my fully-realized vision, my Cuba, my Montauk, my mermaid.” It’s much more than something to browse on a Sunday afternoon.
And the other side of that has its own extensions and acceptances: photography is a scientific capture of something that exists – or existed at least. It has a connotation, but a very specific base too. And you – and I – play between the two, the real and the implied. So, after a while, it’s hard to tell what’s the art. It’s not my vision, because that’s exclusively innate and intangible. And it’s not the film, because that’s just coated plastic. So where is it?
I don’t know. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist.
I’m just saying it’s too personal and important to cover with such a broad umbrella and such a fine flag.
And like this, it’s certainly subject to contradiction.
Cuban Art News interview with Michael Dweck
Cuban Art News interview with Michael Dweck
Cuban Art News: When did you first go to Cuba? What brought you there? How many trips have you taken there in total?
Michael Dweck: My first visit to Havana was in March of 2009, and I made another seven trips in the 14 months that followed.
There’s always a mixture of reasons that bring you to a particular place – for me, beauty is always a factor. In that sense – taken apart from political or social ideas – Cuba has the same draws as other islands in the Caribbean – Jamaica or the Virgin Islands or Antigua. The beaches are stunning, the people are beautiful. It’s just a great place to visit.
Above that though, there’s an appeal to those political and social factors. Preservation attempts by the Cuban regime and isolation techniques by the US government have combined to brand Cuba as this danger, sensual, almost-“lost” island soaked in intrigue and Old World charm. That’s pretty attractive to an artist, especially one with a camera.
Cuban Art News: Were the photos for Habana Libre shot during one trip, or over more than one? If more than one, how many?
Michael Dweck: I photographed during all eight trips, which might seem like a lot – especially when you consider that I only focused on one group of people in one city – but I could have easily taken another 30 trips and still not covered everything.
Cuban Art News: What was it about the nature of the project that required that time frame? [In other words, shooting quickly in one trip, or more slowly in more than one trip.]
Michael Dweck: On one hand, I think it takes a bit of time to capture true reflections of any place, any group, any person. Maybe that’s not the case in news photography, where the images are representative of a specific event or reactions to an event – but it’s necessary in work like mine, where I’m trying to present individual lives and social interactions in sync with an overarching narrative.
I always make it clear – to subjects and audiences – that I have no intention of framing my work as documentary. I see it more in cinematic terms, as though these photographs are scenes in a film – and to do that requires time. You need to learn who your characters are, where they’re from, where they’re going… You have to synthesize the plot of their lives and kind of compose the lines as they happens.
The other reason for stretching things out – to stick with the film metaphor – is the fact that I was shooting on location. My subjects were part of a very exclusive group within a foreign country that happened to be under the control of a strict socialist regime. So, I had to learn my boundaries, learn the lay of the land – figuratively and literally – and just develop relationships, build trust, understand the culture, make friends. It took time.
Cuban Art News: Do you speak Spanish? If so, was it essential to your being able to move through Havana in the way that you did? (If not, it clearly wasn’t essential. Why not?)
Michael Dweck: I understand Spanish better than I speak it. So, I could pick up most of what was being said in conversation and reply with enough Spanish to get by. (Although my wife, who is Argentine, will tell you that I know just enough Spanish to get in trouble.) As time went on, I obviously learned more, and there were usually folks around who could translate if I really hit a wall.
I would say it’s not essential to know Spanish to kick around Havana superficially, but, yeah, if you want to dig in and see some stuff that most tourists don’t, it definitely helps to speak Spanish – or have some well-connected friends.
Cuban Art News: The book talks about farandulas, circles of friends who intersect and overlap. Could you trace for us how you came to know the people you photographed for the book, and the farandulas that brought you to them?
Michael Dweck: The farandula featured in “Habana Libre” is a group of artists – and by that I mean everything from filmmakers to musicians to painters to actors.
I first met them at a party, completely by chance. A Brit who I’d met at my hotel invited me to this get together at this beautiful villa by the ocean – and it unfolded from there, if a little surreally. There were waves crashing over the seawall and swarms of people dancing to the music of a live band in this thick haze around a turquoise swimming pool – for a photographer looking to capture sensual and cinematic images of Cuba, this was a goldmine.
I didn’t just start snapping photos, though. I mingled and talked and worked my way around the party. As an artist, I shared some common ground with many in the group – some of them knew my name or my work, so that helped me to gain their trust. After that, they were inviting me to parties directly.
Cuban Art News: How did you meet Rachel Valdes? What is it about her that made her, as you say, your muse for the project?
Michael Dweck: Rachel is younger than a lot of the artists photographed in “Habana Libre.” She was 19 when we met, but her paintings more than earned her a place in the farandula – and the book. And, to be honest, I didn’t even know she was an artist when I first photographed her, so she probably would have ended up in there either way.
But it’s tough to say what it is about someone that inspires you. She had a natural ease in front of the camera and an ability to pose and position herself that seemed sensual and comfortable at the same time. But that’s just a surface inspiration. I think getting to know her and seeing some of her gorgeous paintings really helped develop the relationship. To be young and beautiful is one thing – to extend that to your creations and present that in another form is what makes one captivating, inspiring.
Cuban Art News: Despite its emphatic sensuality, the book also advances a clear thesis: that within Cuba’s classless society there is a privileged class that exists by virtue of contacts, connections, and what we might call personal magnetism. Tell us more about this theory. What led you to draw this conclusion? Could you describe what this theory was like in action?
Michael Dweck: To describe the way the farandula works, I’d have to fall back on the almost-incestuous description written in the book’s foreword: “a model dates a photographer who is friends with a musician whose song is chosen by a director for a film with an actor who admires the work of an artist who uses the model for a model.” This is a creative class that is, in many ways, self-contained and self-motivated; some kind of social equivalent of a perpetual motion machine. And yes, contacts and connections are a big part, as is the magnetism you mentioned.
But I think that definition misses out the important point of allowance. It mentions how the group works without addressing why it’s allowed to exist in the first place. In a country where brain surgeons make the same small monthly wage as farmers, it’s no fluke or coincidence that artists are permitted to drink 18-year-old rum and dance in the nightclubs every night. Fidel is a self-described patron of the arts – and, for better or worse, a public relations machine. Accordingly, he allows these artists what I call “a system of privilege based on talent.” If you can paint, if you can sing, if you can dance – you can have an iPhone, you can travel, you can spend. That’s the real reason this seems to exist – talent permits it.
Cuban Art News: In their interviews, several of the people you portray voice a certain ambivalence about Cuba’s interactions with the rest of the world, and you yourself cite the paradox of a socialist creative class being dependent on capitalism to sell what they produce. Could you talk about this contradiction a bit, and how Cubans deal with it?
Michael Dweck: I think, for starters, the ambivalence you mention is a product of the government that trickles down. It forces Cubans to deal with things like scarcities, travel restrictions and the realities of being one of the world’s last true “islands,” in the same way Cubans deal with everything: They take extra pride in identity, accept what truly can’t be changed and go on with life – they sing, write, cook, make love. After a while, it’s not a distraction any longer, it’s just a way of life. It’s not necessary ambivalence - it’s more “external;” the same way I might be ambivalent about living in a utopian colony in a different galaxy. It sounds nice, but not possible and thus, easy to dismiss.
As far as the contradiction of the privileges of a socialist class depending on global capitalism – I’m not sure it’s something that these artists consciously “deal with.” They seem to, again, just accept what it means to be an artist, the same way the farmer accepts what it means to be a farmer. The latter can attract funding from Spain and the former grows sugar for the government. I’m sure they – the artists – feel lucky in a sense and wish certain things were different in another, but there’s not much they can say or do – especially when they’re living in the shadow of Fidel.
Cuban Art News: From your experiences there, what impresses you most about Cuba?
Michael Dweck: Oh, I could go on forever listing my favorite things: the seduction in the air, the true joy of the people, the beautiful woman, the ubiquitous talent, the jazz, the light and the way it dances with the air’s humidity, the urgency and coolness of lovers on the Malecon, the food.
It’s all in the book – all the beauty of the whole film is there in ways I could never describe with words.
Cuban Art News: What impresses you least?
Michael Dweck: Hmmm. How about: when I get back to my apartment in Verdado after 18 hours of shooting in 95-degree heat and I have to lug all my equipment up 13 flights of steps in the dark because the elevators broke again. I’m sure you can extrapolate from there…
Cuban Art News: What do you think Cuba will be like ten years from now?
Michael Dweck: It’s easy to make wishes and hard to make predictions. Dictatorships have a tendency to tow a lasting status quo with a long fuse – and when the flame runs out of fuse, things explode. If that happens in Cuba in the next ten years, the end result is anyone’s guess.
In recent months though, we’ve seen a lot of change with regard to social and economic policy. Cubans can buy and sell houses and property, they can have cell phones, they can receive more money from family in the States. So, we may see the island move towards a more Chinese style of communism, or we may see bankruptcy – or death – force an implosion. In any event, I’m glad I was able to get there when I did and capture Cuba’s then-unchanged culture.
My hope is that, whatever happens, Cuba doesn’t become another St. Martin or Aruba – or another Las Vegas, should American interests return to a post-Fidel island. I hope the people can retain their beauty, their creativity, their lust for life, while upgrading to lifestyles like we have in the US, or like those the book represents. A future generation of educated, elegant, sophisticated, talented, joyful Cubans would be a great thing.
Cuban Art News: Have the Cubans you photographed seen Habana Libre? What do they think of it? Rachel Valdes? Alex Castro? The model Januaria?
Michael Dweck: Everyone I’ve spoken to loves the book. And I’ve been invited to exhibit at the Fototeca de Cuba Museum in Havana in February, which is a first for a living American contemporary artist. I know that wouldn’t be an option if the book wasn’t well-received.
Cuban Art News: What do you think the average, non-farandula-connected, working man in the street in Havana would think of it? The average woman?
Michael Dweck: I’m not really sure. I can assume that not everyone would share the idea that artistic talent alone should warrant privilege, especially when you have talented doctors and talented scientists and alike who aren’t living in the same style.
But there’s also a different mentality that bonds people in places like Cuba. They don’t really argue about the 99% and the 1%... There’s two groups in their eyes – the government and the people. There’s a real notion that, “hey, these people are fellow Cubans… they’re doing well and they’re portraying a good image of the country.” So, in that sense, I can imagine the book and the images of the artists instilling pride in some people, maybe stoking some aspiration and demonstrating to the working class what may be possible in a future incarnation of the country.
Cuban Art News: This is your third book of photographs. In your work you seem to be constructing an overarching narrative of “Paradise Lost and Regained” that favors privilege, youth, beauty, and the temptations of the flesh—all vividly apparent in Habana Libre. Do you deliberately search for photographic subjects that enable you to advance that theme?
Michael Dweck: Yeah, there’s a certain conscious attraction to the subject. I knew, going into Cuba for example, that there would be elements of that sort to play around with. But I don’t, say, post flyers on telephone poles saying, “young, attractive, privileged models – call this number…” I just have a habit of stumbling onto my subjects, as I described with that first party or meeting Rachel.
But when you want something, don’t you start to see it everywhere – or traces of it, at least? If you’re hungry, everyone you see is eating. If you’re lonely, everyone on the street is holding hands with a lover. It’s no different with photography – when you look for love or life or elegance in a subject, you start to see it everywhere. Then you just have to focus and edit until your images tell the story you want them to tell.
Cuban Art News: As a photographer, how do you view yourself? A documentarist? A diarist? Or is there a fictional element to your work? And if so, how does it emerge in Habana Libre?
Michael Dweck: I used to be in advertising and in my firm’s work, I had to make it very clear to clients and audiences what “the point” of a particular piece might be. There was no room for subjective interpretation. Everything had to be finite and exactly-defined.
Being an artistic photographer is almost the antithesis of that world – and I enjoy that. I don’t have to define my work – or, for that matter, really define myself. And that gives me room to wear many hats simultaneously. So – to use your examples – I can provide insights into a life in a particular culture, but stop short of weighing it down with the dull necessities or formalities of documentary-style work. I can indulge in my vision of photography-as-narrative and present a book like “Habana Libre” as a fictional diary of a week in a Cuban farandula – but there’s no pressure to fact-check or to write a script.
When you get down to it, there’s fiction in reality, and reality in fiction, and reality and fiction in documentaries and diaries – and in “Habana Libre,” I used all of that. I disregarded the borders, framed my shots, drank some rum, danced to Latin jazz, smoked a big, fat cigar and decided to let the photos answer the questions however they saw fit.
So, to answer your question, I’m just a man with a camera. Everything else is in the photos.
Aishti interview with Michael Dweck - Lebanon
Aishti interview with Michael Dweck - Lebanon
Aishti: What do you want people to think or feel or remember as a result of reading the book and seeing the photos?
Michael Dweck: That’s actually quite a difficult question to answer, because thoughts, feelings and memories are very different things to take away from art. They’re related but they’re ultimately unique reactions that come from different places in the mind and in the body.
As far as thoughts go, I guess I’d like people to retain some of the mindset that I adopted while shooting the photographs. I didn’t really know what to expect when I made my first trip, but there developed a particular vision of Cuba that took centerstage – and it required some “thought,” so to speak. It was a realization, of sorts; something that made me question the things my government told me about the island, its people, its leaders. And that extends beyond Cuba now. It’s like a certain socio-political openmindedness… a voice that whispers in my ear reminding me not to judge places until I’ve been there, slept there, mingled with its people, digested its art – or, in this case, also drank its rum, smoked its cigars…
What I want the audience to feel is the “feel” itself of the island. I want people to be able to take away some of the heat and sensuality of the people, the steam and suggestion of poolside parties, the almost palpable creativity of the artists I photographed. More than those, though, I’d like the Cuba’s joy to be portable reminder. And that ties in with memory – the things I want an audience to remember: that beauty, love, joy, creativity, sincerity and humanity exist everywhere – not only in countries with the same political proclivities as your own.
Aishti: The popular perception of Cuba is one of repression and poverty in everyday life, but this book portrays something totally opposite. How can that be, and why?
Michael Dweck: Yeah, a lot of people have been amazed that this group of artist and this world of theirs exist inside a country that’s known for “repression and poverty.” Part of the incongruence, as I said, stems from the same global misconceptions of Cuba – those manufactured or exaggerated. But the other side is that, yes, this group of artists I photographed, they are the exception in Cuba and not the rule – and again, I want to make it clear that I’d referring to their lifestyle and not specifically the joy they exhibit.
There’s something of an unspoken agreement in place in Cuba that doles out privilege as a reward for talent. Fidel has long been a patron of the arts, and accordingly, the artists in his country live well, which in turn, allows them to experience more, create more, travel more… What’s being created in the process is this flock of carrier pigeons that takes the essence of Cuba – its art – and disseminates it around the world like seeds in the wind. As Camillo Guevara, Che’s son, says in the book: the mindset after the revolution was, “the best way to be free is to be cultured.” Fidel was smart in that way – he knew his country was largely isolated – and it’s only become more so since the end of the Cold War. So what Cuban artists become, in ways, are the sole ambassadors for their nation… Thus the privilege, thus the relative freedoms. This isn’t to say that the artists have total freedom or total freedom of expression, but given their importance to Cuba’s image, they are afforded certain, shall we say, “perks.” And that’s a big part of why no one really knew anything about this group – not outside of Cuba and not inside either. It’s not exactly something that Havana broadcasts to the neurosurgeons and teachers who earn next to nothing.
Aishti: What kind of impression did this group of people make on you? What kinds of relationships evolved as a result of the book?
Michael Dweck: I was very impressed by the group. I mean, I should say that I was intimidated before I was impressed. I met the majority of the artists on my second night in Cuba at an very joyous party at this seaside villa. Not only was it this scene I never expected to encounter in “repressed, poor” Cuba, but it was also one in which I didn’t really feel comfortable right away. That is, I had the frightening task of trying to convince these glamorous artists, directors, actresses, etc, that I was more than just some nosy American fool with a fancy camera trying to make trouble. What really impressed me, though, was how kind and welcoming they were after meeting me. I guess it helped that I was an artist too, and that we spoke the common language of creativity, even if we didn’t exactly share linguistic sensibilities. But, yeah – we hit it off, which is what really allowed the project to work as well as it did. I had access to this group – which the Cubans call a farandula – 24-hours a day. I photographed in their studios, joined this entourage at clubs and cafes, ate and drank in their kitchens, danced and smoked on their balconies while they hatched projects and collaborated. I was part of the group in no time – and I remain extremely grateful for their hospitality. Without it, there would be no “Habana Libre”.
Since I finished the book, I’ve stayed in contact with some of those folks featured. Rachel Valdez – the artist featured on the cover – she’s a good example. She and I have plans to collaborate on my next project in Paris. I recently became the first living American artist to exhibit in a Cuban museum. So, I guess you could say I’m on good terms with the Cuban government too, for what that’s worth…
Aishti: What role did Bill Westbrook play in the overall project? What did he bring to the table? How did he influence the scope and direction of the book? Why?
Michael Dweck: Bill handled all of the interviews in the book. He was kind of the ears to my eyes, if you will. And that was invaluable, because it gave me the opportunity to focus entirely on appearances and aesthetic personalities, with confidence that he would capture the actual personalities and thoughts of subjects…
His influence becomes bigger in hindsight – for a reader that is. I mean, you can see it after you’ve cycled through the visual narratives and then start in on the text. That’s when you begin to see how the interviews and the images feed off one another… My photograph of Camillo and his dual reflections mirrors, in ways, his thoughts on the crossroads of Cuba and its artists. Or, take the images of Kelvis Ochao and his audience at a concert – the visual representations of the relationship between artist and audience is really fleshed out nicely in Ochoa’s interview where he talks about that symbiotic relationship. So Bill added this extra layer to the narrative – subtitles to the scenes, so to speak.
Also, when you’re in a new place with new people, it’s always nice to have a familiar friend around to help you digest the atmosphere. That’s what Bill was in Cuba.
Aishti: What does the future hold for this group of Cubans? What happens post-Castro?
Michael Dweck: So, we talked about what I wanted people to feel, remember and think after reading Habana Libre – your question is exactly what I want them to ask. That’s the million-dollar-question. Maybe the billion-dollar-question… And there are countless ways it might be answered. I don’t know which one is correct.
Cuba’s government is functionally broke – and you’re seeing the effects of this daily. The anti-capitalist trust is slowly eroding. You’re seeing an increasingly open marketplace where Cubans can now sell their homes, run small stores, receive more money from abroad. Things are changing and fast… And this has all happened in recent months, all after Habana Libre came out.
I mean, I’m not taking credit for spreading democracy in Cuba – not by any means. But I did have a sense that things were going to start “freeing up.” And, to add to that first answer if I may – I also saw the potential for this project to stand as a document of what Cuba was like before the sea-change. So, no, I don’t really know what will happen after Fidel, after Raul, after communism. But I do know what happened before those ends – and that’s what I wanted to preserve in Habana Libre.
Ideally, I guess, I’d like to see the photos confound audiences in 50 years –after the idea of “sad, hellish” Cuba is banish forever, after this farandula’s lifestyle is closer to the norm. I’d like someone to pick up the book and say, “what’s so special about this group of people? They look just like the rest of today’s Cuba.”
Sharp Magazine interview with Michael Dweck
Sharp Magazine Canada interview with Michael Dweck
Sharp: What made you quit advertising to focus on photography? Was that a difficult transition?
Michael Dweck: The short answer is kind of implied in the question:photographymade me quit advertising to focus on photography. I’ve never really settled on a proper way of expressing it – because it’s not that I didn’t want to be in advertising, it’s more that I wanted to be in photography. I had everything I could possibly want in my ad agency at the time, but realized that everything I wanted in an ad agency wasn’teverythingI wanted. So, I guess I promoted myself in a sense.
I’ve always been interested in photography. My father bought me my first camera when I was seven-years-old – and even through my advertising days, when I wasn’t in the agency, I had a camera in my hand. Part of me knew that was part of the next logical step – and I would always joke about it. I said, “If I win the Gold Lion at Cannes, I’ll quit.” If this happens, if that happens, I’ll quit. Well, I got the Gold Lion, this happened, that happened and I was still there. Then – boom – the idea for “Montauk: The End” settled in and it wasn’t a joke anymore. I just quit.
I wouldn’t call the transition difficult, per se. It was really a blur – I had this idea that electrified me and I vaulted towards it. It was too all-encompassing and immediate to stumble over. Looking back, I miss the people and some of the work, but I don’t regret the decision.
Sharp: Did the concept of your first collection (Montauk) come easily to you?
MD: I would say it came “naturally” more than “easily.” And by that I mean, it kind of snuck up on me over a series of decades.
I’d been going out to Montauk since the 1975. I had a band – which was really just me and my friend Oscar, the trombone player – we heard all these stories about the Stones out in Montauk staying in Andy Warhol’s house and went out there to see what was going on. We never got our big break, but I fell in love with Montauk’s beauty – both the natural beauty and that of the community. It was the type of place a musician could be a musician, a photographer could be a photographer, a person could be a person…
Now jump forward almost 25 years: the dot.com bubble was distending by the day and I started seeing these super-rich 20-somethings flocking to Montauk. In my mind, I was thinking, “There goes paradise,” and with it, I’d lose my chance to photograph Montauk like I’d always wanted to. That’s when I quit advertising and started framing the book. Like I said, it seemed like the most natural thing to do.
Sharp: How would you describe your photographic style?
MD: Well, in one sense, I like to fall back on the benefits of the medium and let the individual photos describe themselves. Everything I’m trying to “say” is vocalized between the click of the camera and the development of the film – and there’s no word or series of phrases that can replace that.
What I can describe are the broader atmospheres I try to capture – and those run the gamut, alluring human forms and their subtle suggestions, the faces of culture in transition, the gulf between perfect seduction and dull, reductive sexuality. It gets complicated when you try to qualify it, because, obviously, these are just still frames. How can still images add up to anything beyond light and shadow?
They do, but I don’t know how - the photos know better than I do.
Sharp: Over what period of time did you take the photographs featured in Habana Libre?
MD: I visited Havana eight times over a 14-month period in 2009 and 2010. And, for me, that seemed like another bubble era, like the late-20thcentury in Montauk – only a thousand times more complex and irreversible.
Cuba was – and is – on the verge of a sea change - economically, socially, politically – and I was extremely lucky to have gotten in when I did.
Even in the short time since those photos were taken, that “stubborn” island has changed drastically. Cubans have cell phones now, they can run minor businesses, many are allowed to own property and sell their homes. That hasn’t been the case since 1959.
Sharp: What was your original inspiration for traveling to Cuba? Had you photographed there before?
MD: I’d never been to Cuba prior to this project and part of the inspiration for going was that same recognition that “hey, plates are shifting here and you better snap some meaningful photos before the changing of the guard.” But I also had ideas about Cuba before any of those minor shakeups.
This might not be the case in Canada,but in the U.S., Cuba wears this very prominent cloak – like there’s this latent sense of danger and mystery that hangs from its very name. And, as ever, with the impression of danger and mystery comes allure – forbidden fruit tempts the taste buds, right? So, that aspect was appealing, even if I only realized it in hindsight.
Outside of the danger, I had this silly little notion that it might be possible to photograph Cuba emotionally – meaning to capture the people and the emotions of Havana; to show the vibrancy of the arts and the verve and vim of the artists and just convey something beyond the exported image of Fidel giving a six-hour speech in drab green fatigues.
Sharp: What do you hope to show through these photographs of Cuba?
MD: “Habana Libre” revolves almost entirely around a singlefarandula– which is the Spanish term for a well-connected group of influential people. In this case, artists comprised thefarandula– filmmakers, painters, musicians, actresses. I wanted the book to play like a film that unfolds into a narrative of their life on this island, in this scene, at this or that party, and so on. So, the underlying themes are there if you seek them out: commentary on seduction and creativity and what happens when a seemingly stodgy regime embraces the creative sprit and dolls out benefits based on talent – basically the emergence of privilege in a classless society.
But the verve I mentioned before is really the project’s focal point – or should be. People want to harp on a photo of Fidel’s son, or something about Che’s son – they’re just artists around the scene. The real punch I want people to absorb are in the smiles on the faces of 50,000 teenagers who swarmAvenue de Presidenteat 1amon a Saturday night, in the embraces of lovers along theMalecon – this is the real Cuba. There is indisputable joy there.
Sharp: What was the impetus for the Mermaids project?
MD: That’s a good question, because “Mermaids” was unlike anything I’d ever done. Normally – as with “Montauk…” or “Habana…” – I have a narrative in mind, a story I want to tell through images. With “Mermaids,” the technique itself was the initial draw. I wanted to do something with light, lenses and water.
The idea came while I was out fishing late at night in Montauk – I only fish at night, after midnight.Imagine: it’s quiet at that time of night, the water gets inky and makes the moonlight roll between a metallic and almost milky completion. Your eyes start to play tricks on you. You see things below the surface that are probably dolphins or maybe sharks – or maybe there’s nothing there at all – but you let your mind wander until you’re thinking “What if I was suddenly tossed overboard and saw these beautiful women playing in the water?”
When I began photographing the project, I was staying in Paris right near the Orsay Museum. So I’d be flying between France and Florida with all of these Impressionistic images in my head – and I’d throw all of that into the water. “In you go” – Monet and the refracted form of a crab fisherman’s daughter; Renoir and the shadows of the Weeki Wachee River. When I get abstract, I getabstract.
Sharp: Your work exhibits an affinity for the beach and water. Where did that originate from? Were you a surfer?
MD: I lived on islands pretty much my whole life, always within walking distance of the beach or the river or a bay. And that’s where I taught myself how to photograph – with that same camera I got when I was seven. It’s just the perfect environment to shoot: all the natural light, the sand reflecting the slivers of sun, the humidity defusing the air. It informs my work more than anything else.
I do surf – though not as much as I used to. I don’t have as much time to spend in the water as I'd like. My kids surf more than I do now. But my house in Montauk is right off the break, so it’s always there – even if I’m only surfing vicariously.
Sharp: How do you select your models?
MD: I look for people who have a bit of wild child in them, a mischievous quirk that hasn’t fully come out yet. That’s why I tend to work with a lot of younger people – 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds; kids who are in that interesting part in life when they’re still figuring out who they are, what they are. That’s when people are their most interesting and charismatic – and when they photograph the best. They’re still pure in a sense, but curious and they haven’t learned to hide the secrets in their eyes.
I make it a point to try to photograph non-professional models – especially when I’m trying to develop a narrative. I need real people – not professionals posing as real people. Once people know what you want from them, they’re not the same. They change.
So, you usually won’t find me flipping through headshots. I’d rather go scout in a coffee shop - It’s the difference between buying canned vegetables and picking greens fresh from the garden.
Sharp: Is there a location you aspire to shoot in the future?
MD: I’ve been giving more and more thought to film – as in proper motion pictures. I can almost visualize something in Paris, maybe a contemporary film noir. I don’t know the details yet, but the wheels are turning.
Hamptons Magazine interview with Michael Dweck
Hamptons Magazine interview with Michael Dweck by Euan Rellie
My friend Michael Dweck loves to seduce people. Not physically – since he’s happily married – but emotionally, and creatively. Michael is a perspicacious, driven, hippy, if such qualities can be combined.
Dweck is first and foremost a brilliant photographer. But he always tells a story with his pictures. He wants us to see beauty, to see sexiness, to be drawn in to a world which is some way away from the humdrum existence that most of us lead. He lets us dream by looking at his photos.
He did so with the surfer dudettes in The End: Montauk, NY – then Mermaids, and now he’s done it again with Cuba. His book “Habana Libre” (Damiani editore), is published this month. If you buy a copy of the book, you’ll be buying the first ticket via Mexico city to Havana.
Dweck rejects the clichés of old ladies rolling and smoking cigars. Instead he shows us keenly observant artists, writers, musicians and models who make up Cuba's privileged creative class. Castro and Che Guevara have kids on the fringes of this group: Alex and Alejandro Castro and Camilo Guevara. This adds further colour and context, but they don’t play at the core of the story.
Unlike communism in Europe or China, Fidel’s revolution celebrated art and culture. From the beginning, Castro picked and nurtured the most talented school kids, whose training and global success have made them billboards, albeit carefully and sparingly displayed, of the success of the revolution.
This jeunesse dorée is sexy and fun. They are the ultimate insiders on a still deprived island. They are the coolest farándula, or clique, and Dweck calls them “elegant and sophisticated and talented”
Dweck found that these kids have iPhones and BlackBerries. He instantly joined the gang, and was alerted to nightly parties by coded text messages titled PMM ( “Por un Mundo Mejor” - “For a Better World”).
Dweck is optimistic: “this is the future of Cuba” he said. “these cliques will emerge in due course”. For now, they maintain their own version of discretion. In your own words of course.
Euan: Michael, did you fall in love with these kids, or did you keep your distance?
Michael: The professional and diplomatic answer here would be “I kept the distance necessary to access, but not affect, the scene.” But that’s not really true at all.
When you have a camera around your neck you invariably start meeting people. And in this particular case – in this elite clique of filmmakers, artists, musicians, models; upon this guarded island within an island – you start meeting dazzling, brilliant people; people that seem to glow and know that they glow and make you want to glow.
I touched down in Havana not knowing a soul, not knowing where to point my camera. Two nights later, I was dancing with 200 people between a turquoise pool and a sea wall; dancing in the summer steam with some of the world’s most talented artists and women who seemed to have a third gear in their hips. It’s like I went from 0-to-60, reveling in the Cuba that most Americans don’t get to see, to partying in the Cuba that most Cubans don’t get to see.
So, yeah, it was hard not to fall in love – to not to want to be part of that scene. And especially hard when everyone was so welcoming. Everyday there were texts – the artist Rafael Pérez saying, "come to my studio at midnight, we're projecting 1960's Mexican music videos on the walls in my outdoor studio, drinking rum and dancing all night." The director Lester Hamlet texts me to say that he’s setting the final scene of his new film in the streets of Habana Vieja at 3am and wants me to shoot it. Pichi, the actor, calls and invites me to his home for a game of dominos with Juanes. A beautiful blonde stranger appears on my terrace one night and disappears just as quickly. It was a lot like making an underground movie – a surreal one at times.
So, short answer: no, I kept my distance.
Real answer: through my photographs, I fell in love too many times to name.
Euan: What – if anything - do these talented, gilded youth in Havana have in common with the surfers in Montauk?
Michael: The most obvious similarities are simple and aesthetic – you’re talking about two groups of beautiful people in striking island settings. This was my initial attraction to both locales – this charmed life, beautiful girls floating through shots, dressed and undressed – the fantastical elements of seduction.
But when you spend a lot of time in these places with these people, you find some more interesting connections. Here are two worldly paradises, both built-up in the 50’s and preserved since –for better or worse; both populated by insular groups in some kind of isolation, whether it’s self- or externally-imposed; both beset by threats from without and by new hierarchies from within.
If you’re lucky enough to live in Montauk, you’re worried about the vacationers bulging down the island, you’re worried about urban development, you and your friends are, say, surfers and you’re worried about having to battle for waves.
Now, if you’re lucky enough to be a part of this clique in Havana, you have the same worries about identity and integrity: What happens if-and-when foreign business floods back in like they started to do before ’59? What happens if the government stops supporting the arts? What if you stop being privileged and relevant?
I see the timing of both “Montauk…” and “Habana…” as a blessing. These are snapshots of places in time and ways of life that are either fading or being completely reinvented.
Euan: Will the subjects of the pictures – or you – get in trouble for publishing the book? How do the authorities feel about it?
Michael: I don’t think anyone will get in trouble, per se.
Yes, this is a part of Cuban society that’s never really been explored in the press – here or in Cuba – but it’s not a scene that the government is necessarily trying to hide. Fidel always celebrated the arts and silently endorsed a structure that allowed a certain amount of privilege based on talent. The government is proud of its artists – sure, it keeps a handle on what they create – but overall it likes to push the idea of Cubans as a creative people eager to “plant a tree, have a son and write a book,” like Jose Marti said.
And everyone seemed to go along with that. Everyone we met – the artists – were very welcoming, like I said, and they spoke openly about their lives and their places in society. That includes the sons of Fidel and Che.
I don’t doubt that there will be some in Cuba who cringe at some of the book’s ironic undertones – and some ex-pats who erroneously think the book glorifies this or that – but I think the book transcends all of that.
It asks questions, but even in Cuba, that’s not illegal.
Euan: Will you go back to Cuba?
Michael: Yes, definitely. I promised my son Jonathan that I would take him fishing where Hemingway caught the giant blue marlin in 1960. I’m also having a show at the Fototeca de Cuba Museum in February, so I’ll be going back for that.
And until then, all I have to do is flip through the book. The return is immediate. I’m back at that party, dancing by the seawall.
Euan: Can you give me the phone numbers of the prettiest girls in the book?
Michael: Si vienes al vernissage en La Habana, veré que puedo hacer.
Tempo Magazine interview with Michael Dweck
Tempo Magazine Turkey interview with Michael Dweck – Turkey by Özlem Soğukdere
Tempo: Where’s your interest for Cuba come from?
Michael Dweck: I am always attracted to projects of alluring subject matter, principally the female form and locales that offer their own particular enchantments. To me Cuba has all of the elements of a seductive subject – danger, charm and authority. Cuba is the mistress of the Americas.
American political propaganda would have us believe that Cuba is vintage cars, crumbling buildings and repressed, unhappy desperate people. But there is a secret in Cuba…
T: Can you tell us about your book “Habana Libre”?
MD: Habana Libre is a seductive narrative of class, the privileged creative class in a classless society. It’s about a clique of friends (a farandula) – a socially connected group of glamorous models, keenly observant artists, filmmakers, actors and writers.
I wanted to show Cuba emotionally, the way it made me feel. My hope is that Habana Libre helps change the perception most people have of Cuba.
It is a personal exploration of a compelling aspect of Cuba’s contradictory status in the world today.
T: As a photographer; what’s your opinions about Cuba, its people and its future?
MD: Cuba has seduction in the air –is a very unique place. Being there I felt much like Brigitte Bardot’s lover when he was forced into submission while she sang “Moi je Joue”. The people I met were talented, warm, ingenious, and very proud.
T: What do you think; is capitalism bring happiness to Cuba? How?
MD: That is a very complicated question and one that I am not very qualified to answer.
T: They say, “Cuba is paradise for tourists, but not for its people”. Do you agree? (For example; there’s a photo in your book which we can see a BMW. I think tourists can rent it. But, can Cubans rent them?) How can be there some privileged people in a classless society? (Passports, air condition, cars, etc.)
MD: Cuba’s culture is rich and proud. Literacy is almost unequalled in the world. Medical knowledge and care are superior. But yet the country is broke. Here, on an island of survivors, there are those who survive better than others.
Of course there are contradictions in Cuban society, many of which you can see in Habana Libre. The people that I photographed and William Westbrook interviewed are international, yet travel is difficult if not impossible. They are fashionable, though Cuban couture is an oxymoron and anyway there are no stores. They are socialists who would be lost without capitalism to sell their creative wares in the world’s markets.