Our Man in Havana

Unlike Graham Greene's fictional spymaster, Michael Johnson sticks to facts.

In 1955 the photographer Edward Steichen selected 503 photographs from 273 photographers for his massive MOMA photo exhibition, The Family of Man. Depicting the “essential oneness of mankind throughout the world,” it traveled to another 37 countries in the next eight years, attracting nine million viewers; its catalogue sold four million copies; and it’s now on permanent exhibition in Luxembourg. One can imagine nothing less controversial, yet hyper-acute critics condemn the FOM photos as “placeholders,” empty signifiers into which Americans projected and admired their own humanity; as exercises in narcissism (although, presumably, our Cold War enemies discerned a comforting latent comradeliness in our beaming, innocent faces).

American art culture in the ensuing half century has become essentially privatist and consumerist, due to the convergence of formalist innovation and the market system; documentary photography, with its communitarian ethos, has thus been sidelined as mere tendentious journalism. In recent years, however, we’ve seen a new interest in nonfiction filmmaking (Sicko, with its healthcare boat ride to Havana, comes to mind), so perhaps we’re again ready to accept a reality-based art of professed spiritual/moral intent, art that seeks a broad audience (i.e., eschews excessive artiness), art that aspires to be both more (and less) than a status symbol with lofty pretensions.

Michael Johnson‘s black-and-white photos of contemporary Cuba at Joyce Gordon Gallery continue the FOM tradition. Elegantly composed, and informed by the San Francisco photographer’s Christian faith that “dignity and beauty” are inherent in Creation (talk about radical!), these works show the demonized Other, only ninety miles offshore, as genetically identical (100 percent, in fact) with us norteamericanos. “La Familia Santa,” with its carefully titled nuclear trinity, and “Sisters” are unsentimentalized yet warm family portraits, while “Friends,” “Musicos Jovenes,” “Niñas,” and “Compañeros” depict social togetherness: a trio of toddlers sprawled helter-skelter on a blanket; boys on a side street messing with drums; a pair of girls hanging out with a ’50s Chevy; and a quartet of codgers, stripped to shorts and singlets, intent at their alfresco dominos. Street scenes are depicted as well in “Malecon a la Noche,” “Sundance,” “Calle Habana,” “Perro Grande,” “Dignidad,” and “En Cada Barrio.” The cabildo (social club) scene is captured in “Chino,” “Tiko,” “Candela,” and “Bailarenes,” portraying a drummer, a bassist, and young and older couples dancing. Now to photograph poor, spirited Americans …. Through May 30 at Joyce Gordon Photography Gallery (406 14th St., Oakland). JoyceGordonGallery.com or 510-465-8928.

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