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Susan S. Bank : Piercing the Darkness


In her second Cuba monograph, Piercing the Darkness, North American photographer, Susan S. Bank, presents an unvarnished view of the sprawling, maddening tropical metropolis of Havana and its inhabitants. Over a period of 11 years she combed this illusive port city, living in homes of habaneros in order to experience the vicissitudes of their daily lives.

Banks’ 77 black and white images, edited and sequenced by the photographer, by-pass worn out clichés, representing portraits of the human landscape with bittersweet shades of hope and despair.

With her Leica M6, she fleshes out multi-layered moments, presented as a street map of a culture in limbo. Havana, an island within an island, with one eye on the Florida Straits, the raw reality of daily life of habaneros slips seamlessly into the surreal. Consistently inconsistent, tomorrow is a date with uncertainty.

In his essay, Waiting for the Invisible, John T. Hill, founder of Yale University MFA program in photography, colleague of Walker Evans, has produced several Evans’ titles including Walker Evans Havana 1933, writes: « Piercing the Darkness is a ‘gem of Haiku verses, full of profound and magical ambiguities focusing on what is common to defining our humanity. »

Interlude by Susan S. Bank
One day I will enter the port of Havana by sea—floating in on a ferry, passing El Morro—or perhaps sailing in on a tall ship driven by my mariner sons.

In 1999 I arrived in Havana, but not by sea. I landed in a small aircraft blown in by Hurricane Irene. White foam and black water boiled over the Malecón and lovers had to forgo love that night.

Casting a wide net, stretching the length of the 700-mile island, I eventually settled deep in the countryside with tobacco farmers and their families in Pinar del Rio province.

Havana became an interlude.

Each arrival at José Martí Airport, my suitcases are filled with desire, filled like a hope chest with red and blond wigs, Mickey Mouse magnets, rhinestone hearts, Parmesan cheese and Viagra.

To dare to interpret this tropical garden is a risky game. Photographers have come and gone before me and others will follow—chasing butterflies.

I came looking for Walker Evans’ photograph of the tall black dandy wearing a white linen suit and straw hat—caught in front of a magazine stand—gazing out at time. I could neither find the tall dandy nor the magazine stand. The dandy had become a prop, a short mulatto dressed in a yellow-stained polyester suit, posing for tourists for one dolla’ in Cathedral Square. And paper had become a scarcity.

Wanting to get inside the skin of the real players, I lived in private homes in Central Havana, the treeless broken heartland of the city—waiting in long stationary lines in markets where there is nothing to buy, borrowing a cup of sugar from a neighbor, enduring sleepless nights interrupted by a chorus of barking dogs chained to the balcony opposite my window, tripping over my landlord’s legs in the blue light of pirated videos, dashing for a shot of espresso brewing in the cafetera—ready to rendezvous at dawn with a gravedigger in Colón Cemetery.

Piercing the Darkness unleashes my desire to peel away the exotic veneer of Havana, to unveil the submerged realities of this seductive, illusive citadel—with one eye on the Straits of Florida—fleshing out the casino of life with all its bittersweet shades of hope and despair.

Swept along by a tide of slow-motion agitation, I follow carnival-colored Lycra along Galiano and Reina. Where are they going—circling in time. Retracing my footsteps, I wait in shifty shadows for the invisible, where the real slips seamlessly into the surreal, where the mask of a smile is always for sale, and Cubans have nothing to give but their soul in a cup of coffee.

One or two visits is enough to catch the thread that their ingenious resourcefulness—their Cubanness—is stamped on their identity card, that habaneros live in a twilight zone of anxiety and impotence. Humor is their homegrown anesthetic—music, rum, and sex sooth their restlessness. They wait in an eternal limbo, clinging to a stubborn hope with flickering expectations for change. When change does begin to stir up the tropical air, tomorrow continues to remain a shrug of uncertainty.

Wedged between raw reality and utopian dreams, Havana’s buoyant spirit surfaces, refusing to be hidden. Captured in 1/60th of a second, Rosa’s broad smile beams beyond the frame of her life as a street cleaner.

I have known more than 20 Havanas, and known none. The only sure bet is Cuba is an island in the shape of a crocodile.

Eleven years of combing this maddening metropolis, an island within an island, the harsh reality of the place seeps in—the weight of Havana sits heavy on my shoulders. Luchando becomes daily wear. I no longer trust my instincts. It could snow at noon.

Piercing the Darkness
Susan S. Bank
Exton PA Published
Preface Interlude by Susan S. Bank.
Essay Waiting for the Invisible by John T. Hill
In English, 128 Pages, 10.25 x 12.50

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