Monday October 23, 2017

Ernesto Javier Fernández: A Photographer in Black and White

On the power of images, installation art, and the distinction between art and journalism

The photographer Ernesto Javier Fernández in his studio

Photo: Ladyrene Pérez

In an afternoon of conversation, Ernesto Javier Fernández—himself the son of noted photographer Ernesto Fernández—talks about photography in Cuba through the generations, and his installation in the recent Havana Biennial, with Lianet Hernández.

That day was certainly not the best time to talk. In his studio, a journalist and a photographer were waiting for him, while one of his Havana images was being hopelessly consumed by moisture. That resulted in a kind of morbid curiosity for both journalist and photographer—one isn’t often present at a debate on whether or not to take a piece of art out of circulation. But for Ernesto Javier Fernández, it was one of many distractions.

In addition, the conversation was repeatedly interrupted by technical questions from his assistants, or phone calls. In those moments—which probably lasted the amount of time it took the artist to consume a cigarette—the journalist and the photographer understood why Ernesto Javier had told them that Havana in 2015 was different from Havana in the 1980s. In the present, artists do make a living from their art, and the lack of a domestic market makes it mandatory to pay attention to international calls. The journalist and the photographer patiently waited to get a decent interview and some important information, knowing the complicated burdens that artists deal with.

“I am inspired by what is happening in Cuba with human beings, with the city and emigration.”

Photo: Ladyrene Pérez

A photographer of contemporary Cuba, Ernesto Javier is also the son of Ernesto Fernández, a creative legend on the island from the most brilliant era of Cuban photography, which documented for the world the epic moments of the Revolution and continued into the unforgettable decade of the 1980s.

The photographer of writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante, the elder Ernesto was nourished by the magazine Cuba, in which the best young intellectuals of the time converged: Eliseo Alberto Diego, Norberto Fuentes, and Antonio Conte, along with photographers of the caliber of Roberto Salas, Alberto Korda, and Raul Corrales. That fortunate personal destiny not only brought the elder Ernesto a wealth of cultural experience, but provided interesting readings on Cuban society and the art established here.

For Ernesto the son, however, the distinction between photojournalism and creative photography, as well as his first steps in photojournalism, were not personal decisions. He said:

“The creative part was also there in the 1980s, but not a penny was earned with that; people starved if they decided to choose creative photography. All the things made and sold for astronomical prices now were actually then considered just something to leave at a friend's house. Artworks were not sold to anyone. We had to find some way to earn a living, and we tried to do something close to what we liked. I got into journalism, but I always kept press and creative photography separate. The social problems were there and I was interested in them, for one reason or another.”

A trip to Germany in the 1990s resulted in contracts with major news agencies, as well as exhibitions that promoted his art outside the economic and social crises taking place in Cuba. The Zapata Cultural Center is today a source of memories for him. Artists from 27 countries had free housing there and money for their projects under an agreement with the sole condition that they work weekends in a discotheque that the artists managed. After that time, he decided to set aside press photography, though not for lack of interest. “On returning to Cuba,” he explained, “I had nowhere to do the kind of photography I had been doing for German magazines.”

“Unfortunately, Cuba does not have magazines or newspapers that make a true photographic presentation, despite the epic scope achieved by photography during the Revolution. Nor is there a photography school,” he adds. “My father’s generation worked in the style of Life magazine, in which only 30 percent of the story was text and the other 70 percent was pictures. Here, that notion was lost; articles with so much text often don’t show the true facts.”

But at least we have the School of Creative Photography in Havana...

That is the only attempt, after a failure in the 1980s. However, it’s been around for only five or six years and doesn’t have the recognition it deserves.

What is absolutely essential for the development of a photographer?

Taking photographs, even outside of school, and having a way to show them. Probably photography or news magazines and newspapers, as well as publicity studios of any kind, are what make a true professional.

If we were to compare your father’s era, or yours, with the current generation of photographers in Cuba, in terms of context and technique, how would you describe them?

My father's generation was based on pure talent and what they learned from one another. But I do not think there is a generation of photographers in Cuba right now. There are individuals who do photography because they want to, or they like it, but they have no training. Many young people are using photography as a route between the arts, but they do not really know what they are doing. The most professional photography, like it or not, is done by the people involved in photographing weddings, quinceañeras, and birthday parties of any kind. They are the ones who manage digital laboratories the best—something that doesn’t happen with the press. The good photographs of Cuba are taken by foreigners, who undoubtedly know what they’re doing.

"The good photographs of Cuba are taken by foreigners, who undoubtedly know what they’re doing."

Photo: Ladyrene Pérez

What themes or concepts do you like to guide your work?

My first commitment is to myself; you have to like what you do, regardless of what might happen next. I work with what interests, hurts, or bothers me. I am inspired by what is happening in Cuba with human beings, with the city, and with emigration. When I started the series on the rafters in the last decade, I did it because Cuban art had begun to exploit everything related to migration in the 1990s, but all references were to objects, cans, empty rowboats, silhouettes. I was very interested in putting a face to that. I think then, for the first time, emigration began to have a real face in Cuban art.

"I work with what interests, hurts, or bothers me."

Photo: Ladyrene Pérez

With all my training in journalism, photography, and even film, I realized I could do whatever I wanted with photos, it was not necessary to be so flat. So, I decided that reality does not exist, it is something I happen to build; for example, the type of works that become one thing or another depending on how you look at them, or how you light them. This can vary, but the themes are always the same.

When the dialogue flowed more easily, Ernesto Javier confessed he had never been interested in entering the “art world,” in which a curator is needed just to hang three pictures on a wall. Nor is he interested in applause—his only concern is the creative process. The result can be seen in each of his works, which usually feature some text embedded in the picture with a neon light.

His works usually feature some text embedded in the picture, with a neon light.

Photo: Ladyrene Pérez

The text for me is a support for the image, or a way to tell the story, because I worked a lot in the publishing world and therefore, writing is paramount. I want a work to be a story contained inside another, so I mix things and try to make a spider web with my pieces, like everything that's been happening around me.

Aren’t you worried that a work may be understood differently from how you conceived it initially?

Not at all. Everyone interprets the facts differently. There is no need to understand something in the same way.

In this philosophy, what about color?

I see a lot in black and white. I consider it much cleaner in the sense that it allows you to incorporate whatever you want in the image. The pieces in black and white, for me, are much more dramatic, beautiful, and expressive. I do color photography for specific jobs, not because I'm interested. I don’t see the world in color.

"The pieces in black and white, for me, are much more dramatic, beautiful, and expressive."

Photo: Ladyrene Pérez

As he was saying this, the journalist and the photographer gained more understanding of the complex nature of artists. Perhaps they were thinking of Goteo, Ernesto Javier’s piece in the recent Havana Biennial. The work consists of small black-and-white teardrop-shaped photos, coming out of faucets and showing specific moments of Cuban history.

A studio version of Goteo, the installation work by Ernesto Javier Fernández that appeared in this year's Havana Biennial.

Photo: Ladyrene Pérez

However, the journalist and the photographer have run out of time for asking questions. Another moisture-soaked image is awaiting its destiny.

Lianet Hernández (Artemisa, Cuba, 1989) Graduated in journalism from the University of Havana. She works at Casa de las Americas and often collaborates on OnCuba magazine.