Despite the controversy around photography’s inclusion within the world of fine art, there are exponents of this art form who show both through their work and their words that theirs is an artistic expression of reality through the lens of a camera.
Contemporary Cuban photographer Carlos Torres is one of these exponents. Talking on the issue, he says that he sees this questioning as coming from photography’s relatively short lifespan compared with other visual art forms, or from the way in which the work is produced and reproduced. Nevertheless, he thinks photography has gained notable recognition and that the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and David Seymour who created a new world through their documentary photography have left their mark, influencing several generations of fine artists.
These influences also reached Cuba, adds Torres, citing the Epic Revolutionary period when photographers from various different backgrounds turned their documenting of the Cuban revolution’s first years into works of art. “I had the privilege of working with some of them. They told me they used to read magazines like Life or DU, they did research, they learned that it wasn’t all just about relating what they saw but also about looking at it in a different way,” he recalls.
His own beginnings in photography are framed within that period, conditioned by Epic Revolutionary photo reportage. “At the beginning of the 1990s I admired the work of artists like Juan Carlos Alom, Alfredo Sarabia, Ramon Grandal, Mario Díaz, Carlos Mayol, José Ney, Isabel Sierra and Pedro Abascal, they changed my vision and would end up marking my conception of photography for ever.”
Until that point, Torres had used his camera as his principle ally in “surviving” the so-called Cuban Special Period, using it for wedding photography, children’s birthdays and quinceañeras [the Cuban equivalent of North American sweet sixteens]. He also did occasional work for businesses and cultural organizations such as Artex S.A.
Although he was sure that working for commercial clients limited his creativity, his first forays into artistic photography came through a photoshoot with the music group NG la Banda, alongside Alfredo Sarabia.
On that occasion, with Juan Carlos Alom, he was trying to take photographs with perfect colours. They measured the exposure very precisely so as not to lose details on the faces and the wardrobe of the musicians.
Sarabia on the other hand took black and white images and contrasted them to an extreme, exaggerating everything that Torres considered photographic faults. Faces were under- defined, he turned them into silhouettes.
“That’s when I learnt you could draw with the lens of a camera, and that that was also art,” he states. Gradually, Torres’ photographic work began to incorporate a more conceptual kind of art and turned every image into a study of an idea. For him this justifies the intent to “manipulate” reality through the image because this is about establishing an idea rather than documenting moments.
“Now many years later the photographic aesthetic drives me, inevitably, towards a concept. Or a concept builds an image. I’m no longer interested in the technically perfect image.”
His latest exhibition, Las sombras del burro (The Shadows of the Donkey) marks the beginning of exactly this journey towards a “conceptual photography”. The idea behind the show was born out of one of Aesop’s fables in which the ephemeral protagonist is a shadow, as well as a story of Julio Cortázar’s and a Michelangelo Antonioni film. “I grouped images that I had in some cases already taken in years gone by, I studied the order in them, the loneliness of some and the shadows in all of them. I’m really enjoying this turn in the way I use photography. I left behind the obsessive perfection and the technical quality of the product, that had in some ways begun to limit my creativity,” he says.
On the state of contemporary photography in the world today, Torres has a very firm opinion. He thinks digital photography has allowed massive experimentation at low cost compared with past years, and that the Internet and mobile devices have changed the ways in which new generations of artists conceive their work.
On the other hand he says he has experimented a great deal with the traditional limits of photography so he can now appreciate the presence within it of other expressions of the visual arts, and vice versa.
It makes you think Torres is optimistic about the future of photography whether it be documentary or artistic, realist or conceptual.
“The only concern,” he concludes, “is finding how to express yourself and right now the possibilities for expressing yourself are endless.”