In the political realm, the relations between Cuba and the United States have been less than perfect for more than half a century. Since the Cuban revolution of 1959, tension and confrontation have become their defining qualities. Cuba is under an economic embargo of the U.S., and Americans wanting to visit the country have to work around travel restrictions. The rhetoric of Cuban leaders towards the country’s large northern neighbor has been less than friendly, to say the least.
The good news is that things look much brighter on the personal level. When I traveled to Cuba for the first time, the symbols of the revolution and the political system were everywhere. Portraits of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Cuban flag, and propaganda statements (“Socialismo o muerte”, socialism or death, being an example) can be found on the walls of many buildings. However, it soon became clear that these reflect the official side of things. For better or worse, many Cubans seem to cherish the emblems of the capitalist system, sometimes in the form of brand-name items, sometimes simply in the form of the national symbols.
This became especially clear one day when I walked the Malecón in Havana in the light of late afternoon. The Malecón is the 5-mile sea boulevard of the city. Ironically, it has been built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, beginning in 1901. Today it is a place to hang out, walk along the seaside, take a dip in the water, listen to street musicians and meet friends. Right after I began my walk at the Castillo San Salvador de la Punta, I saw a group of young people playing and jumping into the water. One girl caught my eye, mainly due to the design of the bikini she wore. I had not expected Cubans to show the colors of a country considered an enemy by the political elite so openly. With the few words of Spanish I know I established contact and asked if I could photograph her. She agreed right away, so I grabbed my Leica and was rewarded with this picture.
Later on, I discovered more and more fascination with life outside the country, and especially in the U.S., among young Cubans. This young gentleman was sitting in a doorway, studying a brochure advertising travels to places in America which had been given to him by a tourist.
Only time will tell if the allure of Western symbols is only superficial or if it will lead to a political and economic transition.
More than 40 years ago, I was a little boy then, my father would sometimes take me to an event where people deliberately did what was to be avoided in road traffic at all cost: run automobiles into each other with the intent of causing maximum damage. I remember how excited the audience was and how they cheered the last driver whose car still moved. For some reason events of this kind don't seem to take place in my native Germany any more.
Enter Shelby, a small town on the Hi-Line, a long stretch of road following the original railway tracks across northern Montana. This part of the world is dominated by highly efficient, large-scale farming and has a very low population density. Miles of road between towns. Not a lot of opportunities for entertainment. The annual Marias 4-County Fair is a big thing for anyone living here. And the main event on its last day, just before the closing fireworks, is that deliberate destruction of cars that I remember from my youth: the Demolition Derby.
For a fee of $75 drivers can enter the derby that offers the chance to win $2,500 for finishing in first place. There are a number of rules describing what types of cars can be run and what modifications are legal. Some cars make you wonder if they will run at all, others show the creative side of their owners.
The pit area is busy until the last minute before the first heat, as the individual runs are called. Fierce dogs watch over the cars.
As with any other sports event in the United States, the National Anthem is sung before the competition begins. Audrey Cheetham, 12 years old, captures the audience with her clear voice as her father, dressed for the occasion, works the PA system.
With the cars of the first heat caught up in a jumble of steel, the announcer gets really excited.
Some cars can leave the arena on their own, others need help.
In between heats, repairs are allowed for a limited timeframe, resulting in a frenzy of activities in the pits.
Close to the end of the event, only three cars survive.
An evening of quality entertainment and a good place to pick up some scrap metal.
It was in June of 1994. I was in New York City for a few weeks, shooting on the streets and trying to capture the atmosphere of this fascinating place. Shortly before the trip, my late friend Günter Wehrmann had told me about a book on street photography: Bystander: A History of Street Photography by Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz. As soon as I arrived I hunted down a copy of the book (there was no instant availability through places like Amazon in 1994) at A Photographer’s Place, a book store specializing in photographic literature. Every night after coming back to my hotel from my own efforts at street photography, I continued reading this book until I fell asleep.
Joel Meyerowitz is not just a scholar or critic of street photography. He is one of the masters of the genre himself. Back in the 1960s he roamed the streets of New York City with Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and others. While Winogrand is best known for his black and white work, although he certainly didn’t ignore color, Meyerowitz completely switched to color film pretty soon. Compared to Winogrand, his work is less gritty and in-your-face, but often has a humorous twist to it.
While color is an important factor in most of his street photography, later on Meyerowitz made it the central element of his pictures. His 1978 book Cape Light is one of the classics of color photography.
Right after 9/11, Meyerowitz got access to the area around Ground Zero. His pictures, published in the book Aftermath, are testament to the devastation brought on by the attacks.
Last week I finally met Joel Meyerowitz in person at the opening of his show “Joel Meyerowitz – Retrospektive 1962 - 2014” at the NRW Forum in Düsseldorf, Germany. The show encompasses all the different areas he worked in, from early street photography to his Cape Light pictures, on to portraits and the Aftermath body of work. It will be open until January 11, 2015 and is definitely worth a visit.
Speaking to Joel about his work and about why we have to wait this long for the trade edition of his two-volume book Taking my time (the book is true to its title: I ordered mine through Amazon in January of 2013 and still get notices about further delays; however some of the 1.500 copies of the deluxe edition are still available) was very enlightening. His wonderful wife, Maggie Barrett, accompanied him to the opening, and she was no less interesting to talk to than him. Having been a dancer, an acress, a playwright and a novelist, her life is as varied as Joel’s photographic oeuvre.
So, if you come to Düsseldorf before January 2015, make sure to stop by at the NRW Forum.
“For the most part it’s your fault”, I said, at the same time smiling at the gentleman vis-à-vis. He tilted his head and gave me a questioning look. “That I became interested in photography is for the most part your fault”, I explained.
It was Thomas Hoepker I was talking to. He is one of the most influential German photojournalists of the last fifty years. When I was a little boy, Hoepker worked for STERN, then the magazine with the highest circulation in my country. As my family didn’t have the means to travel a lot, my mother and I would read all the articles they published about life in different places of the world with great interest. Many of these articles were illustrated with pictures by Thomas Hoepker.
In 1976 he and his wife Eva Windmoeller, who also was a journalist, moved to New York City where he worked as a correspondent for STERN. It’s safe to say that he had significant influence on my picture of the United States. Later on he became Director of Photography at the American edition of GEO. In 1989 he joined Magnum Photos and was the agency’s president from 2003 o 2006.
In September of 2014, thirty years later, I was talking to him at a small photo gallery in Cologne, in focus Galerie. The gallery showed his exhibition “In Amerika – 1963-2013” and he was there to sign his books. At age 78 he still has an impressive presence.
Hoepker was fortunate insofar that he got to travel to the United States in 1963, when his employer at the time, the German magazine Kristall, sent him and a writer to travel the country for three months. His pictures from the trip clearly show the influence of Robert Frank, who had published his book The Americans just five years earlier.
Following this story he began to travel around the globe. Yet he always returned to the U.S., where he photographed a number of essays, the most famous of which is about Muhammad Ali. Eventually he produced a book on Ali, Champ.
Hoepker was in New York City when the 9/11 attacks happened. One of the pictures he took that day became iconic. You can see it here.
His latest book just hit the market. Wanderlust is a retrospective of his long career. Its strength, showing pictures from a multitude of locations and situations, is also its weakness. Personally, I would have enjoyed a more structured approach, maybe with chapters dedicated to certain subjects or ideas. Yet for anyone looking for a comprehensive presentation of Thomas Hoepker’s work, this book is a must-have.
A few days ago I wrote about large-scale farming in northern Montana, a highly automated operation that is reminiscent of industrial manufacturing processes. Hi-tech machinery, complex chemistry and advanced breeds of grain are necessary ingredients of this kind of agribusiness. What you can see there is the result of a long process of optimization for one specific goal, the yield per acre.
Yet productivity and efficiency are only a part of the equation. Our dietary requirements go far beyond having “enough” to eat. We are looking for healthy foods, free of potentially dangerous chemicals, that taste good and can be grown in a way that leaves the land intact. Enter the world of sustainable agriculture.
“Sustainable” is not a single, precisely defined way of farming. The word describes the common aspect of a multitude of approaches, something that has been defined as “economically viable, environmentally sound, and socially acceptable”.
Traveling throughout Montana I was lucky to meet the operators of a farm that tries to accomplish just that. Victoria Werner and her partner Elan Love run Deluge Farm, a small outfit on Camas Prairie that sticks to the principles of organic farming. At only twenty acres it is diminishingly small compared to the industrial-size farms on the Hi-Line that I wrote about in the previous post. Only a little over an acre is used for growing vegetables, the rest is reserved for raising sheep, chickens and turkey.
When they moved from Ohio, where they had studied at Oberlin College, to Montana, Victoria and Elan brought lots of enthusiasm – and very little experience in organic farming. They asked local farmers about the conditions of the soil and about irrigation. They bought books and searched the Internet for information and tips. Keeping cost down (their only help is a few students who spend the summer on the farm in return for room and board) and living frugally, they now manage to get by on the farm’s revenue after a few hard years.
On Deluge Farm, there is no heavy machinery. The plants grown here get touched only by human hands. Some of vegetables grow out in the open, some in a greenhouse that Elan designed and built himself. However, not all experiments turn out well. Early on, Victoria and Elan built a cold storage room that was insulated with wool from their own sheep. Seemed like a great idea: cheap, good insulation (nature-proven, so to speak), recyclable and locally grown. It turned that all kinds of bugs also liked the coziness of this kind of insulation. Eventually they had to replace the wool by sheets of styrofoam.
Besides growing produce, small farms like this face another problem: distribution. Whatever grows on Deluge Farm is sold by Victoria and Elan on farmers’ markets. The market in Hot Springs is the closest one at a distance of about 17 miles. It’s a small market with only a few customers, and due the generally meager incomes of Hot Springs residents prices are low. The farmers’ market in Missoula is far more attractive in both volume sold and prices. Yet it is 80 miles away, meaning three hours of driving back and forth. While it is ecomically viable to sell there, it certainly isn’t in terms of enviromental impact, even though they use a hybrid engine car for the ride. Large-scale farms with their highly optimized delivery systems are at an advantage in this respect.
The issue is how to combine the advantages of high-yield, industrial farming with those of small-scale, sustainable methods. Even agriculture, which has developed more than 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent of Western Asia, leaves some questions open today.
“Five hundred”, Jason Wanken said. “OK, and the price?”, I asked. Again the reply was “Five hundred”. I was sitting in the buddy seat of a combine that had a 500 hp engine and cost around US$ 500,000. An impressive machine that replaces hundreds of farmhands.
Up here on Montana’s Hi-Line, the stretch of land around the Great Northern Railway line, bigger is better. When settlers were lured here in the early 20th century, they could claim up to 320 acres in exchange for farming the land for three years and building a house. Soon it became clear that this wasn’t enough to feed a family, and a process of concentration set in. Today, the average farm size is more than 3,000 acres.
Wanken’s family farms some 5,000 acres, most of it wheat. He and his brother own three big combines, which allows for quick harvests at just the right time and gives them enough capacity to do some custom cutting in addition to harvesting their own crop. The downside is that all the equipment they have binds a lot of capital.
The ride in the combine was actually quite comfortable. Air-conditioning, a filter system against the outside dust, noise insulation and a nice stereo system help create a relaxed atmosphere. So does the computer that controls the machine. With the help of a GPS receiver it automatically steers the combine to within a foot, so there will be no overlap between tracks and no wheat will be left uncut. I have seen some farmers who got so bored on their combines that they played with their cell phones all the time, texting friends and family. Every time the grain tank is full a semi truck drives alongside the combine and the grain is unloaded while the cutting continues.
This process is so efficient that a farmer can run a 5,000 acre farm with only the occasional help of his wife and a truck driver at harvest time. As a consequence, there are not many farm jobs left, which is one of the reasons young people are leaving the area. Towns like Shelby, Chester, Inverness and Rudyard suffer from declining populations. Some of the towns were forced to consolidate their schools as the diminishing numbers of students didn’t justify individual ones any more.
While it was customary to grow wheat in a field one year and then let it lie dormant for the next, crop rotation or crop sequencing is gaining traction among Hi-Line farmers. Especially field peas and lentils have proven to put nitrogen back into the soil and break the lifecycle of wheat pathogens, insects and weeds. Columbia Grain International (CGI) operates a highly automated plant in Tiber where peas and lentils are cleaned, sorted and packaged ready for shipment by train.
The railway that originally made the Hi-Line what it is proves to be a limiting factor today. For long stretches it only has a single track, making it hard to manage trains of different speeds or directions. In the mountainous western part of the line that eventually goes to Portland and Seattle, a long tunnel that needs to be ventilated for three quarters of an hour between train passes is a severe bottleneck. Most of the limited capacity of this railway system is used by long rows of freight cars that carry oil and natural gas from the Bakken Shale, a highly productive deposit in North Dakota and the eastern part of Montana, to the West Coast. Says Mike Backen, who manages the CGI pea and lentil plant,”Often when I order twenty railway cars for our products, I get only three. The oil companies simply pay much more than we can”.
A major factor in assessing the price of a crop, be it wheat, barley, lentils, peas or any other, is its quality. Quality can be determined by many factors, including the amount of mechanical damage (for example by hard rain or hail), the amount of weed seeds contained in the harvest and the content of nutrients. The Montana State Grain Lab in Great Falls is the officially licensed testing facility in the state. Farmers and trading companies have their crop analyzed here, as well as insurance companies to validate crop damage related claims. A group of experts perform a multitude of tests, ranging from measuring protein content and falling numbers of wheat to determining the percentage of damaged peas in a shipment.
A lot of us don't know anymore where our food comes from and how it is processed. Seeing firsthand how much science, technology, money and effort go into producing something as seemingly simple as bread was eye-opening and fascinating.
Today, exactly thirteen years after the attacks on New York City's World Trade Center, I remembered a photo I took in 1994. It was a beautiful June day and I was on the Staten Island Ferry, mainly to enjoy the view of this vibrant and exciting city.
While the ferry was pulling away from Manhattan, I noticed a young man leaning on the railing, glancing back at the island in a contemplative mood. I quickly raised my Leica, set the aperture so the background would be out of focus yet still showing enough detail to be recognizable, and tripped the shutter.
Seven years later, the tragic events of 9/11 changed the meaning of that picture forever.