Evan McQuaid Bedford Focuses Eye On Cuba at Gallery 169

By Lobby Motika
Palisades News Contributor
Photos by Evan Bedford

Locals call him Yuma, Cuban slang for American. They think he’s crazy.

Evan McQuaid Bedford does stand out with his red hair, but he’s not crazy. He’s a photographer whose patient, observant approach to picture taking confuses his subjects, who are more accustomed to the tourist’s snapshot.

In “Cuba,” Bedford’s suite of 24 color photographs on view at Gallery 169 in Santa Monica Canyon, he offers a personal impression of Old Havana, illustrating a city lost in time where everything is old and crumbling, but still working; a confusing world, a lone remnant of Communism that survives on capitalism.

During his first visit to Cuba in 2007, more of a kaleidoscopic island tour, Bedford was still “young in my photography” but got the vibe, and knew he’d be back.

Rene Delgado Wallace sits in a former Havana movie palace, now empty.

Rene Delgado Wallace sits in a former Havana movie palace, now empty.

The young artist has packed for many trips over the years. His mother is a flight attendant, which has been an attractive incentive to travel the world. “I’d work to make some money, then I’d travel,” says Bedford, 36, who graduated from Tulane and earned an MFA at Cal State Long Beach.

For his return to Havana in 2015, Bedford secured a 30-day visa, found an apartment and most importantly hired Rene Delgado Wallace, who would become his language and cultural translator, his fixer, his buddy. “Rene was amazing, he knows everyone in the neighborhood,” Bedford says. “We would walk around Havana and people would come up to him; they loved him.”

A sports clipping of triumphant baseball players inspired this photo.

A sports clipping of triumphant baseball players inspired this photo.

This was just the help Bedford needed for his project, which relied on finding and often coaxing subjects to pose. Initially, he set out with a list of subjects he might like to feature in his staged photos, which often would lead to some other idea, but it was a start. He finds a certain truth in his approach, which is that of an artist rather than a documentarian.

“I had this idea of taking a photo of a guy with an accordion,” Bedford recalls, noting that a man with an accordion is not very Cuban. “Rene and I spent two weeks looking for a guy with an accordion. When we were looking for this guy we came across these two brothers.”

Bedford has merged the ubiquitous cracker vender with his wares.

Bedford has merged the ubiquitous cracker vender with his wares.

It turned out they were wrestlers on the Pan American Games team and started showing Bedford their wrestling moves. For the artist, these young men were just a part of his concept. He persuaded them to perform in front

of one of Havana’s many beautiful, distressed walls that scale back the pigments of this once glamorous city.

If there is a theme to “Cuba” it is color. “Color is important to me,” Bedford says. “I noticed all the walls, the decaying nature of them, layers upon layers.” He likes to achieve a painterly quality in his photos, revealing the veils, the transparencies, and the patina that only time can produce.

David Kunzle, one of the most prolific authors on Cuban revolutionary art forms, eloquently describes this phenomenon in the urban setting. “The fabric of the city of Havana has often been compared with an old and crumpled suit of clothes.”

Bedford often obscures the eyes of his subjects. He shot this photo both with the eyes cut out and another without.

Bedford often obscures the eyes of his subjects. He shot this photo both with the eyes cut out and another without.

The evidence is in the Plazas of Old Havana and the high-rise apartments, luxury hotels, nightclubs and mansions from the 1950s that continue to dot the landscape 60 years later.

And while the buildings are picturesque, they expose the dangers of instability.

“The first place I stayed was near the river and it was great until the day I woke up with dust all over my skin,” Bedford says. “I realized that the ceiling was caving in and I’d better move to another apartment. The decision was wise, as it turned out. Rene came and got me one morning and took me to see the remains of a building that had collapsed overnight, leaving 24 people dead.”

It could be said that Bedford employs people in his photographs to give focus for a broader context. Not one of the people in the exhibition is looking directly at the camera. “I never show the eyes,” he says. “I shot from a side view or people wearing sunglasses. I treat the human subjects like objects.”

This approach confused everybody. A lot of people wanted him to take their picture, and often invited their friends to
be in the photo as well.

Bedford wanted to incorporate a few of the Cuban clichés— baseball, rum, cars and dominoes—in a non-cliché way.

Bedford wanted to incorporate a few of the Cuban clichés— baseball, rum, cars and dominoes—in a non-cliché way.

“Nobody understood what I was doing. They thought I was crazy.”

In December 2014, Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced the beginning of a process to normalize relations between Cuba and the United States. The agreement would see the lifting of some U.S. travel restrictions, and reopening both embassies, which closed in 1961.

“The whole point of my trip was to go down to see it before it changed,” Bedford says. “I quickly realized it’s not going to change soon. The infrastructure is really bad, so far behind. The main street in Havana Vieja, which is lined with restaurants, bars and ice cream parlors, was ripped up down the middle and people would be walking along the sides. It was like that for the whole 30 days, ripped up, and they weren’t working on it. I remember a traffic jam that forced me to half walk in the ditch. If it takes this long to do the most popular street in Havana, I just imagine the rest of Havana.”

Evan Bedford

Evan Bedford

And yet, Bedford confirms, that while people are living day to day, not thinking about the future too much, “they don’t have a lot, but what they do have is camaraderie and humor. A friend of mine hit the nail on the head: Cuba is the only country that when he’s there he can’t wait to leave, but when he’s home, he can’t wait to come back.”

“Cuba” continues through August 20 at Gallery 169 on West Channel Road. Contact: (310) 230-0195.

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