Juan Carlos Alom*
By Orlando Hernández
*(Originally published in Without Mask)
Juan Carlos Alom is a strange mix between a gypsy and a maroon, and is at the same time a cultivated artist and a street-smart man, a restless, fidgety spirit, difficult to grasp, define or characterize. His essentially drifting personality has allowed him to feel at ease in both the vortex of big cities and the solitude of mountains.
Alom is constantly escaping routines, traditions and styles. He prefers to run the risk of anonymity in exchange for enjoying total freedom, which he favours over the comfortable imprisonment of fame, applause, money which are, after all, only good to buy materials for his next adventure. Many of his adventures are surprising: he goes for weeks to the bush to photograph close up the sticks, leaves, vines, the dimness and clarities of the wild environment, unbeaten tracks, not as a botanist or environmentalist, but to enjoy the vital secret energy that he knows exists in each plant. He is astonished when he discovers in the sparse dwellings of the area, the rustic firewood or charcoal kitchens that our farmers still use in the 21st century and spends weeks enjoying the simplicity and sincerity of their company and cooking. He trains rigorously for months like a boxer about to participate in a secret fight for bets, and then he forgets there was to be a fight. Or he films and photographs the journey undertaken by our national hero José Martí in 1895, following his diary page by page from Cap Haitien to Dos Ríos to revive this distant itinerary with new characters and incidents.
His willingness to look everywhere, to find the unseen, provides him with an enormous stock of images, ideas and large projects than he can tackle immediately. While he carries out some of these, he realizes that he has been accumulating ideas and images for something new and unplanned and begins from there.
He undertakes his projects with exaltation and zeal, but abandons them with the same speed if they begin to cool down and become too slow, traditional or conventional. I sometimes wonder how Juan Carlos Alom has managed to make such a coherent body of work when he has always been under the inspiration of surges, chaos and speed. He moves with the same naturalness among the brotherhoods of Harley Davidson bikers as among jazz musicians or Sierra Maestra’s country folk. It is as if he has his engine permanently geared up, about to run where his instincts tell him to go. His photographs and films have the same agitated pace, but in the end he manages to arrive unflustered at his unique goal.
Strange as it may seem, his true passion is not art, photography or cinema, but life itself. It seems as if photography is only a pretext. His objective is not so much the work per se as the process which makes it happen, the people and places he gets to know and the anecdotes he learns. Each photograph is only a small fragment of a much wider experience.
More than anything, he is interested in the lives of ordinary people, the poor, the marginalized, among whom the black and mulatto populations of Cuba have always had an important place and to whom he has dedicated many of his works.
Juan Carlos Alom has a special relationship with photographic techniques and materials. It is a love-hate relationship. He is always dissatisfied with the quality of the technology that is available, but his dissatisfaction is counter clockwise. He likes to film with 16 mm negatives and if the materials are somewhat worn-out or near their expiry date, much better. Such aging adds a realistic touch to his works, with a strong dose of emotion, nostalgia and drama that he insists could never be achieved using the tricks of new software. It seems that he wishes to grasp contemporaneity from the perspective of the past, wanting his photographs and films to have been made 40 or 50 years earlier.
He does not trust the exaggerated definition and purity provided by the digital world. And when his negatives provide him with a too clear, impeccable image, he attacks them. The beauty that Juan Carlos Alom looks for is at a level other than the perfection of the image. In the beginning, and for a long time, Alom built his production and decorated his characters – sometimes extravagantly– by adding elements that allowed him to represent his ideas (as in Tarjetas Postales (Postcards), Árbol Replantado (Replanted Tree) or Sin Palabras (Without Words)) but lately he shoots only what he sees (as in Papucho and Tata Güines), what springs up, or what he looks for knowing that he will also discover other things.
What better image could he have found in Tata Güines than his own hands with long fingernails, the hands that were able to elicit from the drumhead of a tumbadora or conga drum the best possible Cuban music? Juan Carlos Alom’s gaze is increasingly seduced by the mystery of reality. In that sense, one of the masterpieces of his filmography, Habana Solo, enters into a reality with very little intervention of metaphoric resources. The force of natural images has begun to win the game. The essence is already in those atmospheres and characters that he decides to film or photograph, without additions. He films and photographs the invisibility of music by recording brief improvisations that he has requested from different Cuban musicians that he later combines with street scenes, images of our rickety and beautiful city, that express the sadness, discouragement and also the invincible and powerful happiness of the Cubans.