In the new regime of contemporary art, the edge is to be found in disemboweling one’s psychic innards for chuckles, Art Forum fame and the acclaim of solo shows and canonized private collections assembled by rich collectors who love to gaze upon the magnificence of their creepy loot: one collector in Chicago, for instance, has a wall of Cindy Sherman vomit photos.
In the United States, the idea that art can be infused with glamour and beauty died around the same time as coherent conversation, but in Bruce Weber’s world, everything – chic, injustice, high culture, pop fame, wealth porn, the plight of the poor – is all rolled into one big Vogue-ian dialectic of gloss and glory. And so, it only makes sense that Weber’s first solo museum show, Bruce Weber: Haiti/Little Haiti at North Miami’s Museum of Contemporary Art, would cover a lot of important ground in an unlikely way. And yet, that ground winds up being covered pretty well, with a flair that might have eluded some scrappy freelancer with a grudge and no grip.
The show incorporates 75 photographs assembled in the museum’s first gallery. Several of Weber’s subjects — Partners in Health’s Dr. Paul Farmer; Cheryl Little of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center; Marleine Bastien of Haitian Women of Miami — are given the old Hollywood-portrait treatment, as if they were 1940s starlets. The fact that these serious people have been glamorized — Bastien actually wound up in W — does not diminish their seriousness: There’s nothing bad in looking good.
The Weber show was curated by MOCA executive director and chief curator Bonnie Clearwater, who wisely put “the most irresistible images, the ones that will be propagated by the media in the same way that WWII posters selling war bonds once were” right up front along an entry wall. These would be three photographs of Keren Love Francis, a little Haitian in a white dress and cute enough to jump-start the late Diana Vreeland’s cold fashion heart. In the shot used for the invitation to the exhibit’s opening, she’s looking up to the sky, with her hands cupped around her mouth as if she’s beseeching the heavens: the three photographs were taken this year at Weber’s house in Golden Beach.
One assemblage of photos hung closely together, a riot of color that documents a 2003 Haitian flag day celebration in Little Haiti, recalls, like much of the installation, a magazine spread gone 3-D. As it happens, the show began with a 2003 magazine supplement published by The Miami Herald.
The U.S. immigration policies on Haitian refugees were particularly draconian then, and Weber ventured down to Krome detention center and proved that he could do tough work like any other, well, unglamorous documentary photographer. The supplement has a photo of 3-year-old Fara Auguste, held for three months and looking angry, counter-pointed by an image of a protest rally with a woman waving a “Two Year Olds Aren’t Terrorists” sign. Another photo, of 18-year-old David Joseph, is paired with Joseph’s scrawled note, “I have one year inside the jail.” Always the pro, Weber made sure the cover of the supplement was another sweet grabber: two napping girls in white dresses at Notre Dame d’Haiti Catholic Church, with an excerpt from a poem by Marleine Bastien, “Neglected, Forgotten, Denied But Not Broken.”
Weber’s universe is about the big time. He came to the issues surrounding Haiti after seeing his friend Jonathan Demme’s powerful documentary The Agronomist, about the unsolved murder of Haitian journalist Jean Dominique. In 2004, Edward Kennedy invited Weber to have an exhibition of his Haitian-refugee photos at the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C.; his letter is included in a case of ephemera from Weber’s journeys in the world of Haitian refugees. When Trent Lott made a fuss about the political nature of the photos, Weber called his buddy Tom Brokaw, who sent in a Haitian news producer. The exhibition went on, though caption text was banned. Weber showed up at the opening with the banned text — including Demme’s quote “As an American, I am just so terribly ashamed.” — on his black T-shirt. That T-shirt is in the ephemera collection, too.
Now, Weber’s photos are in a beautiful MOCA catalog, Standing Tall: Portraits of the Haitian Community in Miami, 2003 to 2010, featuring Weber photo-inspired poems by Edwidge Danticat and a piece by former Miami Herald publisher Alberto Ibargüen, now president and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. In the catalog, Weber thanks everyone from companion Nan Bush to Anna Wintour and Project Medishare.
The MOCA show launched with a big party on Thursday night, followed by a dinner at Tap Tap on Miami Beach. The idea of one of the world ’s richest and most famous fashion photographers getting this sort of attention for Little Haiti photographs might be a bit unfair, especially if you’re some news guy slugging it out in the trenches of the hell that is Haiti itself. The cholera epidemic pretty much sums up the tragic biblical scope of the country. On the other hand, Weber left his house in Golden Beach and went out and did something real. Most of us would have a hard time tearing ourselves away from that view of the beach.