There is a sense of something else, of something more — a world evolving, a lover scorned, a crime of passion about to be committed — in Mario Algaze’s black-and-white photographs. Considered one of the masters of the art, the Miami-based Cuban-American manages to capture evocative scenes that live beyond the images frozen by his camera.
There is, for instance, the lone coffee cup on a round table in Club La Paz in Bolivia. (Did someone fail to make the meeting, hence café for one?) And the leg and box of a shoeshine from San Angel, Mexico. (Was business slow?) And the Spandex-wearing woman waiting at the bus stop in Santiago de Cuba, head turned to the side, sunglasses clutched in her hand. (Where is she headed? What will she find?) And the somber fog caressing the Meseta Central of Costa Rica. (Will it eventually lift with the heat of the day, or is it a harbinger of something worse?)
Asked if he thinks beyond the lens when he clicks, Algaze laughs and evades. “That’s not for me to say.”
Algaze, 67, admits he doesn’t look for a particular type of image or a story told in one. However, he is supremely conscious of light and shadow — and what lurks in between. So quite fittingly a retrospective exhibition that opens Friday at HistoryMiami is titled “A Respect for Light: The Photography of Mario Algaze.” Curated by deputy director Jorge Zamanillo, it is the first comprehensive exhibition highlighting his work since 1992. It features more than 150 photographs that document decades of travel assignments through 16 countries in Latin America and coincides with the launch of his book with a similar title, A Respect for Light: The Latin American Photographs 1974-2008.
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Though his English is perfect, Algaze jokes that he speaks — and photographs — in Spanish, “My only interest has been Latin America,” he says. “Why should I be interested in anything else?”
His career was built on photographing that world, on holding tight to urban and rural images that capture the varied souls of these diverse countries. “Where others would find only disarray and chaos, Algaze discovers geometry and peacefulness that approaches the sublime,” writes critic Vince Aletti in the book’s foreword. Indeed. There are moody photographs of churches and streets and plazas, of people oblivious to the camera, of empty dimly lit-room rooms and bright streets populated with life.
Also on display in HistoryMiami will be about 40 images of rock-and-roll greats, taken when Algaze was on assignment, mostly for Zoo World, a newspaper that eventually closed in the mid-1970s. The photographs show such legends as Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney in unguarded moments, all youthful exuberance. Though best known for his Latin American photography, Algaze started photographing the counter-cultural movement in the early 1970s. He explains that some photographers of the era took their cameras to the Vietnam War, others to the civil rights marches.
“But there was a third group,” he adds, “that dropped acid and went to the music festivals with the hippie movement and free love. That would be me.”
Exhausted by that scene, however, Algaze would launch his work (and passion) in Latin America with a 1974 visit to Mexico. “I went back to my roots, to my identity,” he now says.
Prompted by John Shubin, who sits on the board of HisotryMiami and also collects Algaze’s work, both Zamanillo and Algaze spent a Sunday going through images to select what Zamanillo calls “la crème de la crème.” He adds that Algaze’s work “is both fine art and documentary.”
Algaze, however, is not the kind to look backward. He is forever editing his own work. When he sees old images, “I’ll tell myself, ‘I could’ve done this or that.’ I’m never content.”
Mostly self-taught, he scoffs at digital photography and says he will “always” work in film. “I’d rather slit my wrists before I touch a digital printer.”
Though he has exhibited extensively throughout the country, Algaze’s last restrospective was in 1992, at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. Miami, however, has been his home since he arrived here as a 13-year-old exile in 1960. It has remained so, even when he spent months at a time traveling.
Algaze is coy about the future, saying he has not taken a photograph in a year. But he doesn’t seem to be one to dwell in the shadows that, paradoxically, illuminate his photographs.
“If I get too sentimental,” he says, “I would never get anything done.”
If you go
What: ‘A Respect for Light: The Photography of Mario Algaze’
When: Nov. 14 to Jan. 18
Where: HistoryMiami, 101 W. Flagler St.
Info: Open 10-5 Monday through Saturday, noon-5 Sunday. Tickets are $8 for adults, $7 for seniors and students, $5 for children 6-12. Free for HistoryMiami members and children younger than 6.