Cuba through John Rusnak’s NY Lens

by Helson Hernandez

John Rusnak

HAVANA TIMES — “Cuba became part of my artwork when I begin to conceptualize the current series entitled “Fear of Nostalgia,” said photographer John Rusnak in his interview with Havana Times.

HT:  What does capturing an image through a lens mean to you?

JR:  When I started working with the camera to create, that was photography. Now I combine art and photography, where the camera lens is just another medium, like using watercolor or oil.

First I started to mix the art photographically, and later I began interacting with people like my advisor, Arne Glimcher, the owner of the Pace Gallery in New York City, and Pascal Dangin from Steidel Publications, which produces books for some of the biggest photographic artists in the world, people with whom I have learned to incorporate digital work in a beautiful combination with a quality similar to that achieved by a painter working on their final product.

This allows me to carry it further than usual; for example, I start with a negative of a beautiful photographic image and then I digitalize it. Next the high-resolution image is placed in the computer where I can paint on it. The painting process is done on a large screen that requires many hours of additional work. I can change reality to the point that the viewer is confused by the work, since they really can’t distinguish whether it’s a photograph or a drawing.

HT: How do you describe your personal process of recording the photograph?

JR: I never approach the camera without a complete thought, different from what happens with a painter who approaches the blank canvas without knowing what he/she is going to paint. Without that, this beautiful image could never be realized. Art doesn’t come out of thin air. There must be a complete thought in order to transmit it and to bring out the image you want to project; this is the same for me with a lens or a camera.

I don’t take a million pictures to complete one image. For commercial customers, for example, I work the same way… for Cartier or Fendi, Champagne Moet or for large magazines like Harper’s Bazaar. They might become alarmed because I only take a few photos, but when I’m behind the camera I know exactly what I have to watch from the beginning to the end. So that’s when I catch the moment.

Posture of the Saints by John Rusnak


HT: Generally, what are your greatest interests in doing photography…with respect to the visual presentation?

JR: In photographic creation I always try to find a special sense of something unexpected before I compose the image I’m after and before capturing that something on the roll of film. I think there has to be an unusual and compelling look in the subject’s attitude, in the way the composition is formed, or in the vagueness of the image that forces the viewer to visually explore the approach.

HT: Tell us about your gallery in New York?

JR: My gallery in New York closed several months after completing the exhibition of my last series, “Duplicitous Icons.” It was a gallery in Chelsea on a main street in that area of New York. My exhibit lasted from March 3 to April 3, 2011. Shortly afterwards the gallery began to experience financial difficulties due to the economic situation in New York, so I closed it down.

HT: And tell us particularly about Cuba in your artwork?

JR: Cuba became part of my artwork when I begin to conceptualize the current series entitled “Fear of Nostalgia.” I gave it that title based on there being a very complicated process of learning from our past adventures. We refuse to admit many of the mistakes we make that allow us to grow, prosper and progress.

My collaborator in that series, Dr. Ivan Schulman, is a respected expert in modernism. He helped facilitate my first trip to Cuba to start this project. I began to experience the “Cuba of the Cuban.”

Fidel Castro’s revolution created a society where there’s greater racial equality than anywhere else. He even gave asylum to members of the Black Panther Party when they were wanted by the authorities in the US.

It seems that Castro learned the lessons from people’s mistakes in the past, not only those made by Cubans but also by Americans and Western Europeans – in the end, by people. I think there’s something in Cuba that everyone should look at carefully; even Jose Marti refers to this idea when he wrote about it after reflecting on it while in New York.

Moncaidista triptych for Cuba by John Rusnak


HT: Next year here on the island you’re going to be working on a big project inspired by Jose Marti, 160 years after his birth.

JR: There’s something striking about the writings of Jose Marti and way in which he approached life and spirituality. I feel an affinity with Jose Marti because of his philosophies and spirituality. Some of his ideas seem derived from a theory similar to Buddhism. In a certain sense, they are both evolutionary and that’s why my project is involved with the celebration of his 160th anniversary in Cuba.

It’s a theory that suggests that we should all learn lessons. This project consists of learning from past events and applying them to the present in order to progress.

The religious theory of reincarnation is very similar, except that this one has to do with learning our lessons during our lives here and now, on the Earth plane, so that we can move towards something much higher on the eternal plane.

It seems that despite having such a short life, Marti was able to think in a much broader manner, in an eternal manner.

HT: In your look at Marti through your work, which focus will you emphasize – the political or the spiritual?

JR: While I was working on the first shooting in Cuba in January 2011, I had the pleasure of meeting Hector Pardo, the assistant director of the event to be held starting on January 28, 2013 in Havana. I met with him in Cuba accompanied by my colleague, Dr. Ivan A. Schulman, an expert on Latin American modernism and one of the scholars of Marti’s work in the US.

During the meeting Hector saw how much my plan reflects the thoughts of Marti, so he invited us to present it. I think the best way to sum up my feelings about his writings is to quote one of his statements: “Art has the same element and, without knowing this, it always aims at the same object. It is always based on people; it is always improving them through emotion, without feeling that improvement.”

Black Panthers in Cuba by John Rusnak

HT: It’s said that you’ll be bringing special guests to the island to participate in that visual arts exhibition.

JR: In addition to Dr. Ivan Shulman and myself, many people in the arts will be coming to Havana from the United States to get a better understanding of Marti. They’ll be coming primarily from New York City, traveling from Miami to Havana to attend the event as part of the group “Fear of Nostalgia,” under a “People to People” license from the United States government.

The group is called “The Fear of Nostalgia: Art, Architecture and Photography in Cuba.” They’ll be here for five days with the group consisting of photographers, actors, fashion designers, rug designers, magazine editors and people from the US design industry museum.
HT: What has been the most significant mark left on you by your experience photographing in various geographical regions and different peoples of the world?

JR: This project has reaffirmed my thinking about human equality. I have traveled extensively throughout the world, as an artist and as a photographer. There’s something we all share in common. We’re all equal, yet we’re all different.

I think the most amazing experience for me was when I photographed the image of a triptych for a series entitled “Acronym,” which was a line of about 20 Cuban military cadets. This was thanks to the Marti scholar Armando Hart, who wrote to the Minister of Defense for authorization. In this way he helped me to create a work that illustrates human equality, regardless of skin color. The racial balance of this triptych illustrates this truly beautiful ideal.