Updated: Mar 15, 2022
"The instructor said, 'Don't bring me any photos of Pike's Peak, the Garden of the Gods, or the changing color of the aspens,' so I brought 125th Street," said Rachel Cubi, a native New Yorker from the Bronx. She not only submitted the photo of that rail station; she won first place in the art competition at Pike's Peak Community College. That was 2018, the first year that photography was allowed to compete as an art form (sadly, it has since been removed as such). While Cubi loves the red rocks of the Garden of the Gods, the majesty of Tava (Pike's Peak), and the changing color of the aspen leaves, she is well aware that it doesn't have to be the subject of everybody's art. Growing up in a densely populated city, she was always aware of the landscape of people. The human-made environment and those who dwelled in it became her focus.
Interestingly, her photograph of the rail station ties into another tradition of firsts in art history. One of Monet's famous early impressionist paintings was of the St. Lazare Train Station (1877), which he used to commute into Paris. Monet wanted to be a painter of the modern world, and the train was the perfect symbol of that industrialized ambience. That focus on the train as symbolic of movement and invention was also the subject of what is considered the first moving picture, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895) by the Lumiére Brothers. Though only 50 seconds long, it focuses on all the activity that bursts forth as this iron giant puffs its way into the station (see video with appropriate 1890s music added, very upbeat, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1dgLEDdFddk).
Cubi's train station is vacant. Nothing is coming toward the viewer. A couple of people stand on the opposite platform, but nothing seems to be coming their way, either. The tall buildings of the city loom in the distance, a distance made to look interminably long by the photograph's seemingly never-ending tracks. Those tracks disappear into a distant void. The feeling is not one of excitement as in the old film, but rather a view of "the end of the line." As society moves from industrial to post-industrial to cyberspace, the vacant quality of these almost deserted tracks make them seem like relics. Certainly trains do use those tracks, and people do take those trains. Yet, Cubi's message is about something different. The train station seems lonely. It is a comment on certain elements in modern American life: distance, solitude, singularity.
"Growing up, I always had a camera in my hand, and I was a people-watcher" Rachel Cubi.
Her first camera was the traditional Christmas gift, the Kodak 110, which almost everybody has had at some time in life. Her early days in public schools were not ones where she found any encouragement. For a young Black and Puerto Rican girl, it was more a matter of surviving. However, survive she did, and along the way, she developed a keen eye for human behavior and human character. She says that it is important to look in people's eyes, for the eyes tell the real story that a smile may be trying to hide. Being able to engage people and pick out that special face in the crowd that is full of character is the fruit of her consummate abilities as a people-watcher, and the humanity she shows toward her subjects. Cubi's photographs show her attitude to be one that recognizes that we are all connected, and each of us adds to the story of humanity.
"Everyone has a story, and it is my honor to capture those stories" Rachel Cubi.
The photo of this elder lady, who was coming out of a church, was captured by Cubi when in Mexico. The woman's withered features and frail body would indicate not just age, but age from a hard life. Her brows are knit into a permanent frown, one that forms so easily that the area between her brows and on top of her nose have the deep wrinkles caused by habit. Perhaps in the moment when this photo was taken, it was just the sun that caused her squinted gaze. Yet, those brows seem to have an accustomed position, knit together in worry and perhaps not often relaxed in joy. This photo won Cubi, 2nd Place in the American Advertising Awards in 2019. The back-to-back wins in competition gave Cubi the validation she needed to feel that yes, indeed, she had a talent for photography.
Cubi, who is married to a now retired army Lt. Colonel, spent years focused on being a mother to her two sons, now 14 and 17, and going through all of the changes in locale that military families must go through. Once the boys were reaching their teens, she decided to go back to school and study photography. However, in terms of the type of photography to do, she never wanted to be a family portrait photographer or wedding photographer. Rather, she refers to herself as an urban photographer. She converses with the people whom she photographs, and that is how she gets the mood of the piece right.
One look at Homeless Man from her Voices of the Street series (see photo below) lets the viewer see that this man has allowed Cubi to capture something about him that indicates a fuller story. He sits with his worldly possessions overflowing a shopping cart and wears layers of clothing for warmth. At a glance, he seems like all the other people who live on the streets. However, Cubi's photo captures something of a personality. He sits with his head bent over a small book. He wears glasses and has a sincere concentration on what he is reading, almost like an old scholar or philosopher whose life has left him to wander. And he lets the world know that he has a sense of humor, too. The irony of the sign attached to his bags, "Your Ad Here" begs the question of the passerby, "What would you put on his sign, and how much would you pay him for it?"
Cubi prefers to use her skills to show human stories and human events. The recent event that most shook her and motivated her was watching, with her then 12-year-old son, the video of the murder of George Floyd. As horrifying as that was, it was made even more critical when Cubi's young son, turned to her and said, "Mom, I'm afraid."
"Mom's going to go out to do something about this" Rachel Cubi.
That was Cubi's verbal reply to her 12-year-old. Her physical reply was a road trip with her camera equipment. Another photographer came along, as Cubi's husband insisted that she take a companion to provide a bit of safety in numbers. She traveled to five important cities where there were Black Lives Matter protests, starting in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the place that saw the horrible riot of angry Whites that in 1921 destroyed the prosperous Greenville area of Tulsa, which had been known as "Black Wall Street." She went on to Louisville, Kentucky; Denver, Colorado; Richmond, Virginia; Washington, D.C., and was scheduled to go to New York City, but COVID-19 arrived before she did.
The photo above focuses the eye on a sharp but telling contrast. The traditional old style architecture of the South, complete with the white columns and soft pastel colors is starkly contrasted to the Black Lives Matter sign, done in large letters in white on black. The juxtaposition is a stark reminder of what built those lovely old buildings, a society and economy built on black slave labor, and that there are repercussions of that system affecting lives today. Cubi says she was gobsmacked when in an Aveda salon in Richmond, VA., someone told her "Well, you know, Richmond is the capital of the Confederacy." Cubi's calm reply that the Confederacy was over long ago was only met with a stiff upper lip and eerie silence.
It was former New Orleans' mayor, Mitch Landrieu, who said in a speech (May 2017) on the removal of Confederate statues, "The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and humanity. It sought to tear apart our nation and subjegate our fellow Americans to slavery. This is a history that we should never forget and that we should never again put on a pedestal to be revered." The statue of Robert E. Lee shown here is full of graffiti commenting on what this statue represents. The anger of the comments rises like a tide creeping closer and closer to the top of that pedestal, a tsunami of protest sweeping away what had been.
One of the things that Cubi noticed at the protests that she photographed was the mixture of people who were protesting. The marches were far from being only a Black-American event. People of good conscience whether Black or White were evident in every rally. That was not always the focus of the media, which got a lot of mileage out of those protests that were highjacked by violent extremists. Those elements did damage to people, property, and to the valid intentions of the Black Lives Matter movement. They sadly provided fodder for those who did not want to look at the conditions that sparked the protests to begin with. Cubi said in her experience of the protests, she found them to be peaceful and not the sensational scenes often shown on the news.
Bringing the whole experience home, with the outbreak of COVID-19 and the stay-at-home orders, Cubi had time to consider her experiences on the road with the BLM protests and how she wanted to express what she had seen. In the spirit of Taylor Branch's award winning trilogy and PBS documentary series, Eyes on the Prize, which documents the Civil Rights Movement, Cubi wanted to add her personal documentation of this important next step in the movement toward "justice and equality for all." This stage of her work culminated in an exhibit of her photographs of the BLM protests, When Will the U.S. Be Us, held in both of the main galleries at Cottonwood Center for the Arts in Colorado Springs, February 2021. Cubi's photographer's eye had been on her own special prize: helping her sons feel that they were not helpless in this battle. One photo dear to her own heart is the one of her husband marching with their two sons, hand-in-hand, here in Colorado Springs. It is a strong statement to all that there are indeed things we can do to counter a bad situation. We all can make our feelings known without violence and gain strength by doing so.
Rachel Cubi says that the eyes tell the story. Her photographer's eye certainly does. Her purposeful revealing, with photographic clarity, the world that surrounds us leaves us with not only things to think about, but a type of call-to-action to confront the ills in our society. The mapping of the human genome tells us that all humans are physically 99.9% the same. Yes, we have different histories, cultural attitudes, worldviews, and languages, but primarily human is human. Best that we endeavor to evolve ourselves as a whole and truly make the world a better place for everyone.
Rachel Cubi Contact Information:
Urban Art Photography
© Marjorie Vernelle 2022