A Step Beyond: Cuba An Olaf Willoughby interview with Eileen McCarney and her Leica cameras

This month’s Olaf Willoughby interview is with Eileen McCarney Muldoon, a fine art/ travel photographer and educator based in Rhode Island who tells the intriguing story behind her current exhibition about Cuba at the new Leica Store, Boston.

To start can you give me an overview of your project, its title & what is its main theme?

A Step Beyond | 26.5N, 77.8W, which represents the latitude and longitude of Cuba. The photos are culled from hundreds of photographs that I have taken over the past five years of visiting Cuba. Most of the images are quite personal. I have included some images taken in public places, but most were captured in the homes of the Cuban people. Prior to going to Cuba for the first time, I did a fair amount of reading to prepare for the trip. As with most guide books, I learned about the culture, the music, the food, the history and the omnipresent political influence on the country. What I didn’t prepare for was the people. The people of this Caribbean island only 90 miles away from Miami are warm, intelligent, gracious and very welcoming.

And how does that theme develop as a story throughout the project?

The story of the people kept expanding and evolving on every subsequent trip to Cuba. We visited new parts of the island on every visit, but always spent some time in Havana and revisited a few of our favorite cities. If I knew we were revisiting a certain area, I would bring pictures from previous years to share with those that we photographed the year before. In many cases I would replicate the photograph from the prior year. There was one family that I found particularly interesting in 2015. On my return visit in 2016, I had a difficult time retracing my steps to their house, but the neighbors recognized the man in the photo and helped me find them. It was a very meaningful experience for both of us. Although my knowledge Spanish is very limited, we were able to communicate very well through photographs and gestures.

Is the project purely for yourself or do you have a commercial or cause related end in mind?

The project didn’t start as a project at all. It started without my knowledge. I was co- teaching photography workshops and it wasn’t until my third visiting Cuba that I realized the story I was bringing home was all about the resilient people of Cuba. When you travel with a group of people, one would assume that we would all come home with the same or similar images, but that isn’t necessarily true. Each photographer brings home a different story that is their personal view or experience. There was never a commercial end product in mind, however once I realized the cohesive nature of the collection I showed many of the images in local shows in Rhode Island and have had a solo show of this work at the Leica Gallery in Soho NY and currently this work is on show at the Leica Gallery in Boston from January 5, 2017 for two months

What photographic choices have you made; colour palette, composition, use of flash….etc.

I cannot say that I was seeking out a specific color, but the images all have a muted color palette. This is due to a number of reasons. One is that since the US embargo, Cuba has had little funds to paint or refurbish their homes, so since most of the photos are taken in the interior of people’s homes the colors are soft blues, yellows, greens and pinks . If I photographed on the streets the colors would be much more vibrant. In fact, the Gallery Director in New York said that many people who visited the show commented that the photographs had a Vermeer quality to them.

What is your vision for the project and how will you judge if you’ve been successful?

Personally, it was a huge success even if not one photograph was taken. The experience of meeting and spending time with all of the individuals was very rewarding, however I have come to realize that I never would have met these people if I didn’t have my camera with me to initiate an introduction. Although I am delighted to have this body of work shown in US galleries, I am very honored to have the opportunity to show this portfolio at the International Film Festival in Cuba 2018. It allows me to feel confident that I captured the true essence of the Cuban people.

Did any particular person or body of work influence or inspire you?

No, not for this body of work, however I have a new project I am working on and I am looking at the works of some of the Masters for inspiration.

Not all projects are smooth sailing. Have you had any setbacks and what were your learnings?

Since this didn’t start out as a project there were no setbacks, but once I saw the body of work forming, I made a conscious decision to continue the informal interactive approach that I started with and look at as a body at some future date.

Are there any technical or workflow challenges you’d like to mention?

Since most of the work was shot inside, I had to rely on the use of high ISO and using the Leica SL was a great asset.

What Leica equipment do you use and how is it particularly suited to the needs of this project?

I carried my Leica M ( Typ 240) with me at all times. I try to keep my equipment simple for this type of photography. I’d rather spend time with my subjects instead of working with my equipment. Once I was sure the people I was photographing were comfortable, I often pulled out the SL and did more in depth studies.

Thank you!

To know more about Eileen, please visit her website.

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Olaf Willoughby is a photographer and writer. He co-founder of The Leica Meet a Facebook and website group (10,000+ members) who hold meetings in major cities (NYC, Boston, Wetzlar, London, Paris, Lisbon…) In 2016, Olaf has co-taught numerous creative photography workshops including ‘Visual Conversations’, with Eileen McCarney.

Muldoon at Maine Media College, Rockport plus Leica Akademie workshops in New York and London as well as having exhibitions in both locations.

If you have an intriguing project or body of work that we might feature, completed or in progress, contact Olaf at: olaffwilloughby@gmail.com or www.olafwilloughby.com

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3 comments

  • Again always a pleasure to read about Mr Willoughby and his latest photographer interview!

  • Lovely photographs and colors. Interesting that the muted colors were something that was there, instead of the result of post-processing.

  • Wow. I don’t know how I missed this, but these images are absolutely captivating. Really love the tones and the mood of everything.

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