Capturing Old Havana


Ever since Walker Evans created his classic series of portraits from pre-Revolutionary Havana during the early 1930s, American photographers have had a love affair with the land and people of Cuba.

Evans brought to his Cuban portraits an uncompromising realism in the depiction of ordinary, working-class folk, along with an appreciation for the elegant, Spanish-style architecture and bustling street life of their city. In the days before color film was practical for documentary work, Evans was able to endow his seemingly artless black-and-white images with an unmistakable aura of tropical light and color.

Photographer Rose Cromwell, a recent Maryland Institute College of Art graduate whose atmospheric photographs of Old Havana are on view in the downstairs gallery in the school's main building, harks back to the humanistic tradition of Evans. Her pictures record the small but significant gestures in the everyday life of a people that end up speaking volumes about the soul of a place.

Cromwell spent more than two months this year in the Jovellar y Infanta neighborhood of Old Havana, a community she first encountered during a chance visit in 2004. Although the Seattle native doesn't speak fluent Spanish, she was able to establish relationships of trust with people there that allowed her to visit and photograph them in their homes. The 26 photographs in the exhibition are all set in intimate domestic interiors, where Cromwell's subjects seem completely at ease in front of the camera.

For the documentary photographer, social skills are at least as important as mastery of camera technique. One has to be able to make people comfortable in one's presence, and also show that one really cares about who they are. Only then are they likely to reveal something of their inner selves. The quality of empathy cannot be taught in art school, yet it is a gift all great documentarians share. Cromwell somehow has persuaded her subjects to trust her implicitly, and it is this trust, more than any formal properties the pictures may possess, that persuades us of the truth of our encounter with them.

Like Evans' work, Cromwell's pictures seem at first as artless as snapshots. A girl stretches her arms after rising from bed; a young man in his room methodically curls weights; a woman resting on concrete steps gazes pensively toward an open doorway. Only later does one realize that it is the quality of the light itself, which illuminates Cromwell's subjects like some poetic, indescribably tender unveiling of the soul, that is the true subject of her pictures. It is the light of the life of a people, and one leaves this lovely exhibition convinced that it is also the only thing that really matters.

"Jovellar y Infanta: Portraits from Central Havana" runs through Monday. The gallery is in the main building at MICA, 1300 W. Mount Royal Ave. Call 410-225-2300.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.