JTF (just the facts): Co-published in 2018 by TIS Books (here) and Light Work (here). Hardcover, 188 pages, with 89 color images, some on half-cut pages. Includes a small number of captions/notes by the artist. With a stapled softcover booklet, 24 pages. Design by Ben Salesse. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: For many seduced by the romantic allure of Cuba, the city of Havana seems like a photographer’s paradise. With its decaying colonial architecture, cool vintage cars, peeling pastel paint, aging Communist icons, and sun drenched afternoons, it seems like the kind of place most any photographer could get lost in. And yet, what many often miss is that these exact views of old Havana are a very dangerous aesthetic trap. Those textural city surfaces surely invite a nostalgic sense of the picturesque, but the visual clichés that generally emerge are so strong, so overused, and so saccharine, they drag most photographers into a pit of forgettable triteness from which they cannot escape.
Rose Marie Cromwell’s portrait of life in Havana, taken over a period of seven years, happily avoids these hackneyed subjects and uses serendipity as a guide to finding something much more fleeting and authentic. Cromwell’s photobook uses the underground lottery in Havana as an organizing theme, the photocopied booklets that are used by everyday Cubans to pick their numbers offering a multitude of entry points into the city’s rhythms. Each booklet (or charada) is filled with numbers that are associated with animals (horse, cat, fish, cow, snake, pig, frog, etc.), people (soldier, doctor, priest, mother, holy woman), and countless other daily occurrences, objects, and themes (war, machete, bicycle, convent, theater, marriage, divorce, adultery, money), each one with additional nuances and sub-meanings.
Hoping to have good luck, lottery players match moments in their lives with the numbers to try to pick the winning combinations, often layering on multiple sets of mystifying calculations. But Cromwell doesn’t use the numbers as a strictly literal framework or a checklist of subjects to be ticked off, but instead finds loose allusions to the listed items in the chance occurrences of the streets – and just like a passionate local lottery player, she sees the subtle resonances of potential numerical connections seemingly everywhere she looks.
Cromwell’s photographic approach lies somewhere between traditional street photography and intentional choreography, where found moments are liberally mixed with staged scenes. This results in pictures that verge on the slightly surreal, where quirks of everyday existence are given a slightly heightened sense of performance. While still life discoveries like twisted bed sheets, a pile of sandy fishing buoys, a can of red paint, a cane chair being repaired, a turtle in the street, and a tumble of pineapples are largely formal studies (some set off by vibrant splashes of color), most of Cromwell’s images of people have a gestural quality that feels similarly controlled.
Often a simple touch between two people makes for a unexpectedly charged subject. One woman covers a man’s eyes with her hands, another gently twists a man’s head, a third cradles the head of a swimming girl, and yet another captures a three tiered cascade of female hair styling. In each case, the mundane feels like it just might mean something more. Other images are like set pieces of emotion. There is tension between two men struggling against each other buried to the waist in the sand, tenderness between another pair embracing near a purple wall, and release between two washing their hands beneath a bucket of water.
Cromwell takes us further down the rabbit hole of the everyday strange with a man eating a dripping red tomato, another whose face is covered in sand, and a woman carrying two chickens by their feet, and then encourages the symbolism to get even heavier with a woman sunning herself with coins over her eyes, a man wearing a braid of garlic, and another with yellow flowers around his neck. All of these photographs have a delicate push and pull, and for the lottery player looking for hidden connections, the thrum of possible luck fills the air.
The design and sequencing of El Libro Supremo de la Suerte help support a feeling of Havana as a city of subtle dissonances and mysteries. Images of hand-scrawled calculations repeat through the book, bringing us back to the mystical numerology that links the pictures together. The photographs are shown in varying sizes, often with a rectangle of white to the left, right, or top; this framing is then reinforced by half cut pages that line up exactly with these white areas, creating overlaps, interruptions, and juxtapositions that are used like short sequences. Hand written captions and numerical references are sprinkled throughout, breaking up the flow of imagery and keeping the feeling casual and personal. And the bright sunflower yellow cover and endpapers are bold and energetic, further reconnecting to the sun-baked mood Cromwell has created.
Even though Cromwell is an outsider to Havana, her photobook smartly avoids the wide-eyed wonder and obviousness of the tourist, searching instead for the invisible threads that tie the city together. By connecting the tiny details of everyday life to the hopes and dreams of lottery winnings, she weaves random fragments and staged events together into a convincingly integrated whole. The elemental optimism that bets on good luck simmers through her lively photobook, every singular moment having the potential to change a life, if only we could look closely enough to understand what it truly means.
Collector’s POV: Rose Marie Cromwell does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As such, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).