Rose Marie Cromwell went beyond the cliches to build an expressionistic homage to the Cuba she knows and loves
There are the images of the Cuban revolution: the flag-waving campesinos, rifle-wielding barbudos and the 31-year-old Che all photographed by Alberto Korda. Then there are those by René Burri, Elliott Erwitt and Burt Glinn, showing the murals on crumbling Spanish colonial buildings, the saloon cars, the boxers, dancers and cigars. Somehow the Caribbean island has suffered from this iconic visual vocabulary as photographers sought to evoke and reproduce these classic images. The endless imitators closed down a space for the actual, contemporary Cuba to be discussed.
In Rose Marie Cromwell’s El Libro Supremo de la Suerte – the product of eight years spent travelling to the capital, Havana, from 2005 to 2013, none of the classic markers are present. Instead the series, which translates as The Supreme Book of Luck, is an expressionistic homage to the Cuba she experienced and grew to love, in all its complexity.
“I was 21 years old when I started to visit Cuba and very naive,” says Cromwell. “I was surprised at the failings of the socialist government, as I had hoped it might be a good alternative to capitalism and neoliberalism. Even though socialism failed my expectations, Cuba did not and I kept going back.”
Cromwell explores the country through sensuous portraits, half-caught incidental documentary shots and still-life observations. There’s a subjectivity at play here, a triangulation between documentary, aestheticism and the more obviously human. “I wanted to make images that investigated my complicated relationship to this specific place, rather than trying to document something ‘about’ Cuba,” she says. “I started shooting intuitively, and soon began to re-enact things that had happened, or that were exemplary of my experience.”
There are plenty of sharply observed, fly-on-the-wall photographs – a woman’s tattoo of someone’s name, an antiquated fan given pride of place in a living room, a young man playing with a chick. There are also portraits, each defined by slight gradations of perspective, as if Cromwell is asking us to guess at the dynamic that has developed between people of different generations, who have never known anything but the lived realities of this beautiful but isolated place.
Born in Seattle, Washington, in 1983, Cromwell graduated from Syracuse University with an MFA in Art Photography. “I had a severe speech impediment growing up and was shy because of it. Once I began to photograph I gained a lot of confidence in my ability to communicate and in what I had to say and contribute.”
Now based between Miami, New York and Panama, Cromwell works for Vice, Harper’s, Time LightBox and The Fader. Showing the work in her first solo show at the Diablo Rosso gallery in Panama City, El Libro Supremo de la Suerte has helped establish Cromwell as one of the leading American photographers of her generation. The book was also recently shortlisted for the Mack First Book Award.
“I like to work within the confines of a specific geography, a documentary tradition, but beyond that, the work is subjective and self-reflexive,” she says. “I believe in criticality and intimacy and that everything is political. Photography should reflect that.”