Author: Robert Polidori
Review by Conrad J. Obregon
Susan Sontag, the late social critic and public intellectual, complained that artfully-taken photographs of tragedy were, over time, likely to be considered more as art and less as tragedy, thus deadening our moral sensibilities. What would she have thought of Robert Polidori?
Robert Polidori’s Havana consists of over 120 pages of color images, each about 10 inches by 13 inches (with two exceptions). The frontpiece photographs consist of straight frontal views of buildings along a Havana street, most of which show signs of decay, with one exception. Polidori then presents the interiors of buildings, and eventually, some of the residents.
Polidoris use of color is quite beautiful, and had I not known that the photographs were taken at the end of the twentieth century, I would have sworn that they were the results of high dynamic range photography. Of course much of the look comes from the beautiful pastel shades of the buildings, the time of day of the photographs and the wonderful light of the Cuban city. Polidoris pictures are tack sharp, with great depth of field, and even though amazingly artful, clearly describe just the facts. As we go through the book we start to realize that part of the colorful effect is due to the build-up of different colored layers of paint that are beginning to chip and peel. As we turn the pages, we begin to notice the falling ceilings, the electrical cords strung within buildings and the simple furniture. No attempt is made to say anything. Instead, by the end of the book, we are lead to conclude that something is wrong in Havana that is resulting in this decay. The last illustration in the book is the unfinished Russian Embassy.
Although one might not think it likely to provide a spoiler in the review of a book of art photographs, some may want to skip the rest of this paragraph. In the beginning of the book, we are shown the interiors of the home of Senora Luisa Faxas. Each successive photograph reveals the once-grand home, becoming shabbier and shabbier, while still showing its former beauty. Then we turn a page and get a shock, for there seated in a chair, is the diminutive and aged Senora Faxas. As we go further in the book, we get more and bigger shocks. What has happened to poor Havana!
Rather than becoming insensitive to what has happened, each successive beautiful picture makes us morn for the loss.
Here is a lesson for photographers. Beautiful images don’t hide tragedy. Rather, in the hands of a skillful artist, they impress their selves on our minds and force us to face what is wrong and perhaps be haunted by it.
Special thanks are due to the publisher, Gerhard Steidl. Like most of the art photography books put together by Steidl, this book shows loving care and concern.
(I feel compelled to add that I hold no brief against the Cuban government. Perhaps that made it easier for this book to fill me with sadness.)