The Ghosts of Havana

Book Review: Michael Eastman, Havana (Prestel: New York, 2011)

Havana is a new volume highlighting Michael Eastman’s collection of nearly a hundred photographs form over the past two decades. For American audiences the city has become a figure of the imagination as a nearly fifty-year-old embargo has imposed restrictions on travel and quelled the spread of Cuban art and culture.  As such, the city is now fetishized and the long standing rhetoric against the Castro regime has only fueled a desire to make sense of this island nation only 90 miles off the coast of Florida. Eastman pays tribute to the spaces and people of Havana, its faded glory and its all but forgotten beauty.

Skimming through the book I imagine what it would have been like to be the archeologists to uncover the remains of Pompeii. Layers of ash revealed an ancient Roman city frozen in time. Havana too is stuck somewhere between a promising past and a stagnant present. Dramatic lighting illuminates empty spaces devoid of people and the only sense of life are the richly colored walls that have survived the ravages of time. In Portrait, Havana (2010) turquoise walls frame a nearly abandoned sitting room sparsely furnished with two empty chairs and a dusty chandelier. Like Pompeii, the former majesty of the space is only conceivable in the absence of figures. We are left to wonder who was once here and why are they now gone. The punctum is a yellow stain above an open door: why has no one cleaned this spot? Why would such a large grand space be all but abandoned?

Despite being the political and cultural hub of Cuba, Eastman’s Havana is a far cry from the hustle and bustle of American and European urban centers. The photographs of exteriors and deserted streets are homage to Edward Hopper with their sparse, lonesome quality. In Yellow Car (2010) the dusty streets of a large intersection is filled with the crossing of multiple electrical wires. A few passersby dot the landscape, but otherwise the space is abandoned. Like Hopper this panache for isolation leans away from melancholy toward romantic poeticism.  Achy Obejas begins her introduction to the book with a similar observation: “When I first experienced Michael Eastman’s photos, I was immediately struck by two things: First, the stillness. Second, the ghosts.” (11)

Havana’s fondness for time and neglect carefully captures the juncture between past and present. However, Obejas reminds readers, time hasn’t stopped in Havana as the city is still a whirlwind of activity: “metropolitan, cosmopolitan, international.”. And while this may not be so evident in Eastman’s photographs, the vibrancy of this Caribbean city lingers in the stillness of time.

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