Magnus Reed first came to Cuba in 1995, to work on a campaign for the Italian fashion company Benetton. He fell for the country’s vibrancy and history immediately and since then has returned a dozen times. Reed has come to regard Havana as a second home. Fin de Sieglo ( ) is his photographic documentation of Havana at the end of the 20th Century.
”In some strange way Cuba had been in my mind long before I ever went there,” says photographer Magnus Reed. ”Despite the bustling and joy, there was a stillness to it. The people were so close to themselves, so focused and connected. And in their groundedness, they alllowed me to come closer to them.’
Fin de Sieglo could quickly be overlooked as yet another Westerner’s documentation of Latin America’s poverty and a bygone era – a convenient setting for tear jerking images of what was and might never be again.
Some questions remain, however: the children gathered on a wall by the sea – do they know they’re being photographed? Are they in fact performing for Reed out of courtesy, to facilitate his work? Is it a polite gesture to a foreigner? Many of the images are so beautiful it hurts to look at them. The people in them appear to come from outside of time and space, even history! Most of all, they appear to be waiting. They look into the camera as if they don’t comprehend what they’re seeing, or as if the camera weren’t there at all.
And that is Reed at his best. His signature style unearths a simplicity and a truth not often seen in these types of documentary works.
One one level, ”Fin de Sieglo” project is the simplest photographic project imaginable. Magnus Reed has set up a traditional large-scale camera at various places in Havana and photographed people on the street. However, it is the technicality and the spirit of the works that reveals a much more complicated and demanding scope of work.
Reed shot the works in the largest of all photographic formats, 8`/10`, where the negative is 8×10 inches. The negatives are loaded in the cassettes one at a time demanding that every exposure is painstakingly set and planned.
”This format is unbeatable for rendering the details in the images exactly as the eyes sees them,” says Reed. ”The pictures are so sharp that you can see the structure in a shoelace of someone walking on the other side of the street.”
The result is an incredible sharpness and richness of detail. Everything is revealed; every strand of hair, every human abnormality, every physical attraction. Well, not everything is beautiful. Poverty filters through, and behind the composed exterior lurks a treacherous apathy. But they are merely glimpses, a kind of rapid flicker in which the Cuban dictatorship cannot be concealed. Otherwise, the exhibit is dominated by the photographic ”aura”; the ”patina” which alludes to 19th century portraits of metropolises like Paris, London and later New York (Berenice Abbott).
Magnus Reed is careful to stress that ” Fin de Sieglo” is not a political project. His pictures focus on the beautiful and positive elements of peoples everyday lives.
”As a person, I am both completely apolitical and extremely political at the same time. But with this project I want to use my professional skills to highlight what lies beneath all this, the things that are really worth something. I don´t know what will happen to Cuba and Havana in the 21st century, but this is my way of documenting what it looks like today, at the end of 20th century.
”In Cuba I have acquired a great love of the simple things, the small details, all the human interraction that occurs spontaneously in the streets. When I am in Havana, taking photographs it feels almost as if I am outside my own body, as if I am a visitor to earth. I can really see the beauty in the common place and sometimes it feels almost as if I can read the thoughts of the people I see. For me there is incredible drama, a fantastic sensuality in the simple scenes that are being played out on the streets. It is at least as exciting as going to the cinema.”
The unique thing about Reed’s images is the almost exaggerated differentiation between poverty and modernity. Sheathed in darkness amidst Greek columns and pilasters in something that resembles a Roman crypt, young men and women materialize as if delivered from some Mediterranean beach. Strangest of all are the images from Havana’s streets. They give me the feeling of looking at some kind of pre-capitalist choreography in which the people have claimed the land and the cobblestones without even considering that someone might own them. Not a square a millimeter of land is left unused; everything is utilized until it is worn down to a stony, impenetrable surface. The apartment interiors are identical; the walls and floors resemble abstract paintings where the shortage of goods that cripples Cuban society becomes apparent.
Reed’s documentation is a classic portrait of a city in decay, portrayed with keen precision. In a few years, months even, the images will be impossible to reproduce.