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New book offers glimpse into the Cuba of yesteryear through vintage and rare photos

Posted on Saturday, 05.03.14

New book offers glimpse into the Cuba of yesteryear through vintage and
rare photos

Ramiro A. Fernández, a retired Time photo editor, began collecting
photographs of his homeland quite by , but that serendipity has
proven to be a bonanza for anyone interested in vintage images of Cuba
and its colorful culture.

In 1981, Fernández was working as a receptionist at the Museum of Modern
Art in New York when a man offered to sell a collection to the museum’s
curator. The curator wasn’t interested, but Fernández ended up buying —
on an installment plan — another album, one of 20 albumen silver prints
from the 1890s by Spanish-born Cuban photographer Jose Gomez de la
Carrera. It was the beginning of a lifelong love affair. Since then
Fernandez has amassed 4,000 photo images that span about 150 years.

Now Fernández, 62, has put about 270 of those photos together in a book
that offers a fascinating glimpse into the Cuba of yesteryear, a visual
chronicle of glamorous showgirls, local celebrities, international movie
stars and everyday people. Cuba Then: Rare and Classic Images from the
Ramiro A. Fernandez Collection (The Monacelli Press) offers a peek into
one of the largest collections of Cuban photography outside the island.

Fernández and award-winning poet Richard Blanco, who wrote a foreword
and provided poems for the book, will talk about Cuba Then at Books &
Books in Coral Gables at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

“I wanted to show how rich we were — how rich we are,” Fernández, who
lives in New York, says. “I’ve included some famous names and some great
movie stars, but I also have regular people going about their lives. I
hope the book gives a sense of a mature society, not just the stereotypes.”

Indeed, the sampling is varied and eclectic. Fernández organized the
book by subject, so there are publicity stills of movies filmed on the
island and portraits of stars but also compelling shots of a state
executioner from the Spanish-American War, a 1953 tamal street vendor, a
bloodied crowd fleeing an explosion in 1960 and a raincoated girl wading
through a flooded Havana street in 1954.

There are recurring motifs in the book: children in clown and fairy
costumes; boxers; street peddlers; animals. Lots of animals. “One thing
I love is the relationship between man and nature,” he explains. “I do
have a lot of pictures of animals.”

True to his journalistic training, Fernández also favors images that
tell stories, photographs that suggest a narrative to be filled in by
the viewer. So he pairs together images that, at first glance, don’t
have much to do with each other.

On pages 94 and 95, for example, he juxtaposes two old photos of
children at different celebrations: one is of a 1926 carnival costume
party in Isle of Pines; the other of a schoolyard reenactment, circa
1910, of a November 1871 execution of eight medical students by Spanish
colonial authorities.

In another two-page spread is looking through an
anti-aircraft gun next to a page that features singer Pedrito Rico as he
peers through a belly dancer’s chain of coins.

A few of the photos have torn edges. That’s intentional. “These aren’t
images of images. They are the real things. They have history. They have
character. They have been shared, moved around and kept in boxes for years.”

He has included personal favorites, too: a rare 1960 photo of
Fredesvinda “La Freddy” Garcia Valdes, a singer who released only one
album of boleros. “She’s a legend, but there are very, very few images
of her.”

Another favorite: a 1958 photo of Ernesto “Che” Guevara wearing a black
arm sling at the Leoncio Vidal barracks outside Santa Clara. After a
little digging, Fernández discovered that Vidal, a hero from Cuba’s
fight for independence, was his grandmother’s first cousin. What’s more,
those barracks carry a historical significance, as it was one of the
last places to hold out against Castro.

After Fernández began planning Cuba Then, his second photo book in seven
years, he met Richard Blanco through a mutual friend. Blanco, who read
his poem at Obama’s second inaugural, was “intrigued” by the
photos that “suggest a narrative you want to fill in.” Lending his poems
to accompany some of the images seemed a natural coupling.

“The photos that stand out in my mind are the ones you don’t expect,”
Blanco says. “Ramiro’s collection offers a richer, deeper understanding
of Cuban history and life. It lets me see beyond what my parents talked
about. It’s more than just 1950s Cuba.”

In fact, the oldest images in the book date to the late 1800s. One shows
a volanta, or Cuban carriage, in front of the El Palacio del Arte
photography studio in 1860 Havana. Others include daguerreotypes of
children in the 1870s and 1880s.

Fernández left Cuba when he was 8, lived in Miami until 1964 and moved
with his family first to Belle Glade and then to West Palm Beach, where
he finished growing up. His mother and sister now live in Miami. It was
his mother, Sara “Tita” Fernandez, who influenced his choice of a
career. Tita was an amateur photographer, and there were always photo
magazines around the house.

He still remembers visiting his grandmother, Hortensia “Cuca” Lizaso
Machado, who had an apartment overlooking the main square in Havana.
She, too, imbued him with a desire to record the Cuban way of life and
what he calls “the Creole character of our people.”

In a poignant essay at the beginning of the book, he writes: “Cuba has
always seduced indiscriminately — from revolutionaries to mambo queens,
failed spies to socialites, savvy gangsters to honeymooning Americanos …”

Fernández says he never stops adding to his collection, and he devotes
much of his time to sharing his finds. He donated more than 900 photos
to the Cuban Heritage Collection at the of Miami’s library
and he will be lending others to the Wolfsonian-Florida International
University in Miami Beach for a 2016 show.

In the past few years, collecting has taken on an urgency as he sees his
parents’ generation — and their stories — passing on. “Our parents are
leaving us and taking with them memories,” he quips. “And my generation,
well, I’m on the tarmac.”

Source: New book offers glimpse into the Cuba of yesteryear through
vintage and rare photos – Lifestyle – –

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