Havana's body and soul in pictures





By PhD. Eusebio Leal Spengler

Each city on this Caribbean island has an absolute uniqueness. Havana presents itself to us as a seductive image. But, without prejudice to the silhouette, to that magnetism typical of the apparent, its inner world is barely perceptible to those who are interested in discovering its mysteries.

And if the multiplicity of styles is fascinating, that style without style that characterizes it, the human conglomerate that inhabits it is no less attractive: its people.

Visual chronicler, Larramendi's keen gaze glimpses in the landscape, in the future of the city, those details that may be imperceptible to ordinary passers-by. Then, past and present are combined in this exhibition with admirable coherence to offer us a mosaic, an anthropological interpretation of the city, which is the epicenter of an always endless battle to preserve and enhance heritage.

As someone who urges us to surrender to the magnificence of Havana, he, who as I say, has the privilege of looking at things through the prism of time, offers us once again the testimony of his talent: a sincere devotion, a priesthood in someone who was not born in it, but who considers Havana his city of choice.

By Leonardo Padura
I believe that a city is as photogenic as its soul is tangible. And that men and women may be the subjects of photographic endeavor as long as they express their world, as they reveal a situation. Havana has that spiritual quality marked by the eternal presence of the sea, by buildings that tell stories, by streets brimming with urban life (which, more often than not, unfolds out of the house). Its inhabitants have the ability to convey with a glance, a pose, an attitude, the complexity of a situation and of a particular way of being. Then again, the city with soul and its gregarious people can only become the subjects of photographic art when regarded with a second purpose, that is, the aesthetic intention, which has the ability to go beyond the circumstantial, the ephemeral, and seeks to enter intimate spaces and lives, and through them, attain permanence and polysemy, two supreme artistic endeavors. 

When the equipment and procedures to portray reality through photography started to appear in Cuba in the midnineteenth century, Havana and its people offered themselves to create an image (put together by a symphony of a thousand images) that accompanies us and defines us. Before that time in history and in art, Cuba’s capital city had already been frequently and prolifically depicted through the pictorial techniques of the time, such as engraving. The city was repeatedly represented from the sea or with the sea, given that its culture and its wealth as a maritime and commercial metropolis had always depended on its contact with the outside world. But in a historical period marked by the birth of national identity, photography and its impact helped to shift the focus to the land, the streets, the buildings and, most importantly, to the people who unknowingly were shaping the essence of Havana’s identity. 

By historical coincidence, the arrival of photography in Cuba took place almost at the exact time when Havana was just beginning to be portrayed in words. The city was reflected in narratives that sought to bestow physiognomy, solidity and voice to both a mythical and real territory on whose foundation the spirit of an entire nation would be built. The first written portraits of the city—the novels by authors Villaverde and Echevarría written in the late 1830s—appeared almost simultaneously with the arrival of the first daguerreotype equipment in 1840. Their singular relationship has bequeathed us the spirit of the city from that period and the mindset of its people at a time when the colony was in the process of becoming a spiritually diverse nation, or, to be more precise, a motherland, which the romantic poet José María Heredia had already extolled in his poems. 

Ever since then, photography has accompanied us documenting events, great and small, in our national life. Through photography, we have witnessed not only History but also life. This exhibition has reserved a space to show— and celebrate—the ways in which acclaimed or anonymous photographers saw and felt the city, and how they contributed to strengthening its spirit, to giving it the soul that inhabits it and to recording it during the decades preceding national independence—a period of intense efforts in the construction of a unique identity. 
However enlightening History may be, it is meaningless unless it is regarded as a mirror that illuminates the present. The significance of the past lies in having created the here and now, in helping us understand a present time that was future and which, once this point in time expired, started to become the past. 

With the purpose of bringing that historical and aesthetic cycle to an end, a photographer as Cuban as the Polymita, the land snails with unique polychrome shells that only exist on the island, shares his perspective on Havana’s present reality with admirable insight and penetration. 

 The tireless photographer Julio Larramendi brings us the vision of the city where he lives and which he explores every day. Based on his profound historical knowledge of the evolutionary twists and turns of the graphic representation of Havana, including before the arrival of the daguerreotype and photography in Cuba, Larramendi pours his dramatic artistic sensitivity into his pictures of Havana landscapes and characters producing a familiar Havana, yet revisited and different. His shots of Havana from the sea—with the sea as the gateway to the city—engage in a conversation of sorts with the dozens of 17th- and 18th-century engravings and paintings that eternalized an image of the city, using the sea as their reference point. At the time, the sea played a major role enabling the presence of the good and the bad, the permanent and the ephemeral that arrived in the capital of the ever-faithful Island of Cuba: all that would nurture its soul and identify its inhabitants. 

Our questions regarding the photogenic quality of a city and the photographic significance of its citizens find their answers in the paradigm of old colonial pictures of Havana that coexist and interact with the photographs that Julio Larramendi has taken from his own perspective and sensitivity. This exhibition is a remarkable testament to Havana’s soul and the character of its people, and is offered to us for our visual enjoyment with our heartfelt gratitude.