Category Archives: Cuba

Hall of Mirrors

On a hot and humid day in March of 1957, forty-two men armed with sub-machine guns, carbines and automatic pistols crammed into the back of a small delivery truck. Two other vehicles, a Buick sedan and a Ford roadster, each with four armed men in shirt sleeves, accompanied the van. The assault on the Presidential Palace in downtown Havana, Cuba was on.

Hall of Mirrors

At the Presidential Palace, strongman Fulgencio Batista waited in the the Hall of Mirrors (shown in this photo), reading a book to pass the time. Batista knew the attack was coming because an informer had given the conspiracy away.

One of the odd things about the Hall of Mirrors is the ceiling mural. You can clearly see the flames of Hell on the right of this painting. As they say, the Devil is sometimes in the details.

It’s not entirely clear what the point of the moralizing in the art was to the corrupt Battista dictatorship—or why this monument to corruption has been meticulously maintained in a country in which everything else is falling apart.

My sense is that there is an underlying morality play related to the Halls of Mirrors and its mural. Whatever the regime, and whatever the country, power corrupts. And absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Read more in Fifty Years after the Cuban Revolution.

Iglesia San Felipe

Iglesia San Felipe

Iglesia San Felipe, photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

This is an interior of a church located in Habana Vieja (the old district of Havana, Cuba). The image is comprised of three bracketed exposures, shot using a tripod on my 2009 trip to Cuba. The lighting inside the Iglesia San Felipe presented a significant challenge because it varied from deep shadow (in the pews) to bright sunlight (in the dome).

Digital means you never have say you’re sorry—and that you are never done. I finally got around the other day to processing this HDR sequence from my archives.

You don’t really get a sense in this image of the tonal range of the actual scene because of the way I decided to process the image. In essence, at the scene the eye would perceive both lights and darks as opposed to this high-contrast but somehow visually uniform rendition of the scene.

Here’s a link to the Cuba category on my blog. Enjoy!

Matanzas River

Matanzas River

Matanzas River, photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

The gritty provincial city of Matanzas is sometimes called the Venice of Cuba because of its many rivers and bridges. This is a stretch—but as I walked across a central bridge in the late afternoon I was mindful of the way the lines of the buildings along the banks drew my eye towards the horizon as a Canaletto painting of Venice might. I waited for a recreational kayaker to come into position to balance the composition, then snapped my photo.

Wire Sculpture

Detail of Che Guevara wire sculpture, Revolutionary Square

Detail of Che Guevara wire sculpture, Revolutionary Square, photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

A visit to Cuba launches you into an understanding of revolutionary and totalitarian hagiography. The likenesses of the heros of the revolution—Fidel, Che, and other less well-known revolutionary generals—are everywhere you look. This includes private spaces—it’s dangerous not to have photos of Che or Fidel in your home or place of business—and every public area.

In part, this use of the images of the revolutionary generation is made possible because Fidel and Che were so photogenic and so widely photographed by Alberto Korda and others. For a time, Korda was Che’s personal photographer. A deep feeling for religion simmers beneath the surface in Cuba, and framed hagiographic photos of the martyred Che have replaced more traditional Catholic tchotkes of the martyred saints in souvenir venues.

One place where this hagiography ventures over the line into caricature and cartoon is Revolutionary Square in Havana. Huge, ugly, neo-Stalinist sculptures dot this vast and arid public space. Getting too close to one of these sculptures with my camera, I was menaced by guards with automatic weapons and beat a hasty retreat.

A notorious feature of the art in Revolutionary Square are the wire sculptures that decorate the sides of some of the larger buildings. These are huge in scale, perhaps ten stories tall. They are mounted into the cement on the sides of the buildings and stick out far enough to cast shadows. Each wire sculpture shows a caricature profile of a revolutionary hero.

This photo shows an abstracted detail of the Che Guevara wire sculpture. I used the photo on page 53 of Creative Black & White to demonstrate the way strong shadows could help create an interesting monochromatic composition when patterns are involved.

For more of my stories about my trip to Cuba, check out the Cuba category on my blog.

Havana Cross

Havana Cross

Havana Cross, photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

In downtown Havana, Cuba, near the Capitolio Nacional and across the street from the Floridita—a bar favored by Hemingway in Cuba—I wandered into a dark passageway. Once, before the revolution, this gallery had probably been an upscale shopping arcade below an apartment complex. With dark, yawning and broken windows and peeling stucco, this prosperous past was hard to imagine.

There were four entrances to the complex, each passing though a tunnel to reach the center of the building, which occupied a city block. As I approached the center, looking up, the pattern of the sky against the building seemed to formed a cross—showing that in photographic composition negative space can be as important as the surrounding positive space.

I lay supine on my back on the ground, and shot straight up.

Converting to Black & White

Courtyard

Courtyard, photo by Harold Davis.

For a preview of my upcoming Creative Black & White: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques check out Converting to Black & White, the most recent column in my Creativity in the Photoshop Darkroom series on Photo.net.

About this image: This is an HDR capture, created using combined exposures in Photomatix, and converted to monochromatic. There were six original exposures at 12mm, shutter speeds from 1/250 of a second to 1/25 of a second, each exposure at f/14 and ISO 100, tripod mounted.

My idea with this black and white HDR image of an old courtyard in Havana, Cuba was to challenge the usual assumptions about framing an architectural photo. When you realize that the camera was positioned at the bottom of a courtyard, it’s easy to see you are looking up at the sky. However, at a glance the nearly square patch of sky and cloud could also be a framed work of art on the wall.

As I’ve noted, converting your Photomatix HDR to black and white means never having to apologize again for garish colors.

Black & White HDR

Capitolio Nacional

Capitolio Nacional, photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

This is a shot—or, more accurately, three shots—of the Cuban Capitolio Nacional in Havana. The elegant building is mostly empty, and was hardly ever used for its intended purpose.

I took the photos that went into this extended range composite on a tripod, using my 10.5mm fisheye lens at f/22 and ISO 100. The captures were made at 0.4 seconds, 0.6 seconds and 1.3 seconds. The fisheye made for a pretty vertiginous effect, and I decided to see if I could amp it up with some black and white HDR processing.

I fed the three captures in RAW form through Photomatix and then played with the tone curve. After processing, I borrowed a trick from Trey Ratcliffe and re-processed. You can do this by hitting the Apple (Ctrl on Windows) key and the ‘T’ key. I used the second tone curve application to lighten the image up. Processing twice (or, hey, even three times) in Photomatix isn’t right for every image, but for some it works wonders.

The Photomatix version of HDR usually doesn’t appeal much to me (Ratcliffe’s images are no exception in this regard). The good news when you convert to black and white is that you lose the garish colors.

I used the Nik Silver Efex Pro High Structure filter to add a little more definition—and a bit more tonal range—to an already pretty highly charged black and white image.

Cuban Portrait

Cuban Portrait No. 1

Cuban Portrait No. 1, photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

I photographed this man on the streets of Cienfeugos, a small city that is one of the provincial capitals of Cuba. He was playing guitar in an impromptu street concert. There’s a great deal of wonderful music in Cuba, possibly because there aren’t so many other forms of entertainment and distraction. The simple pleasures do not get lost in a wash of cell phones, texting and high definition television because most people do not have access to these things.

His face, I think, shows that this man has seen it all. Despite what he has witnessed, he stays serene and happy, and has a kind outlook on life.

Havana Waterfront

Havana Waterfront

Havana Waterfront, photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

I desaturated this image of waves battering the Malecon along the Havana waterfront, and also added some virtual grain, to give the photo an old and worn feeling.

Straight Shot

Straight Shot

Straight Shot, photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

This decorative central shaft presents a straight shot up to a skylight in the Edificio Cuervo Rubio—a stunning art deco apartment building now a little the worse for wear, located in the Vedado section of Havana, Cuba across the street from the Hotel Nacional.

When I first walked into the dim lobby of the Edificio Cuervo Rubio, I assumed this shaft was a spiral staircase. It’s not, and the function is merely decorative. There’s a elevator (not confidence inspiring but I rode it up anyhow) and the staircase shown here and here.

Puente Bacunayagua

Puente Bacunayagua

Puente Bacunayagua, photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

On the highway between the tourist beach enclaves of Veradero and the gritty provincial capital of Matanzas to the east, and about 60 miles from La Habana to the west, sits Puente Bacunayagua. At close to 1,000 feet above the Rio Bacunayagua gorge and 350 feet long, this is the longest and highest bridge in Cuba. The bridge was built as part of the highway construction program heavily subsidized by the Soviets, which came to an abrupt end in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I took this photo from the terrace outside a small tourist restaurant, bar and souvenir complex on the west bank of the gorge. I was shooting for HDR on a tripod. This image is created from six captures, each capture at 15mm, f/8 and ISO 100. The range of shutter speeds was 1/160 of a second (darkest) to 1/6 of a second (lightest). There was quite a wind, so you can see the motion blur in some of trees.

I fed the RAW captures straight into Photomatix, generated an HDR composite, and fiddled with the tone mapping a bit. I was pleased with how well this came out without having to do individual RAW conversions in advance of running the captures through Photomatix—a nice simplification of my usual workflow.

To get the bus on the bridge with clarity, I composited the highway from the capture with the bus over the Photomatix HDR.

Hemingway and Cuba

Cougar Head on a Plaque

This cougar head occupies a place of honor in Papa Hemingway’s dressing area at the Hemingway Museum in the suburbs of Havana, Cuba. Photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

A Tale of Two Papas

Here’s a quick, trick question: Name a big, bearded public figure associated with Cuba who combined machismo with narcissism, had a fascination with firearms and was in love with his own copious verbiage.

Both Fidel Castro and the Nobel prize winning writer Ernest Hemingway fit this bill, and both liked to be called “Papa.” Mostly, Ernest’s Cuban neighbors didn’t oblige.

When Cubans refer to Fidel, they do tend to call him “Papa”—even when in their hearts they’d rather call him something nasty. But Fidel’s choice of moniker comes with enforcement: the State Security division of the Ministry of the Interior as well as the local members of the Committees in the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs).

The CDRs are civilian neighborhood watch groups whose job is to spy on everyone to make sure they are sufficiently “revolutionary”—a term that in an Orwellian twist of language has come to mean support of a government that has been in power for fifty years. There’s a CDR group for every block in every Cuban village and city, and it’s probably a good idea to often repeat “Papa” in loving tones referring to the Supreme Leader if you hang out with your local CDR representatives.

The two Papas shared a love of the ocean, fishing, and boats. They met in 1960 when Papa Castro won the first prize during the 10th Annual Ernest Hemingway Billfish Tournament by hooking a huge marlin.

Both men are associated with well-known boats. The leaky Granma brought Castro, Guevara and their revolutionary gang to Cuba; restored, the Granma sits behind glass in the place of honor in the Revolutionary Museum in Havana.

Hemingway modeled the smuggler’s boat in To Have and Have Not after his beloved sport fishing vessel, the Pilar. He used the Pilar—with beefed up armaments supplied by the Unites States war department—to help spot German submarines near Cuba during the Second World War.

Today, a restored Pilar rests on dry earth in a pavilion that’s part of the Hemingway Museum at Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm). A walkway surrounds the boat which is patrolled by guards. The Pilar is adjacent to the swimming pool in which Ava Gardner once swam naked (the pool is now empty and in bad repair), and a few hundred feet away from Hemingway’s Finca Vigia house itself.

The Mystery of the Missing Chrysler

As one guide book puts it, “the Cuban government does a good job of keeping the fantasy world of tourism and get-away vacations apart from the realities of daily life for the average Cuban person.” Millions of tourists from Canada and Europe visit Cuba every winter for a week or two of booze and sun. For the most part, these visitors are isolated in Club Med-like compounds, and have no sense of the poverty or repression faced by the average Cuban.

The brochures left in hotel rooms provide some hints of the attitude of the authorities. For example, in case of a hurricane:

Before: The hotel management will keep you informed. To slide the curtains to protect yourself in case of window glass breakage.

During: Calm down. The hotel staff is highly qualified to handle the situation. Do not hesitate to follow any instructions.

After: Keep on following official instructions. Report immediately possible damage or wounds.

The ubiquitous Customs Regulations pamphlet, found in each hotel I stayed in, somewhat oddly notes that you can’t bring microwaves, irons, or bread toasters into Cuba; however, a tourist is allowed “a camera with twelve plates or five films” and a set of “sport fishing tackle.”

The favorable nod to sport fishing gear is probably a holdover from Fidel’s enthusiasm about winning Hemingway’s sport fishing contest.

But I digress.

Outside of pseudo-Club-Med-beach-vacation spots and sex tourism, unless you are someone like me with an interest in the history of revolutionary movements and socialism, old cars and Hemingway are pretty much the only tourist games in town.

The old cars in Cuba are the genuine article—original, patched innumerable times and running on a wing and repair. No rebuilt facsimiles with retrofitted new parts, as you find in antique car shows in the United States.

Cojimar, Cuba

I photographed this old Studebaker on the back streets of Cojimar, the fishing town where Hemingway docked the Pilar. Photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

Hemmingway’s car was a sleek black 1955 Chrysler New Yorker with tailfins from here to La Habana. When he left Cuba under circumstances that are still murky, Papa Hemmingway gave the Pilar to its Cuban captain—who couldn’t afford its upkeep, so the Cuban government took it over. The Chrysler New Yorker went to Hemmingway’s driver, later a Cuban policeman, who hid the car rather than give it up to the Cuban government, and then defected. He disappeared while trying to raft across the Straits of Florida. A subject of considerable speculation, the whereabouts of the Chrysler is still a mystery.

Cars can be privately owned in Cuba, and mean great comparative wealth. American cars from the 1950s have been passed down from parents to their children and then to the children’s children.

But I digress yet again.

Mojito at El Floridita
Many packaged tours of Havana feature a stop at El Floridita, famous because Hemingway drank there. Photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

You can drink an overpriced mojita at El Floridita, a smoke-filled bar that Hemmingway frequented—now a tourist trap that claims to be the birthplace of the daiquiri. For a CUC or two, you can view Hemmingway’s room 511 at the Hotel Ambos Mundas in La Habana. But the highlight of the Hemmingway tourist franchise is surely the Hemmingway Museum at the restored Finca Vigia, located in a suburb south of Havana.

Dead Eyes Watching

Dining Room at Finca Vigia

After dining at Finca Vigia a number of guests became vegetarians. Photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

Hemingway purchased Finca Vigia with the first infusion of royalties from For Whom the Bell Tolls—which happens to be a book that Castro took with him to the Sierra Maestra to learn about guerilla fighting tactics.

When Hemingway bought Finca Vigia, it was a modest estate in the pleasant Havana suburb of San Francisco de Paula. Here’s how Irish writer Adrian McKinty described the San Francisco de Paula of today in a 2008 article: “Now San Francisco de Paula is a typical Havana suburban slum. Backed up sewers flow in the streets, the sidewalks are crumbling, pigs root in the gutters and children are to be seen combing trash heaps for anything remotely sellable.”

Allowed to go to wrack and ruin until fairly recently, the Cuban government sponsored a massive and expensive restoration of Finca Vigia a few years back.

A typical visit to the Hemingway Museum involves paying money to get in the grounds and for the somewhat dubious privilege of peering in through open windows at the rooms Hemingway and his fourth wife, Mary Walsh, lived in. Theoretically, you can’t go inside the house. Since everything in Cuba is for sale, I gather that if you visit solo rather than in a group (as I was), you can bribe individual guards for the privilege of getting inside.

Even if you are part of a group tour, guards ask for money for privileges like a photo of Papa’s typewriter (you hand over your camera and the guard takes the photo).

In his article, Adrian McKinty describes visiting Finca Vigia after the group tours had left. He paid twenty dollars to get inside the house, and additional money for further privileges such as sitting in Hemingway’s chair and using Hemingway’s toilet.

He turned down an offer from a secret policeman to buy any book in Hemingway’s library—which includes many rare and inscribed first editions—for $200. Returning to the Hotel Sevilla in Havana, he wrote in his journal, “I pissed in Hemingway’s loo and I don’t feel good about it at all.”

Had he bought a first edition out of Hemingway’s library, I think it would have been “found” at Cuban customs in a charade accompanied by extortion.

Yup. Once again I digress.

The weird thing about Finca Vigia is all the dead animals that Papa Hemingway surrounded himself with. There are books and dead animals. The dead animals really don’t belong there. They aren’t Cuban; they are cheetah heads from Africa, bull heads from Spain, and pickled animal specimens from God knows where.

Bat and Iguana

A pickled bat and iguana decorate the shelves of Hemingway’s bathroom. Photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

I couldn’t image living with this spectacle of death—let alone trying to write—with the dead eyes of bobcats, bulls, deer, and other species too numerous to enumerate watching me with their dead eyes.

I guess that Papa Hemingway shot many of these animals himself—but he’s a wuss compared to the primary Papa of the Cubans. Hemingway may have shot many of these animals, but Castro drove a tank at the Bay of Pigs—and, yes, the tank is there along with the Granma at the Revolutionary Museum.

Note: It’s easy for me to write the truth as I see it about Cuba. In contrast, it is very hard for someone living in Cuba to write honestly about the repressive Cuban regime. That’s why Yoani Sanchez, who writes the Generation Y blog while living in Cuba, has become a hero of mine.

Cienfeugos Sunset

Cienfeugos Sunset

Cienfeugos Sunset, photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

These two images were captured from the seventh floor balcony of the Hotel Jagua in Cienfeugos, Cuba.

Cienfeugos is a relatively prosperous city by Cuban standards, as you can see in the sunset view of the place. I created the image from five captures with shutter speeds ranging from 1/80 of a second (darkest) to 1/8 of a second (lightest). I combined the captures in Photoshop using layers and masking.

I didn’t use software specifically intended to create HDR imagery, but the hand combining I used here is an example of hand HDR. Contrary to what some people seem to think, you don’t need to use Photomatix or Photoshop’s Merge to HDR to create HDR imagery—and HDR can look relatively natural. See Tone Poem for a comparison of Hand HDR and Photomatix.

The night photo is of the Palacio del Valle, a rather tasteless neo-Moorish confection at the end of the Punto Gorda peninsula in Cienfeugos. The Palacio is now a restaurant and nightclub.

If you are wondering where the power for all the lights is coming from, look no further than the view of Cienfeugos (above). In the distance, a power generator is burning cheap Venezuelan crude and belching smoke into the sky.

Palacio del Valle

View this image larger.

Woman and Fan

Woman and Fan

Woman and Fan, photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

In a tourist shop selling hand made lace in Trinidad, Cuba I noticed the owner’s apartment behind the store. I asked permission to set up my tripod and make this photo that includes the owner’s mother.

I made two exposures, one for the comparatively dark interior spaces, and one for the lighter exterior elements like the fan. Part of what appealed to me about the composition was the consistency of the teal color across the fan, bedspreads and mirror behind the old woman.

It’s worth observing the sparseness of this home—even though the family is prosperous by Cuban standards.

Teatro Tomas Terry

Teatro Tomas Terry

Teatro Tomas Terry, photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

Tomas Terry made his first fortune nursing sick slaves back to health, then selling them. He went on to invest in sugar and become one of the wealthiest men in Cuba and indeed the world.

Terry’s sons built this theater in his memory on the central square in Cienfeugos, Cuba. In the 1800s and first part of the twentieth century luminaries such as Sarah Bernhardt and Enrico Caruso performed at the Teatro Tomas Terry.