Vintage images of the island of Cuba have a great deal of charm, and that’s on full display in “Cuba Then: Rare and Classic Images From the Ramiro A. Fernández Collection” (The Monacelli Press), with a foreword and poems by Richard Blanco, a poet who read at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.
Fernández, who lives in New York’s Chelsea district, left Cuba as an eight-year-old in 1960 and, when he grew up, became a photo editor. In 1981, when he was working as a receptionist at the Museum of Modern Art, a man came in one day with an album of albumen prints by the Spanish-born Cuban photographer José Gómez de la Carrera, which he offered to sell to photo curator John Szarkowski. The curator wasn’t interested, so Fernández decided to buy the album himself in installments. That was the beginning of his collection, which now spans from 1850 to 1970 and which he is still adding to today, often by bidding on images of Cuba on eBay. This is the second book based on his collection; the first was “I Was Cuba” (Chronicle Books).
“My mother also loved photography, and that was a big influence on me,” says Fernández, who had a long career at Time Inc. that included stints at Sports Illustrated and as a founding editor at Entertainment Weekly. “She was an amateur photographer. There were always photo magazines around the house with pictures by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.” His grandmother, Hortensia Lizaso Machado, had an apartment for many years that overlooked the main square in Havana, and she influenced him in the desire to document Cuban ways of life that were vanishing or were already gone.
His mother, Tita, he adds, impressed him in other ways, too. She was an avid athlete, he says, who “played squash, rode horses and waterskied in the dark waters off Cuba.” It was she who, after idealistically volunteering to help Fidel Castro work on the agrarian reform he had promised when he first came to power, discovered that, rather than breaking up the vast farms on the island owned by the wealthy and distributing the smaller pieces of land to poor people, he was turning them into collective farms. She quickly realized that he was, in fact, the Communist he initially claimed not to be, and she was able to move some of the family’s money out of the country before it was too late. Soon her husband’s business was nationalized, and the Fernández family, which also included Ramiro’s older sister, Sara Sylvia, left for Florida.
Among her son’s favorite subjects for photos are children with animals; sports, particularly Grand Prix auto racing, which came to Cuba for the first time when he was a boy, and grade B showgirls. “I love people not in the mold…too thin or too big,” he says. Another favorite theme: anything pharmaceutical. The last isn’t surprising, since his father, Ramiro Sr., was a drug manufacturer whose products included the classic Fifties tranquilizer Miltown — manna for the era’s desperate housewives — and whose laboratory was attached to their house. “There was always in my home a faint odor of pharmaceuticals; if you crush an aspirin, the dust that’s created — my home always smelled like that,” he says.
In the new book, an airplane from Cubana de Aviación floats in the clouds on a double-page spread, looking somehow surreal, while a group of revellers gathers at Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Havana in 1930, clowning with oversize bottles of liquor, and performer Rosita Fornés, plump in a polka dotted dress, poses for a kitsch publicity still in which she appears to have tripped and fallen.
Fernández has no interest in selling pieces from his collection, believing that it has the most impact as the sum of its parts. He is, however, contemplating leaving some of it eventually to a new division of the Smithsonian that’s planned, which will be devoted to Latino culture, and other photos to the University of Miami’s Cuban Heritage Collection and the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla.
He has been back to the island several times in recent years. “I still have family there,” he says. “Whoever stayed in Cuba actually believed in the system.”
Chela Rodríguez, whom he calls his favorite relative in Cuba, runs the Jose Martí Institute — which is devoted to that revolutionary intellectual, a national hero — in Havana. “She is very involved in the artistic leadership of the country,” he says, adding, “I try not to talk about politics with her.”