Monday, July 27, 2015

Photographer, Havana

Photographer, Parque Central, Havana, 1991

THE OLD MAN SET UP HIS CAMERA IN THE PARQUE CENTRAL, just across from the Capitol building and a block up the street from my hotel, the Inglaterra. He was one of the few private businesses that was operating in Havana at the time, just after the Soviets cut off aid to the country, and just before they ceased to exist altogether.

I don't know whether he had to pay someone off for the privilege or whether the authorities made an atypical exception for this sort of activity, but I saw him there nearly every day. I had to get a portrait done as soon as I saw him, and asked his permission to photograph him while he worked. I'm sure I asked him his name, but if I wrote it down it's in a notebook that I've either lost or filed away somewhere obscure even to me.

He worked in a method that's common in poor parts of the world, but has come to be known, apparently, as the "Cuban Polaroid." He had a large view camera on a tripod fitted out with a long cloth sleeve on the back, a porthole viewer on the top, and a little drawer near the base. His machine was both camera and darkroom, and he seemed to be doing a booming business with both locals and tourists.

Film was scarce in Cuba - you could buy a few rolls with US dollars in the tourist shops that were out-of-bounds for locals, but the single camera store I saw in downtown Havana had none for sale. They did have an artful and tantalizing display of boxes of Eastern European film in the window, all of which were empty and covered in a layer of dust, upon closer inspection.

The old photographer somehow managed to get photo paper - I don't know if it was imported, manufactured locally or coated with homemade emulsion - and used that for his negative. He would take his photo with a strict process, setting up his big view camera, focusing by distance and composing with a little wire frame, then stick his hand in the camera and look down the porthole at the top as he developed the paper negative.

He would extract the paper negative from the little drawer at the bottom of the camera and stick it, still wet, to a piece of wood that folded up in front of the lens. He would take another photo of the paper negative, put his hand back inside the camera and develop the print he'd just made of the negative.

When he was done he handed you a little black and white print, just 2 1/2 by 3 1/2 inches, with ragged edges, still wet and smelling of vinegary fixer. It lacked detail and grain but was sharp and well-composed, and seemed to have come from some sort of time machine, with a slight sepia tint and a flattering softness.

My buddy Howie and I briefly conferred before we paid him a few US dollars - I'm sure his tourist price was higher than the one for locals, but it was so cheap in any case that you couldn't imagine complaining. Howie said we should put on our shades and try a pose like we'd seen in old photos of the Dadaists. My Rolleiflex is around my neck, my camera bag on the ground by my feet.

It's a fantastic photo, and it's held up well after nearly a quarter century, considering how primitively it was produced. I'm amazed at how thin I am; my girlfriend had recently broken up with me and I hadn't been eating well. I can't imagine that the old man is still working in the Parque Central with his camera today, but I hear there are still photographers there making their Cuban Polaroids.

Me and Howie Cramer, Parque Central, Havana, 1991. Photographer unknown.

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