Old Havana: Spirit of the Living City

Jul 10, 2012

“Old Havana: Spirit of the Living City”

Author: Photographs by Chip Cooper and Nestor Marti

Publisher: The University of Alabama Press

Pages: 208

Price: $49.95 (Cloth)

First things first.

Describing a book of photographs in words is a tricky and probably thankless task. So let me begin simply. This is an absolutely beautiful book. You could take any page in the book, have it framed and hang it proudly on your wall.

Chip Cooper, U of A photographer and arguably the premier photographer in the state of Alabama, as a part of the Alabama/Cuba Initiative, over many visits, teamed up with Nestor Marti, photographer for the Havana Historian’s Office.

Working side by side, walking the same Havana streets, sometimes shooting the same subject from different angles and of course with different eyes, the two have chosen for this volume about 150 pages of colored plates, usually one plate to a page.

The subject: Old Havana. The city itself: streets, facades and interiors of churches, apartment buildings, government offices, doorways and door knockers, arches, windows, ornate iron gates and locks, public monuments and statues, fountains and of course, several examples of the ’fifties American cars still running and lovingly cared for, although now under the hood they have small East European auto engines.

Some shots are taken from above, looking down on tiled rooftops, most from street level, where the humans are.

In many shots, we also see the people of Havana: fruit and vegetable vendors, store clerks, men and women smoking cigars (clearly Cuban), old folks walking on errands, delivery boys, women worshipping in church, and old men fishing, buzzing by on scooters or meeting in the street for a chat, and sometimes just resting from the day’s work.

More often, Marti and Cooper photographed Havana’s children: teenagers courting, younger kids playing hopscotch, baseball and of course soccer, on their way to and from school in colorful school uniforms and backpacks, like kids anywhere.

The photos begin at the famous harbor, with Morro Castle and the seawall Malecon in what might be dawn and continue across the city as the day progresses, with the last series in dusk and then darkness.

But throughout one is delighted by the colors, a whole Crayola box of colors: Egyptian red, ochre, dark blue, teal, every shade of yellow.

Many of the colors seem subdued, however, washed out, not bright like new paint, for Old Havana is deeply weathered, worn, faded by decades of rain and sun with no repainting.

The city, much of it, is crumbling, does need saving, and one hopes this book will help spur interest.

This volume has some useful front matter: essays by Dean Robert Olin of UA on the Alabama Initiative and by Magda Resik Aguirre from the Havana Historian’s Office on the history of images in Havana, from early engravings, lithographs, and daguerreotypes to modern photography. Aguirre declares Havana to be “colorful, flirtatious, and proud of herself…with her indomitable spirit and immeasurable charm.”

The essay by Philip Beidler linking both Marti and Cooper with the work of Walker Evans, who also photographed Havana, before coming to Sprott, Alabama in ’36 and ’37 to do the photos for “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” is excellent. Beidler also describes the “dance of the photographers,” as he calls it, as the two worked the streets, with separate visions but also lado a lado, side by side.

The real point here, though, is the photos, Havana herself, where, Cooper says, “the light is so intense and different….” Perhaps one could let Aguirre have the last word: “The poetry of everyday life consecrates these pictures by Cooper and Marti.”