Monday 26 August 2019

"Social" - a chance find of an iconic 1930's magazine in Havana

Whilst browsing Havana's Memorias book shop I came upon the March 1933 edition of Social an iconic Cuban magazine published between 1916 and 1933. Not quite believing my luck, I spent a little time admiring the brightly coloured, highly stylised cover and monochrome contents before purchasing it to add to my small collection of vintage magazines from different countries.

The cover was designed by the magazine's founder and director, Conrado Walter Massaguer. It features a fashionable young woman, epitomising Social's intended audience - wealthy middle and upper class Cubans eager for its articles on art, music, theatre, fashion, sport, politics and original fiction. This particular edition includes an article on Spanish sculptor, Jose Clara, French writer Andre Maurois and perhaps surprisingly an academic piece on agriculture and commerce in Cuba in 1800!

There are also a number of theatre related articles including a photographic piece on actress Berta Singerman. Born in Minsk in 1901 she emigrated to Argentina with her family at a young age, took to the stage as a child and performed in Strindberg's plays at the age of just 10. She went on to have a stellar career in the Latin America theatre and was befriended by, amongst others Pablo Neruda and Alejo Carpentier who also worked on the magazine.

Light relief is provided by a number of fashion articles including advice on "appropriate" clothing for Cuba's climate, bridal wear and of course, all the latest notes from Paris. Modernist architecture is covered in an article on Philadelphia's Saving Fund Society building and the news page includes snippets on the then recently deceased former US President Calvin Coolidge, sometime French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier and Irish republican and eventual president Eamonn de Valera. Many of the articles cover news and trends from outside Cuba, perhaps reflecting Havana's position as a world city during the 1930's. My only disappointment was not to find a problem page. You can't have it all.

Advertising was an important element of the magazine, with leading traders and manufacturers eager to sell luxury goods to its readers. I especially enjoyed General Electric's full page endorsement of its new refrigerator, boasting its advantages and commanding the reader to Buy it! General Electric were clearly on a roll at this time as the inside back cover features another full page advertisement extolling the futures of their Edison-Mazda lightbulbs which the reader is instructed to insist on obtaining. Well known brands such as Remington typewriters and Elizabeth Arden lipstick also feature in the advertising columns.

In addition to making his own significant contributions to the publication, Massaguer secured the services of several leading writers and artists of the day. Examples include Swiss born writer and musicologist Alejo Carpentier, modernist painter and photographer Enrique Garcia Cabrera and painter and illustrator Rafael Angel Suris. Suris joined Social in 1921 as Assistant Art Director in charge of page layouts. In addition to producing specific themes for the contents page he was responsible for a series on the zodiac featuring his pen and ink drawings of female characters drawn with reference to the art nouveau style. He later left for New York where he worked as a caricaturist for Harpers Bazaar.

Massaguer led an interesting life. Born in Cardenas, Cuba in 1889 he moved to Havana in 1908 where despite not having studied art formally he secured work as a baseball cartoonist for the El Mundo newspaper. This led to more work and he went on to contribute to a range of publications including El Figaro, Cuba y America and El Tiempo. By 1910 he was able to establish his own advertising agency with one Laureano Rodriguez Castells and the following year held his first solo exhibition of caricatures at the Havana Atheneum. In 1913, together with his brother, he founded Grafico magazine. This was to run until 1918, but two years earlier he established the iconic and highly influential Social and a children's publication Pulgarcito.

Massaguer developed a graphic style influenced by modernist aesthetics with perhaps a touch of Art Deco and cited American artists Charles Dana Gibson and James Montgomery Flagg as influences. In turn, his work influenced many illustrators working in Latin America, including his colleagues from the Grupo Minorista of which he was a founding member. The Minoristas held famed Saturday lunches that drew both local participants and artists from overseas.

He was also active in politics and vigorously opposed the oppressive regime of Gerardo Machado. This led to him living in exile in the United States from 1931-37. He had already spent a brief period working in New York in 1923 and during this time collaborated with a range of US publications including Life, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan and Town and Country. Prestigious as this was, overseas recognition was not something new to our man. In 1919 he had been invited to exhibit in Paris as well as to work on a project for the League of Nations in Geneva.

Following his return from exile he worked as a caricaturist for the newspaper Informacion and in the 1950's accepted the post of Public Relations Director for the Cuban Institute of Tourism. He published his autobiography in 1965 before dying in the October of that year. His work is mentioned and some illustrations from Social are included in the excellent book Havana Deco by Alonso, Contreras and Fagiuoli. 

Monday 5 August 2019

Cuba - the people I met in the street

I recently visited Cuba for the first time. I'd wanted to go for several years, attracted by the music, Havana's spectacular Art Deco architecture, Leonardo Padura's atmospheric novel Heretics and yes the hopelessly nostalgic Cuba of Graham Greene's Our Man In Havana. Like everyone else I had seen images of 1950's Chevrolets driving along the crumbling yet romantic Malecon, of Cubans smoking enormous cigars and Eve Arnold's 1954 photograph of a stunningly beautiful yet desperately sad Havana bar girl.

I arrived not really expecting to find that Cuba but over several days I would come across some echoes of it, encounter some of the friendliest people I have ever met, be costed by numerous often half-hearted scammers and hear some surprisingly candid comments about the regime. And although I spent most of my time in the cities of Havana and Trinidad, the countryside also provided some unexpected encounters.

Boy with fan, Trinidad de Cuba
I wanted to capture a photographic record of the people I met and I quickly discovered that  the etiquette for this in Cuba is similar to elsewhere in the parts of Latin America. For close-ups or portraits I asked the person's permission and for pictures of children I secured the permission of a parent or adult relative before proceeding. In some cases I was asked for un cu or one dollar which means one Convertible Cuban Peso - the currency used by tourists as opposed to the local peso. At time of writing this is a little less than one Pound Sterling. If you don't want to pay don't take the picture but remember that most of the people you meet in the street here are poor and that the average monthly salary is about £20 which buys very little. There are also some people who might be termed professional models who hang around in the major tourist areas of Havana and Trinidad, almost always smoking large cigars and dressed in very stylised Cuban clothing. These people will expect a bit more for a picture as this is how they make their living so it's best to check and agree the price beforehand.

Luisa, Trinidad de Cuba
Cigars are an important part of Cuba's export economy but are also widely used amongst the general population. This makes it easy to get more authentic pictures of cigar smokers. In Trinidad just a short distance from the main tourist area I met Luisa. Perhaps in her early 70's and silver haired, there was something about her that made me stop. Despite seeming tired her eyes sparkled and she was happy to talk. She agreed to a photograph and after I had taken a few portraits she produced a cigar from inside her clothing and began to play up to the camera. Later the same day I noticed Alberto, a retired agricultural worker aged 85. He sat outside his house enjoying some late afternoon shade. He too agreed to a series of portraits. I only wish my Spanish extended beyond 50 words so that he could have told me some of the lifetime of stories written on his face.

Alberto, Trinidad de Cuba
I am often asked why I photograph so many older people. It is not a conscious decision but I suspect it happens because I am drawn to people who may have a story to tell and it is often possible to see those stories on the faces of the elderly. It may also be because I am myself growing older and am now more empathetic with this age group. On a practical level older people are often more able and willing to spend a little time with a stranger, which offers more opportunity to come away with a less posed, more natural portrait.

It may be true that I usually photograph more mature people but my Cuban trip resulted in many more pictures of younger people than is usual. My favourite is of a small boy in Trinidad. He was standing alone in a busy shopping street known locally as Miami and was holding a large upright electric fan. One leg of his jeans was rolled up to the knee as if he had been cycling and he seemed to be waiting for someone to come up and either take the fan from him or help him to carry it home. I first noticed the sharp contrast between his light coloured clothes and the bright red stripe on the wall behind him. He had an anxious demeanour but brightened when I gave him something in return for the picture which is featured at the top of this post.

Afro-Cuban dance company member after rehearsal - 1
Afro-Cuban dance company member after rehearsal - 2
Gisela, Havana
In Havana I was able to attend a rehearsal of an Afro-Cuban dance company. The rehearsal took place in a semi derelict theatre in Habana Centro. It was quite an experience with perhaps 30 dancers performing under the sharp eye of their teacher and to thunderously loud live music. I found it difficult to capture clear images of the dance but was happy with a couple of shots of dancers at rest. Afro-Cuban dance has strong links to the Santeria religion which combines Yoruba beliefs with some Roman Catholic elements. Following the 1959 revolution all religious practices were severely curtailed in Cuba but since 1992 many of the restrictions have been relaxed and religious observance is now more open. Many Santeria followers can be seen in the street, easily recognisable by their various wristbands and the white clothes worn by new believers.

I was able to visit the home of a Santeria priest who showed me his shrine consisting of various dolls, carved items and pictures including a painting of the Virgin Mary. People come to him seeking advice and help but need to bring an offering to the gods in order for his intervention to work. This can be money, food, alcohol or cigars. In Habana Viejo there are several small shops selling items for use in Santeria rituals. Gisela has one such store. Of striking appearance and formidable personality she not only agreed to be photographed but stood in a series of poses before relaxing and giving me the opportunity to capture the real Gisela in a series of portraits. When I'd finished she suggested a photograph together and said goodbye with several kisses. This is a very tactile culture and can seem a little strange at first to those of us from colder societies.  

Santeria priest, Havana
Most of my time was spent in Havana and Trinidad de Cuba but I also met interesting people during short spells in other cities. In Cienfuegos I was entertained by brother and sister Jose and Gabriella, aged 8 and 5 respectively. Jose demonstrated his gymnastic skills turning several somersaults whilst his mother sat on the doorstep watching. I joined in her applause and then Gabriella appeared. A very inquisitive girl, she had a series of questions for me - not just the usual where are you from? and what is your name? but also why is there a cut on your ankle? why do yo carry that small towel and where are your children?. She will go far. With their mother's agreement they posed for a picture together. 

Jose and Gabriela, Cienfuegos
On the road from Havana to Cienfuegos I stopped to photograph a couple of pineapple farmers, both of them young and one of them with astonishingly well shaped and ruthlessly plucked eyebrows. Over the next few days it became obvious that this is a favoured style amongst young male agricultural workers. I was fascinated by it and now have a small collection of portraits featuring eyebrows that Bette Davis would have been proud of.

Still in the countryside I stopped to buy a drink in Guajimico, a small village near Trinidad. Two little boys came forward - Jesus and Manuel, aged 8. Jesus was the talker and he had a lot to say first telling Manuel not to ask for money It's not nice and then informing me that we are in the same class at school, but I am much better than him followed by I plan to be someone very important one day. I believe and hope that he will be. My driver bought bananas from Tereza, Manuel's grandmother and the two boys insisted on carrying them to the car. Before I left the village they wanted me to see their pig, housed in a small sty at the back of Jesus' house. I dutifully entered the sty and taken by surprise almost fell over when the pig jumped up at me. The boys laughed long and loud, very entertained at my misfortune. We left them with a few coins for the help and a can each of local cola and to their absolute delight they were given a straw through which to drink it. More than anything else in Cuba this short encounter brought home to me the differing expectations of people in different parts of the world.

I only had a few hours to spare in Santa Clara and some of that time was spent trying to find a way into the city centre as several roads were closed on the day of my visit. Stuck in the outskirts of the city my driver got down from the car to ask for help and I noticed a woman sitting on the steps of her home and talking to her dog. Her light coloured hair and animal print top gave her a certain glamour and I asked for her picture. Maritsa was delighted and able to speak a little English she told me that she is a doctor before going on to ask what I thought about Cuba.

Jesus (blue shorts) and Manuel
Pineapple farmer with famous eyebrows
Maritsa, Santa Clara
Despite the general friendliness of the people, not everyone has good intentions. Just as in other parts of the world there are scammers looking for potential victims. They are particularly active in the main tourist areas waiting to snare the naive. Their opening line will be something like "hello where are you from?" and if they get a response they will quickly latch on to the potential victim hoping to sell them cigars. The cigars they offer will almost certainly be of poor quality and offered at an inflated price. One variation on this theme is for them to talk about a "cigar festival" and it just happens to be the last day if not the last few hours of the festival right now so you really must go with them or miss your chance. There is no festival and the less savvy will be sold poor quality items. My technique is to say "no gracias" and keep walking so as not to waste time, mine or theirs. This usually works but on one occasion in Havana it was followed by "No cigars? How about Viagra then?". What a nerve.

Despite this minor annoyance most people I met were friendly, interested in foreigners and happy to exchange a few words. On my fist day in Havana I met Enrique, a diminutive elderly man who stopped me and asked where I was from and why I was in Cuba. The usual pleasantries over he told me that he had been a sailor, had visited Poland and when he was young had wanted to be a boxer. Boxing is akin to religion in Cuba and he was delighted that I knew about legendary local boxer Teofilio Stevenson, three times Olympic heavyweight champion in 1972, 1976 and 1980. Before we parted Enrique assumed a boxing pose and I obliged with a picture.

Enrique, Havana
Many people were eager to share memories of the past, some of them happy nostalgic tales  from sailors who had been to Manchester and acquired blonde girlfriends "it was a long time ago" others with more poignant tales of suffering due to the limitations placed on them and  the lack of opportunities in Cuba. I hope to meet some of these new friends again and to have the chance to hear more of their stories in a lot more detail. And a few more pictures to close...

Barber shop customer, Trinidad de Cuba
Young man with racing pigeons, Regla, Havana
Young woman outside nail bar, Havana
You can see more pictures from Cuba here.