‘Out of Cuba’ artists Tico Torres and Alexis Rodriguez-Duarte recall a more bohemian Miami

Behind the lens: Photographer Alexis Rodriguez-Duarte, left, and his partner, stylist Tico Torres.
Behind the lens: Photographer Alexis Rodriguez-Duarte, left, and his partner, stylist Tico Torres. Miami Herald staff

When Art Basel seized the town in early December, there was no scarcity of glam, VIP-only dinners to usher in evening festivities. All week, famed artists and collectors from around the globe sat with pop stars, pseudo-nobility and world-class crashers for champagne-soaked meals in mega mansions, aboard yachts, at some of the city’s hippest hotels and restaurants.

But perhaps none of those dinners paid as much of a tribute to such locally grown talent as the one hosted by Harper’s Bazaar on the long stretch of terrace atop the oceanfront Soho House.

The guest of honor was star artist Rachel Feinstein, who grew up in Coral Gables and whose work featuring live models inserted into classical bas-relief backdrops is on the cover of Harper’s December-January issue. Feinstein lives in New York with her husband, the painter John Currin (in 2011, the New York Times called them the “ruling power couple in today’s art world”).

At 14, as she was trying to break into modeling in Miami, she met photographer Alexis Rodriguez-Duarte and his partner and collaborator Tico Torres.

Alexis and Tico, whose photo exhibition “Cuba Out of Cuba” at Miami’s storied Freedom Tower ran currently with the 13th Art Basel, were feted at the Harper’s dinner, too, for shooting the bas-relief cover story. But the relationship between Feinstein and the two men, longtime contributors to Harper’s, goes back to the mid-1980s, when all three were trying to make names for themselves in a more bohemian, less blown-out version of South Beach.

The town, only flirting with the notion of a renaissance, had little to offer besides the surf itself and a collection of down-and-out Art Deco hotels inhabited by retirees living close to the poverty line.

“We got a call from Michelle Pommier, who opened one of the first modeling agencies on the Beach,” says the Cuban-American Alexis, who grew up in Little Havana. Tico, his partner of 31 years, hails from Hialeah.

“She said, ‘We have this girl who needs to be tested.’ Other photographers didn’t know what to do with her,” Alexis says. “She was a strange beauty. We shot her in Little Havana, where we took her to a Cuban beauty shop for a beehive with curlicues. We shot on the railroad tracks in Hialeah. And we introduced her to Bruce Weber.”

Feinstein long ago moved from modeling to a career as a sculptor. But she has found herself in front of the couple’s cameras countless times over the years.

“I’ve worked with a lot of photographers. From Mario Testino to Bruce Weber to Terry Richardson,” she said from her studio in New York. “A lot of times they come with a clear sense of that they want and they want you to basically stand there just facilitating.

“Alexis and Tico love a personality, not just a board that stands there. This fits into who they are. They’re very free. They love life. They’re a pleasure to work with.”

Back in the day, before all the glossies started heralding South Beach as American’s new Riviera, Alexis and Tico worked as scouts for Weber, whose 1986 photo shoot for Calvin Klein’s Obsession atop the Breakwater Hotel on Ocean Drive helped spark the local fashion scene that lured the first wave of jetsetters and celebs.

“Back then there were only two hotels that were sort of happening on Ocean Drive, the Waldorf Towers and the Cardozo,” says Tico, who styles all of Alexis’ subjects and backdrops. “We went building by building asking managers to let us on their rooftops. We photographed the tower of the Breakwater and brought it to Bruce, and he said, ‘This is it!’

“Then we hired cheap painters from Hialeah to paint the rooftop all white.”

Alexis and Tico also helped discover local male beauties Ric Arango and Tim Schnellenberger, who went on to work with Weber and have top-shelf modeling careers. “We would test all these guys, shoot them all over the city, outside factories in Hialeah, at an abandoned house at Opa-locka Airport, you name it,” Alexis says. “Eventually Bruce looked at our book and said, ‘What are you guys doing in Miami? You guys should go to London.’ And he gave us the number of the creative director for British Vogue.”

In another case of being in the right place at the right time, the couple, struggling to find enough work in London and missing Miami and its Cuban flavor, happened to be coming out of the tube when they spotted a poster announcing Celia Cruz in concert.

“Growing up as exiles, surrounded by our parents’ melancholy about everyone and everything they left behind in Cuba, Celia was like a light,” Tico said. “They would play her music and suddenly the house would be filled with happiness.”

“We were two Cuban boys surviving on bread and mayonnaise in freezing London and feeling very homesick for Miami,” Alexis says. “I said to Tico, ‘Should we try to meet Celia?’”

They had zero connections to the queen of salsa, but they started calling some of the hotels where they figured she might be staying.

“I kept asking to speak to Celia Cruz. Finally, I’m told to please hold,” Alexis says.

“Celia comes to the phone, and I tell her, ‘We’re two Cuban-Americans living in London who are huge fans and we’d love to meet you. She invited us to a press conference she was having at her hotel and said, ‘Afterward, we’ll drink tea.’ And that’s what we did. We went back to her room and drank tea and ate little sandwiches.”

Celia asked if they were going to her concert.

“I told her, ‘Let me be honest with you. We can’t afford to buy tickets.’ We were living with other people, sleeping in sleeping bags under a huge chandelier in the living room,” Tico says.

Celia not only hooked them up with tickets to the sold-out show, but with all-access passes that got them backstage afterward. Their relationship grew over the years, and Alexis and Tico shot endless pictures of the iconic star. There was even an impromptu photo session on the street outside their apartment building in the West Village, when Celia, dressed for a Univision promotional spot she was shooting nearby, pulled up in her limo and called up asking to use their bathroom.

A joyous image of Cruz in a ruffled Cuban gown, surrounded by royal palms at Fairchild Tropical Garden that was part of a photo shoot they did in 1994 for L’Uomo Vogue, became the cover of their book Presenting Celia Cruz, published in 2004 by Clarkson Potter and featuring their work with Cruz over the years, including the images shot on their own street.

That image, plus dozens more of other iconic Cuban personalities living and working outside of their homeland, makes up the exhibition “Cuba Out of Cuba: Through the lens of Alexis Rodriguez-Duarte in collaboration with Tico Torres.” The show opened earlier this year to inaugurate the Freedom Tower’s Cultural Legacy Gallery, dedicated to the Cuban community’s influence on South Florida. There’s not a more meaningful location for the gallery than downtown’s Freedom Tower, now in the hands of Miami Dade College, which brought it back to life as the Museum of Art + Design (MOAD).

The historic building, originally home to the defunct Miami News, is known as Miami’s Ellis Island because it is where tens of thousands of Cuban refugees were processed in the 1960s and 1970s. Alexis and Tico were among them.

“I was 6 when we got here,” Tico says. “I remember we would go to the tower all the time to get the cheese and the powdered milk and peanut butter that they would give to the Cuban refugees.”

“I was 7,” Alexis says. “I remember the cans of Spam they gave out that my mom cooked in 100 different ways. With eggs and rice, with tomato sauce and onions. Being back at the Freedom Tower now with our exhibit is like coming full circle for both of us.”

“Cuba out of Cuba,” which features portraits of compatriots such as artist Cundo Bermudez, writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante, mambo great Israel “Cachao” Lopez, pop singer Gloria Estefan, actor Andy Garcia, jazz star Bebo Valdez, Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz and many others, is a project the couple began working on as a way to honor their parents.

“My parents and Tico’s gave up so much to make sure we had a better life in America,’” Alexis says. ‘It was so traumatic for them, having to leave everything behind when they were in the prime — so was Havana, right before Castro. Imagine having to start all over again somewhere foreign, where your kids don’t even want to speak their native language because they’re desperate to assimilate. This project was about telling our parents that we kept Cuba inside of us.”