New book offers glimpse into the Cuba of yesteryear through vintage and rare photos

Ramiro A. Fernández, a retired Time photo editor, began collecting photographs of his homeland quite by accident, but that serendipity has proven to be a bonanza for anyone interested in vintage images of Cuba and its colorful culture.

In 1981, Fernández was working as a receptionist at the Museum of Modern Art in New York when a man offered to sell a collection to the museum’s curator. The curator wasn’t interested, but Fernández ended up buying — on an installment plan — another album, one of 20 albumen silver prints from the 1890s by Spanish-born Cuban photographer Jose Gomez de la Carrera. It was the beginning of a lifelong love affair. Since then Fernandez has amassed 4,000 photo images that span about 150 years.

Now Fernández, 62, has put about 270 of those photos together in a book that offers a fascinating glimpse into the Cuba of yesteryear, a visual chronicle of glamorous showgirls, local celebrities, international movie stars and everyday people. Cuba Then: Rare and Classic Images from the Ramiro A. Fernandez Collection (The Monacelli Press) offers a peek into one of the largest collections of Cuban photography outside the island.

Fernández and award-winning poet Richard Blanco, who wrote a foreword and provided poems for the book, will talk about Cuba Then at Books & Books in Coral Gables at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

“I wanted to show how rich we were — how rich we are,” Fernández, who lives in New York, says. “I’ve included some famous names and some great movie stars, but I also have regular people going about their lives. I hope the book gives a sense of a mature society, not just the stereotypes.”

Indeed, the sampling is varied and eclectic. Fernández organized the book by subject, so there are publicity stills of movies filmed on the island and portraits of stars but also compelling shots of a state executioner from the Spanish-American War, a 1953 tamal street vendor, a bloodied crowd fleeing an explosion in 1960 and a raincoated girl wading through a flooded Havana street in 1954.

There are recurring motifs in the book: children in clown and fairy costumes; boxers; street peddlers; animals. Lots of animals. “One thing I love is the relationship between man and nature,” he explains. “I do have a lot of pictures of animals.”

True to his journalistic training, Fernández also favors images that tell stories, photographs that suggest a narrative to be filled in by the viewer. So he pairs together images that, at first glance, don’t have much to do with each other.

On pages 94 and 95, for example, he juxtaposes two old photos of children at different celebrations: one is of a 1926 carnival costume party in Isle of Pines; the other of a schoolyard reenactment, circa 1910, of a November 1871 execution of eight medical students by Spanish colonial authorities.

In another two-page spread Fidel Castro is looking through an anti-aircraft gun next to a page that features singer Pedrito Rico as he peers through a belly dancer’s chain of coins.

A few of the photos have torn edges. That’s intentional. “These aren’t images of images. They are the real things. They have history. They have character. They have been shared, moved around and kept in boxes for years.”

He has included personal favorites, too: a rare 1960 photo of Fredesvinda “La Freddy” Garcia Valdes, a singer who released only one album of boleros. “She’s a legend, but there are very, very few images of her.”

Another favorite: a 1958 photo of Ernesto “Che” Guevara wearing a black arm sling at the Leoncio Vidal barracks outside Santa Clara. After a little digging, Fernández discovered that Vidal, a hero from Cuba’s fight for independence, was his grandmother’s first cousin. What’s more, those barracks carry a historical significance, as it was one of the last places to hold out against Castro.

After Fernández began planning Cuba Then, his second photo book in seven years, he met Richard Blanco through a mutual friend. Blanco, who read his poem at President Obama’s second inaugural, was “intrigued” by the photos that “suggest a narrative you want to fill in.” Lending his poems to accompany some of the images seemed a natural coupling.

“The photos that stand out in my mind are the ones you don’t expect,” Blanco says. “Ramiro’s collection offers a richer, deeper understanding of Cuban history and life. It lets me see beyond what my parents talked about. It’s more than just 1950s Cuba.”

In fact, the oldest images in the book date to the late 1800s. One shows a volanta, or Cuban carriage, in front of the El Palacio del Arte photography studio in 1860 Havana. Others include daguerreotypes of children in the 1870s and 1880s.

Fernández left Cuba when he was 8, lived in Miami until 1964 and moved with his family first to Belle Glade and then to West Palm Beach, where he finished growing up. His mother and sister now live in Miami. It was his mother, Sara “Tita” Fernandez, who influenced his choice of a career. Tita was an amateur photographer, and there were always photo magazines around the house.

He still remembers visiting his grandmother, Hortensia “Cuca” Lizaso Machado, who had an apartment overlooking the main square in Havana. She, too, imbued him with a desire to record the Cuban way of life and what he calls “the Creole character of our people.”

In a poignant essay at the beginning of the book, he writes: “Cuba has always seduced indiscriminately — from revolutionaries to mambo queens, failed spies to socialites, savvy gangsters to honeymooning Americanos …”

Fernández says he never stops adding to his collection, and he devotes much of his time to sharing his finds. He donated more than 900 photos to the Cuban Heritage Collection at the University of Miami’s library and he will be lending others to the Wolfsonian-Florida International University in Miami Beach for a 2016 show.

In the past few years, collecting has taken on an urgency as he sees his parents’ generation — and their stories — passing on. “Our parents are leaving us and taking with them memories,” he quips. “And my generation, well, I’m on the tarmac.”