Saturday, February 16 – Cars and the city

Saturday was our last full day in Cuba. So we took pictures around the city and had a class. A big surprise, I know.

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Colorful cityscape in Havana, February 2019

We went over and looked at the University of Havana and the neighborhood surrounding it.  While the University was sort of impressive from the street, we were unable to gain entry to the grounds and so I took a couple of forgettable images.  But here it is anyway.  I have no idea if the interior portion of the campus was also impressive, or vacant, or a ruin.

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University of Havana, with photographers, February 2019

What I was able to do was shoot a few more of the classic cars that roam the city.  I know I’ve already shared lots of images of them, but the cars are really something to see.  Also, Sally’s last words to me before my flight took off last week were “I love you.  Get lots of pictures of cars”.

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City in motion, February 2019

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Cars at rest, February 2019

I also got some more images of life in the city.  This cute little girl was playing in an empty playground.

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More street scenes, February 2019

I’ve mentioned before that the streets are remarkably empty of cars, which makes the pollution levels even more surprising.  Here’s a shot of a main street on this Saturday.

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Empty city streets, February 2019

That night we had dinner in a (really) fine restaurant.  Afterwards we went to watch two street performers put on a fire-eating show.  Some of my classmates got great images; I did not.  So I’ll leave you with my mediocre image.

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Mediocre fire eater (1), February 2019

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(1) The image, not the fire eaters. They were quite good.

Friday, February 15 – Dance, dance, dance

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Escuela Nacional de Ballet, February 2019

The headline activity for today was another exhibition of sorts: we went to the Escuela Nacional de Ballet (National Ballet School) to observe and photograph the students in class. We were on a precise schedule, waiting at our hotel (only a few minutes away by bus) from the school until they were ready for us. We arrived around 9:00am, and spent a few minutes in the beautiful lobby of the predictably run-down building for a formal introduction to the Director.

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Men at work, February 2019

After that, we all split up and wandered around, popping into classrooms and rehearsal studios at will. Classes changed at 10:00, and we all somehow found ourselves in a very large studio that seemed to be gathering students, teachers and other guests. What we soon figured out was that there was a graded recital for some of the advanced students taking place, and so we spent the next two hours photographing the best as they tried their best.

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Women’s work, February 2019

Much like the boxing gym yesterday, photographing these students – despite knowing more or less where they were going to be, and having the freedom to move anywhere in the room (not on the dance floor, of course) – was a huge challenge. I left exhausted. I thought I had reached a personal high at the boxing gym with over 1,000 images in about two hours; I left the ballet school with 2,000 (1). Lots of material to review.

 

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Class exam, February 2019

 

After lunch on my own and after the class, I hit the streets again for some more relaxing photography. Havana is really a great walking town. A mile in any direction from the hotel covers a lot of the center city. There are so few cars that you can easily walk in the middle of most of the side streets without much problem.

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Street scenes #3,487, February 2019

People are friendly enough if not always thrilled if you take their picture. On the other hand, those side streets are often in disrepair, there are open dumpsters where people deposit their household trash, dogs and cats roam freely and do their stuff anywhere.

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You can hear the music playing, February 2019

We had dinner in the “formal” dining room at the hotel. Formal, in this case, means I wore a shirt with a collar. People were still in shorts, though not I. After dinner, I think some people retired for the evening. But I couldn’t resist going out and shooting the night scenes again. I mentioned to Sally that there are two aspects of these photography workshops: the formal and informal learning parts, and the opportunity to spend large amounts of time photographing interesting subjects. This particular workshop has certainly hit a home run in both aspects.

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Late night mystery, February 2019


(1) These four hours of shooting – boxing and ballet – represented fully 1/2 of the images I captured during the entire trip. However, they represented a much smaller percentage of the images I have elected to show.

Thursday, February 14 – Boxing Day

This morning started in the usual way – breakfast, then walk around a bit to take some pictures. At 9:00 we boarded our bus to go to the Rafael Trejo Boxing Gym to try our hands at shooting some action.

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Gloves and tape, February 2019

The first part of the shoot was watching them warm up with some group exercises, and then watching some of them suit up to spar. The equipment in this case is pretty simple: they “taped” their hands, wrapping them with long strips of cloth, then downed boxing gloves. No headgear or special footgear, just whatever shoes they were wearing. A few of them used mouthguards.

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Scary and scared, February 2019

Some of the boxers also took turns on the heavy bag. This doesn’t look like much, but the biggest of them were exhausted after hitting for 5-10 minutes.

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It’s in the eyes, February 2019

One would think that taking pictures of two people at close quarters in the confined space of a boxing ring would be simple. And one would be wrong. We had total freedom to position ourselves around the ring, either standing on the ground and peering through the ropes, or standing on the mat outside the ropes and looking over them. While this enabled me to actually get some good images, I shot over 1,000 frames in the process.

After a couple of exhausting hours, we went for lunch and then our class.

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Wild and crazy photogs, February 2019

After class, we took another ride in the classic convertible cars.  You’ll recall this was originally planned for Wednesday, but was called on account of rain.  Along the way we saw even more classic cars.

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Even More Cars, February 2019

As the sun went down, we were back on the bus for a visit to the giant Jesus statue that overlooks the city.  The views were nice, and the park was filled with couples enjoying a romantic Valentine’s Day evening watching the sunset.  Of course, we were there with our cameras to document their PDA.

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PDA in Havana on Valentine’s Day, February 2019

The Jesus statue was pretty impressive.  And if you looked closely, he was holding the moon in his hand.

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He’s got the whole moon, in his hand, February 2019

 

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Wednesday, February 13 – When the rain comes

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El Capitolio, February 2019

We were supposed to take another ride in the convertibles today, but it was drizzling in the morning.  And that turned into a heavy downpour by late afternoon.  But while this interrupted our riding plans, it most definitely didn’t stop us from taking pictures.  We started out as a group, which is a real no-no.  A large group of people carrying big, intimidating cameras is a sure way to scare your subjects.

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Why are Street photographers looking at the sky?, February 2019

We walked past the capital building (cleverly labeled “CAPITOLIO” so you couldn’t mistake it for anyhing else) to a section of the city where people were hurrying to work and dong their morning shopping.  At this point, we scattered.

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Morning commute, February 2019

Of course, not everyone who commutes walks – sometimes you have to go too far to walk.  Havana has every form of ground transportation you could imagine – walking, bikes, peditaxis, motorbikes, cars, buses, mopeds, etc.  The little yellow things are apparently classified as motorbikes, as the drivers all wear helmets. The passengers don’t.

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Rainy transportation, February 2019

 

The rain got harder, which lead me to try and stay under cover somewhat.  But others didn’t always have that choice.  And it was pretty hard on the laundry hung out to dry.

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Caught in the rain, February 2019

That afternoon we had another class, then a bit of free time, then dinner.  After dinner, I went out again to enjoy the night and take some pictures.  When I got back to the hotel, a band was in full swing, killing it with Motown, Tina Turner and other American music covers.

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Evening in Havana, February 2019

 

 

 

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Tuesday, February 12 – Classes and Old cars

One of the most visible aspects of Havana is the collection of old American cars that roam the streets, primarily as taxis. Today we went for a ride.

We fell into a sort-of routine starting today: breakfast at the hotel buffet, photography in the street, class, lunch, more photography, dinner and more photography.

The daily class on this workshop has a regular routine. Steve talks for a bit, trying to give us eager students some insight into an aspect of street photography we might not otherwise have. This included examples of work, discussion of how well-known and successful photographers worked, and sometimes technical details. The technical stuff generally was the least of it; most of the attendees are competent camera operators.  But as I wrote earlier, I learned from this segment.

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Breaking the rules: slow shutter speed blurs an old car, February 2019

The bulk of each class, and by far the most interesting, was the review of each participant’s work from the prior day. This being the first day, we each were asked to submit some of our prior work for review. The review went like this: Each of us would give Steve a USB stick with 5, 10 or even 20 images. He would create a slide show for each, and project it on the screen for all to see. He would then critique each image, pointing out what he liked, what he thought didn’t work, and how an image might be improved if appropriate. He would solicit comments from the entire class. Not surprisingly, the comments from the audience were a bit tentative at first, but became more definitive as the week progressed and we got to know each other better.

I found these critiques – both from Steve and my classmates – extremely useful.  I didn’t always agree with their perspective, but I always tried to understand it.

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Our fleet, February 2019

The focus of the day was a ride in three colorful old American convertibles. Seen from afar, these convertibles gleam in the sun and seem like carefully preserved historical artifacts. Up close, however, they are wrecks. Most of the convertibles are chop jobs that started life as sedans or hardtops and have had a very rough conversion. The springs and shocks are worn, the doors creak, there are (of course) no seat belts, the engines roar through muffler-free exhaust systems.

 

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Along the Malecon, February 2019

Speaking of exhaust, the air in the center of the city – where we were – is awful. Between the belching cars, buses and trucks, and all the other sources of pollution that are present, the air is bad. Adding to the pollution is a refinery across the harbor that is constantly burning off waste with a big flame atop the smokestack, visible for miles.

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Red Cars, February 2019

We got to ride in nice shiny convertibles.  Most of the cars in Havana are not topless; many are not shiny.  In fact, quite a number are visible wrecks.  Even the ones that are running and in use look like there’s not a lot of metal left in the body; they appear to be made of putty.  And they are not a rare sight – these ancient artifacts are everywhere.

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Blue Cars, February 2019

I’ve included a sampling of the cars I saw here.

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Black (and gray) Cars, February 2019

 

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Yellow Cars, February 2019

 

….

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Green(ish) Cars, February 2019

 

During our ride around town in the convertibles, we stopped to take a quick look at a statue of a most surprising historical figure.  I don’t really have a good handle on why he was memorialized here.  I was impressed with the fact that this poor country pays a woman to stand around and put spectacles on his face whenever tourists show up.

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And Lennon read a book by Marx, February 2019

 

February 11, Monday – A Havana Workshop

After landing yesterday, checking into the hotel, and meeting up with the rest of the group, we all set off on a walk down the Prado.

But let me back up.

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The Passionate Photographer: New York, October 2015

I’m here on a photography workshop entitled “The Passionate Photographer: Havana” led by New York photographer Steve Simon. Steve has published books, photographs events and spends a fair amount of time running workshops. I went on one with him several years ago in New York City, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  So when I noticed this Havana workshop, I immediately decided to go (1) .

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First workshop meeting, February 2019

This particular workshop had an interesting cast of characters. Along with Steve, we had a tour guide Rei and facilitator Vladimir (2). In addition to me, there were five other participants: two couples and one other guy. As a bonus, two of Steve’s friends, professional photographers from Toronto, happened to be in Havana this week and joined us for many of the activities. So we were a merry band of 12 traveling around.

Photography workshops are two things for me: instruction in some aspect of photography, and the opportunity to spend a lot of time photographing somewhere interesting. In this case, the subject is Street photography, and the place Havana.

(Geek alert – feel free to skip)

A note on technique (3).

A main theme in street photography is all about capturing the juxtaposition of people and objects as they go about their business with no intervention from the photographer. Street photography can be other related things, such as portraits of people you run across with their consent, but it generally involves limited interaction between the photographer and subject. This in contrast to, say, landscape or cityscape, which typically does not show any people and where the photographer carefully frames a relatively static subject. Or wedding photography, a combination of carefully posed and lit formal images combined with the choreographed chaos of the ceremony and party.

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Havana street, February 2019

Since the street photographer is often trying to photograph people in public places without their knowledge, one will often choose simple and small equipment. Many of the pictures in this blog series were taken with a prime lens (with a fixed field of view, like your phone camera) so that you don’t have to waste precious moments zooming your lens and deciding on where to stop. Smaller equipment is thought to make you less intimidating to any who sees you; you’re just another tourist. And a relatively wide field of view – again, much like a phone camera – forces you to get closer to your subjects, often making the resulting image feel more intimate.

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My primary camera & lens this week, February 2019

Modern digital cameras offer some tremendous advantages for the street photographer. One is unlimited image storage – film photographers had to deal with rolls of film with 12, 24 or 36 images before changing. Digital cameras can autofocus more quickly than most people, if used properly. Shutters can be set to fire continuously, increasing your chance of capturing the exact moment you are seeking (I set my camera to 8 frames per second, one of slowest speeds it offers). Exposure is set automatically, and digital images offer a wide latitude for mistakes in this area.

Things I changed in my settings for this workshop were

  • the previously mentioned frame rate
  • I set the focusing mode to track subjects as they moved (sometimes)
  • I set the shutter speed faster to “freeze” action, as the subjects were usually (sometimes)

The faster frame rate I set resulted in my capturing thousands of frames over the course of the week – over 6,000. And needing to review them all.

(Geek alert off)

I wrote about our afternoon photo walk yesterday.  After dinner, we all went out again to explore the streets.  Since most of us were in Havana for the first time, we started out walking together.  Of course, a group of photographers with big cameras is not condusive to inobstrusively taking pictures.  So we gradually spread out, walking a block or two ahead or behind the others as we made our way around the neighborhood.

 

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Havana housing, February 2019

 

The area directly west of our Centro location is no longer the nicer tourist or Habana Viejo district.  Here you can find low income people living in low income housing and conditions.

As the space inside the homes is so small and probably warm even at night, there are always people on the street and in the numerous small bars and cafes.

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Some street scenes, February 2019

Subsequent to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, and even more since 2011, Cuba has been gradually moving away from strict state ownership of everything and allowing more private enterprise.  There are many “paladares” or privately owned restaurants now.  And people can open small businesses – groceries, bars, tailors, auto maintenance, etc. – in their homes. Today 181 official jobs – taxi driver, construction worker, shopkeeper – are no longer under government control.

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Privately owned Havana bar at night, February 2019

Our walk continued after dinner – the night scenes are particularly compelling.  Much Street photography is done in B&W, harking back to the days of film.  But I found the colors of Havana seductive.


 

(1) After consulting with Sally, of course. Who was, as always, very supportive.

(2) Yes, he is Cuban.

(3) Only so you can fully appreciate the excellence of my photography in this blog.   Or you can just decide whether you like something or not on your own.

February 11, Monday: Off to Havana

Editor’s Note:

This blog is being posted more than a week later than it happened.  For many reasons, I wasn’t able to post in real time from Havana.  In fact, I wasn’t even able to write in real time.  So treat this as a memoir, or treatise, written in the fullness of time and with the limitations of memory.

Enjoy.

The Bassman


Got up at 4:00 am.

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Up in the morning, just about 4:00 (1), February 2019

Called for an Uber at 4:45 am.

At JFK Terminal 5 at 5:40 am.

Through check-in and security by 6:00 am, complete with my boarding pass, Cuban visa and proof of medical insurance stamped on the boarding pass.

Finished a leisurely breakfast by 7:00 am. By airport restaurant standards, not merely leisurely – I basically encamped in the restaurant until I was bored enough to leave. The service was lovely, I have to say.

Sauntered down to the gate to check it out for the 9:06 am departure. Yup, it’s there. No plane at the gate yet, but that’s not unexpected – we don’t board for 90 minutes yet. Took a walk around Terminal 5, which seems to be about 3/4 of a mile. Okay, I can do this a couple of times while I wait.

Called Sally at 8:00 am. Fortunately, she wasn’t wakened by my getting ready this morning (last night?). As we were chatting, got an alert that my flight is delayed to until 10:30 am. Arggghhh! I was psychologically prepared for killing an hour; killing 2 1/2 is a horse of a different color.

Sit for a while near the gate, then do a couple more laps around the terminal. Come back and sit again, and watch as the ground crew tows a plane over at 9:00 am. Progress!

Watch the crew board at 9:30 am. The gate attendant excitedly announces their arrival, suggesting that departure can now be forecast.

Start pre-boarding (2) at 10:00 am. As usual, there are a few people who don’t “understand” the procedure and try to board with the people with young children, or the people in wheelchairs. They are politely shoo’d away by the staff.

I flaunt my privilege by boarding in Group A, the first group that isn’t pre-boarded. I also got to sit in an Even More Space seat. I paid for this privilege, $30 I think.

(Yes, I know you’re getting bored.  I was bored, too.)

This is a smallish plane, about 100 seats in a 2+2 configuration. That means the overheads are unusually small; my suitcase fits only sideways. A number of passengers seem to have the spatial relationship skills of a toddler, as they insist on trying to fit bags that have no possibility of fitting into the overheads. They struggle; the bags are by definition pretty heavy (because they are big) and they try them in each orientation. But each one of those orientations exposes a dimension that is too big by half for the height or depth of the overhead. They finally give up, and the bag gets passed up to the front of the plane past everyone who is standing and waiting for this adult-sized toddler to give up trying to fit the giant square block into the small triangular hole. The cabin crew passes the bag off to someone who might be putting it into the luggage hold, but who knows?

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Even More Space, February 2019

As we board, I sit alone in my Even More Space seat. There are three rows of 4 such seats and I am alone. Other passengers notice this vacuum and rush to fill the void. One of the attendants comes by with a credit card machine and tells them they have to pay. They return to their assigned places, but then one comes back a few minutes later to try again. He gets chased again (3).

We depart at 10:20 am, about 1:15 late. According to the captain, we should arrive around 1:45 pm, only 30 minutes late. Are they flying faster? Was there less ground traffic than expected at JFK? Is there fluff in the published schedules so they can claim better on-time rates? Hmmm ….

Time passes ….

Later that afternoon I meet up with my group at the hotel and we take a stroll down La Prado, a wide boulevard with a raised pedestrian mall in the middle.  The weather is warm and humid (my favorites!), and people are enjoying it.

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I don’t care what you say, it’s too damn hot, February 2019

La Prado ends at the sea by start of the Malecón, a five mile esplanade and seawall along the coast.  Again, people are out enjoying themselves.

 

 

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Kids by the sea, February 2019

 

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The Captain and Tennille?, February 2019

Finally we return to the hotel and have a pleasant dinner by the rooftop pool.

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View from the Hotel Parque Central, February 2019


(1) Apologies to Spanky and Our Gang’s song Commercial

(2) This makes no semantic sense. A person getting on the plane is “boarding”. “Pre-boarding” could mean getting your stuff together in anticipation of boarding, or having your boarding pass and ID checked at the gate, or any number of other things that you do before you board. But it shouldn’t mean “the group of people who get to board first.”

(3) This all reminds me of sneaking down from the nosebleed to the box seats at a Mets game as a kid. We hoped the ushers either wouldn’t notice us, or (more likely) wouldn’t care. It worked sometimes. JetBlue is more obsessed with revenue than the Mets were, I guess.