Irish photographer's snapshot of fading history in Hemingway's Havana

As Cuba marks the 60th anniversary of the overthrow of the Batista dictatorship, Irish former Fleet Street photographer John Minihan, best known for his iconic images of Samuel Beckett and Princess Diana, pays a personal tribute to its capital Havana, a city with strong literary and artistic traditions

Cuban artist José Villa Soberón with his sculpture of 'Papa' Hemingway in The Floridita Bar. Picture by John Minihan
John Minihan

HAVANA, Cuba, is intimate, timeless and secure. It's a seductive place to spend a holiday, yet poverty and hardship shaped it.

Every time I arrive at José Martí International Airport, I feel a sense of peace. I take very little personal luggage, apart from a camera bag with two Rollerflex cameras and a stock of black-and-white film to explore and capture a city lost in time, with 90 miles of water separating Cuba from the southern tip of the United States.

The century-old stone wall of the Malacón, Havana’s famous oceanside esplanade, shields the city from the battering of the rolling seas. On weekends, it’s full of Cuban musicians playing to the tourists.

Havana came to my attention in the 1960s when I became aware of the classic photograph by the Cuban photographer Alberto Korda who took the now-iconic image of Ché Guevara that's stencilled on walls from Havana to Hamburg.

It was a city that attracted writers including Jean Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene. Hemingway lived in Havana for over two decades and wrote his most famous novels there. His face, like that of Guevara, is now too on T-shirts and painted on walls, and bars that he frequented have become hangouts for the thousands of tourists who arrive daily from all over the world.

Havana de Cuba – on the corner of Villegas and O'Reilly. Picture by John Minihan

Hemingway is an American with whom Cubans proudly and openly identify and whose memory is cherished.

One bar in particular, The Floridita Bar on the corner of Obispo and Monserrate Street, is now haunted by Hemingway's ghost. A life-size bronze statue of the writer by Cuban artist/sculptor José Villa Soberón leans with an elbow upon the dark mahogany bar where 'Papa' Hemingway, as he became known, drank his famous daiquiris with movie star friends. He spoke fluent Spanish and loved the attention.

José Villa Soberón with his sculpture of the great Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso, who died on October 17 at the age of 98. Picture by John Minihan 

When he was sufficiently intoxicated, he would walk down Obispo, a long narrow street, to the Hotel Ambos Mundos in old Havana where he wrote For Whom The Bell Tolls. He lived in the hotel from 1932 to 1940, after which time he bought a house 10 miles outside Havana with royalties from his book. The house is now preserved by the government and visitors can pay homage to him there.

Fidel Castro loved literature and was a good friend to writers like Sartre, Hemingway and Gabriel García Marquez.

My first visit to Cuba was in 2006. I was invited to the ballet where I saw for the first time the legendary star Alicia Alonso, director and founder of the Cuban National ballet, and one of the most important people in the history of dance, who died just last week at age 98.

Havana de Cuba – on the corner of Villegas and O'Reilly. Picture by John Minihan

I photographed her on a number of occasions at the ballet school in Havana and when she toured the UK with her company performing Giselle in 2010. A leading figure in classical ballet in Latin America, she was as important in a cultural sense as her comrade Castro was in a revolutionary one.

In January 2018 I was in the Grand Theatre where they unveiled a life-size bronze of Alicia Alonso. In attendance was the prima ballerina herself, the sculptor José Villa Soberón and Raul Castro. I knew that I had to see if I could photograph José, the artist responsible for the Hemingway sculpture in The Floridita Bar, in the now renamed Alicia Alonso Grand Theatre, where operatic luminaries such as Enrico Caruso and Sarah Bernhardt performed.

On the 20th Anniversary of John Lennon’s death in 2000, Fidel Castro attended the unveiling of a lifesize bronze by José Villa Soberón who inscribed the words, “People say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one”, from his song Imagine, at Lennon’s feet in the newly named John Lennon Park.

On a trip this year I made enquiries to find and photograph José with the help of my friend Noel Carrillo, the former Cuban Ambassador to Ireland.

El Capitolio, one of Havana's landmark buildings, and old US cars still in use today Picture by John Minihan

He managed to make contact with the artist, who agreed to meet me in central Havana where the streets are lined with a galaxy of classic American cars, Cadillacs, Buicks, Pontiacs, Chevrolets, Fords and much more, all now used as taxis.

It’s as if time stood still from the 1950s, when Havana was the playground of Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, showgirls from the Tropicana, corrupt cops and politicians and run by shady characters like ‘Lucky’ Luciano and Meyer Lansky.

When I met José in The Floridita Bar it was packed with tourists all with their smartphones and digital cameras taking selfies in front of the Hemingway statue. There was nearly a riot when they discovered the artist was in the bar. I took some photographs with my Rollerflex, Noel acting as translator.

José had come to meet me from his studio home in Cojímar, a small fishing village famous as the residence of Gregorio Fuentes, Hemingway’s friend and former skipper of his fishing boat, Pilar.

Former Cuban ambassador to Ireland Noel Carillo at a memorial in Havana to the 10 republicans who died in the 1981 Maze hunger strikes

It was kind of him to do so; he’s a busy man with many commissions awaiting his attention. I felt privileged and honoured that he had given me the time to photograph him with his magnificent work.

It would have been nice to get him beside the John Lennon statue. But that’s for another time.

The Cuban revolution was one of the defining moments of the 20th century, its influence reaching far beyond the shores of the small Caribbean island.

This year is the 60th anniversary of the overthrow of the Batista dictatorship. In the interim Cuba has lived a dramatic life and has resisted heroically hard years during which time the United States intensified its economic and political aggression.

I now see new hope with very little food queues. The Alicia Alonso Grand Theatre has been refurbished to a high level. In February this year I was fortunate to get a seat in the stalls to see the Cuban National Ballet perform Swan Lake.

I looked up to the balcony to where Alicia Alonso would normally sit – sadly she was not present. One of the first events in her career was to dance, as a young ballerina in 1937, the dual roles of Odette-Odile in Swan Lake.

Walking the streets with my Rollerflex camera, I was continually confronted with scenes and spectacle that would compel my attention.

I have an eye for the inconsequential detail. Havana is a city with lavish iconography which attracted photographers from all over the world; their photographs now appear as a requiem for a world that’s vanishing.

When the American photographer Walker Evans was sent to Havana in the 1930s for a book assignment, he met Hemingway at The Floridita Bar. They became bosom drinking buddies – so much so that Evans, fearful that the then dictator Machado’s agents might confiscate his negatives before he could get out of Cuba, left them with Hemingway.

I don’t know if I’d have done that.

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