When Cuban photographer Nelson Ramirez was eight years old, he borrowed his mother’s camera, a twin-lens reflex that requires you to reload film before each shot. Ramirez kept forgetting to reload. When he finally developed the roll of film eight years later, he noticed the negatives had multiple exposures.
“I think those are the first manipulated photography that I did,” Ramirez told Art Beat. This week, the Robert Mann gallery in New York City opened “The Light in Cuban Eyes,” a two-month long exhibit that showcases Ramirez work along with 23 others. The exhibit is an offshoot of a book by the same name, which showcases 50 artists and was published earlier this month.
Ramirez creates most of his artwork with his partner, Luidmila Velasco, which often use manipulation. In a 2008 series called “Hotel Havana,” two duo combined images of a street or a city landmark over time, using archival photos from the 1940s and 50s. They would layer those archival images with their own current-day photographs and images that represent people’s fears about the future, such as replacing the ideological billboards with advertisements for Coca-Coca.
Ramirez is now the director of the Caribbean island’s version of Getty, Fototeca de Cuba. It’s in this capacity that he met Madeleine Plonsker, an art collector from Chicago who has been focusing on paper art — photographs, paintings, etchings, lithographs, etc. — with her husband for 54 years.
Plonkser first visited Havana in 2002 on a People-to-People tour of Cuban art, a trip that profoundly affected her. She wandered into an open air contemporary photography shop and, after purchasing a print, was directed across the plaza to the only photography gallery in Havana at the time. Soon she was connected with Ramirez who introduced to her photographers throughout the bustling city.
“When I first started collecting, you had to get in a taxi and there were no taxis. You just got into an old car with an address and they lifted you around,” Plonkser said. “Sometimes, a whole afternoon had passed for five dollars, a taxi ride and three artists. It was a bit of a discovery process.”
Over time, the collector started to develop strong relationships with the photographers. She would bring friends with her to Cuba and host “salons,” a sort of meet-and-greet showcase where a dozen photographers could interact with collectors. One of the first artists to participate was Pedro Abascal, a self-taught photographer who was one of the first people to take pictures freely on the street after the Soviets pulled out of Cuba.
Abascal has spent more than 40 years as a documentary photography, which he says is a very personal form of self-expression. He says that “The Light in Cuban Eyes” is essential, especially for an American audience, because it gives a glimpse into a world that was closed for so long.
“It covers a period of time in my country which is very important to see what we have to say and how it was,” Abascal said. “[The book] puts together people like myself that were photographing around that time with film, younger people that work with digital and other people who do more conceptual work. You can see a whole spectrum of expression in photography … you can see how Cuban photography is changing, how it has grown up in a sense.”
For Ramirez, the book and the exhibit hold a similar meaning.
“We are looking forward to opening that door to America so they can actually see how Cuba really is today, through the eyes of the photographers and through the value of the art that we make in Cuba,” Ramirez said.
For Plonsker, whose collection is on display, she hopes the book will serve as a “bibliography of contemporary Cuban photography.”
“Anybody who is traveling to Cuba and loves art can look at this book and make their list in a lot faster fashion that it took me which was — ten, thirteen years of my life,” Plonkser said. “I just want the world to see them and have them burst upon the contemporary scene of the world where they belong.”
View more photographs from the book and the exhibit below: