Once in a very great while (in fact, almost never) an entirely unsolicited package of photos appears on our desk, and after we tear away the brown wrappings and finish grumbling about photographers who drop off material without even bothering to inquire whether it might be appropriate, we find a jewel of a story. That is how Alex Olivera’s haunting scenes of Havana came to these pages. Naturally, our first question was “How did you find these old black and whites—and how did you match them up?”
His response: “Back in the late seventies, when I was an undergraduate majoring in photography at New York’s School of Visual Arts, I had plenty of time to kill between classes and would spend hours wandering through the neighborhood’s low-end antiques shops. Once while going through a box of old photos in one of these stores, I came across an envelope full of negatives labeled ‘Cuba’ and ‘Bermuda.’ I bought them and made contact prints and a few enlargements in the school’s darkroom. Then I showed them to two Cuban-born friends and asked them to identify the Cuban scenes. I made the finished prints and tried to get them exhibited in a local gallery but didn’t have any luck. So I gave a few prints to the people who had helped me and stashed away the negatives.
“A few years ago I was talking about Cuba with a couple of photographers when I suddenly remembered that I still had those negatives. Soon after, I made fresh prints and started researching the various sites in the photos by going through old travel guides and back issues of National Geographic and Life . Then the idea of re-photographing the sites came to me; I thought it might be a good way to measure the results of the Cuban Revolution. I contacted the Center for Cuban Studies in New York City and flew to the island as a participant in one of its seminars. Once in Cuba travelers needn’t attend any of the scheduled events and can plan their own time.
“I found it impossible to walk or stand anywhere in Havana for more than a few minutes without being approached by one of the locals. Cubans love to talk, especially to foreigners; living in a country where the news is closely monitored, they are eager to hear from the outside world. Their loquacity proved helpful as I moved around the city tracking down the latethirties and early-forties views by the photographer whose name remains unknown but whose brooding, mysterious work is his signature.”