Real Cuba

Jul 25, 2018  By James Rice

In 1959 Fidel Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos, and Che Guevara successfully overthrew the Batista government and took over in Havana. Back in Indiana, in 1959, my mother gave me my first camera. She challenged me to go out and make photographs that were “classic”. I asked her, “What kind of photographs are classic”? She said, “That’s for you to figure out”. I spent 1959-1961 with my camera in the basket of my bicycle, riding all over our small town, looking for photographs that were “classic”. The American cars of the 1950’s became intriguing subjects for me, as did everyday life on the streets of our small town. Although I didn’t realize what I was doing, in fact, I was documenting life around me in my small hometown.

Baracoa M240/28mm Cron f/11, 1/30 sec, ISO 1000


In 1961, an intruder entered our home and shot my father, critically wounding him, and also shot and killed my mother. My world was turned upside down. In the aftermath of the shooting, I went to live with my maternal grandparents. In the midst of the immense grief, all of my photographs and my cameras were lost forever. After that day, whenever I saw a camera, all I could think of was my mother. And so I didn’t touch a camera for a long time.

It took forty years for a camera to seriously find its way back into my hands. In 2001 I was newly divorced and I decided that I had to try and pick up a camera once again. Analog photography was rapidly being impacted by digital photography, and so I bought a digital Nikon D50 DSLR. I worked my way through several digital DSLR’s, including a Nikon D70, Nikon D300, and then a Nikon D3s. I was learning the nuances of digital photography, but somehow the magic just wasn’t returning.

One night I happened to watch a video by Konstantin Adenauer of Germany, entitled “Craig Semetko: A Portrait”. Semetko was using a Leica rangefinder camera, something that was foreign to me, but intriguing at the same time. Soon I had purchased a copy of Craig’s first photo book, “Unposed”. As I studied his photographs, it felt like I was being transported back to my childhood, looking at my mother’s black-and-white photographs. I loaded up my Nikon D3s, all my Nikkor lenses, and traded them for a Leica M9 Rangefinder camera and a 50mm f/2 Summicron lens. In a very short period of time, I realized I was beginning to find the little boy with his camera in the basket of his bicycle once again. The magic of the Leica M9 and a 50mm lens helped me find me again, and my photographic journey began again in earnest.

I rediscovered my love of simply documenting life as it happens around me, always striving to find that “classic” moment that my mother had challenged me to find. For some reason, using a Leica rangefinder instead of a DSLR had helped me find my photographic vision again. The Leica rangefinder with a prime lens forced me to work more methodically, and when I worked more methodically my vision improved. The prime lens made my legs do the work instead of simply relying on a zoom lens. Shooting the M9 with its 50mm lens in many ways was similar to using my first Kodak Brownie Camera and later my Imperial Satellite 127. When I converted my M9 digital files to black-and-white, I was mesmerized. It was as though I had come full circle from my childhood forty years ago.

Baracoa M240/28mm Cron f/2, 1/1500 sec, ISO 640

The opportunity to travel to Cuba for eight days in the spring of 2018 presented itself and I was thrilled at the thought of stepping onto Cuban soil. My equipment had comfortably settled into two cameras and two lenses: a Leica M240 with a 28mm Summicron ASPH and the Leica M Monochrom 246 with a 50mm APO Summicron ASPH. I always carried both the M240/28mm Cron and MM246/50mm APO around my neck together. With those two focal lengths, I was instinctive in terms of which focal length I needed for the shot. The long battery life on the M240 and MM246 allowed me to simply have both cameras on at all times – so it was a quick reach for the right camera, touch the shutter lightly to refresh, and I was ready to shoot. On narrow, cobblestone streets, I usually set my M240/28mm Cron up to use zone focusing. Depending on the light, I usually had my ISO set to around 800 or 1000, my aperture to f/11, and with my focus ring set appropriately, everything from about 1.2 meters to infinity was in focus. I used my MM246/50mm APO in settings that weren’t so confining, or when I chose to do a tight portrait. My methods were occasionally unorthodox — I sometimes shot through the window of a bus as we traveled from one location to the next. In Santiago de Cuba, I captured a shirtless truck driver apparently deep in thought. Life happened fast, our time was short, and I didn’t want to miss a moment.

To me, documenting Cuba meant documenting the people. Since I believed that photographs of Cuba were quickly becoming a cliche, I was convinced that my work in Cuba was to capture real life. Much of what I saw, even from some famous photographers, had oversaturated colors and scenes that appeared to be candid but almost certainly were posed to look as though they were candid. Therefore, I set out to capture beautiful moments of people immersed in daily life, in black-and-white, which is where my roots in photography have always been.

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