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Rare photographs capture Cuba pre-Revolución

Constantino Arias

Batista forces try to quell a protest in La Habana. Photo by Constantino Arias.

This article by Natalia Muñoz originally appeared in the New York Daily News on Sept. 15, 2010.

In the years leading to the Cuban Revolution, the opulent Hotel Nacional in Havana was the go-to place for tourists looking to soak their desires with women for hire and an expanse of gambling opportunities.

Constantino Arias (1920-1991) was an unassuming, young, thin man with a keen eye for capturing the right moment in photographs.

Whether the subject was a whimsical moneyed woman posing naked and peering into a mirror, or a child in a slum looking up into the camera, Arias’ gift of timing landed him the job as photographer-in-residence at El Nacional.

 

Through Oct. 16, some 40 of Arias’ photographs will be on display at the Center for Cuban Studies, 231 W. 29th St. in Chelsea. Two receptions will take place tomorrow and Friday, 6 to 8 p.m.

Titled “Constantino Arias, The Years Before: 1945-1958,” the exhibit shows pre-revolution Cuba with indelible and timeless simplicity.

There’s a middle-aged American tourist in his bathing suit, chomping on a cigar, holding two liquor bottles and wearing a paisano’s wide-brimmed hat, which today could be easily substituted by a college student steeped in an alcoholic stupor on spring break in Cancún.

Arias was not fussy about the material; he did not direct nor inject props or political views.

Yet his heart is implicit in them.

Sandra Levinson, the center’s executive director and the exhibit’s curator, says the selection helps explain why so many Cubans were “behind the revolution” in the late 1950s.

“Cuba was a country of such terrible poverty,” she says. “Foreigners danced there, used their beaches, their women – and men – while Cubans starved.”

A picture of men protesting against the dictator Fulgencio Batista shows the imposing front-end grille of a big American car, as if it were ramming into the protesters.

Arias sold the happy-go-lucky tourists the pictures of themselves. To the magazine glossies, he sold the palatable side of Cuba, all bright and festive. To the political magazines, he gave away his pictures of the country’s marginalized people. In all, Arias took close to 10,000 pictures in his career.

He worked at the Hotel Nacional from 1941 to 1959, the year the Cuban Revolution overthrew Batista. Afterward, he went to college and later worked for the cultural magazine Bohemia. He died in Cuba almost 20 years ago.

The Arias show will overlap with another photo exhibit about Cuba in the mid-20th century, “Cuba in Revolution.” It opens Sept. 24 at the International Center of Photography, 1133 Sixth Ave., at 43rd St., and runs through Jan. 9. Three of Arias’ photographs are part of the ICP exhibit as well.

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