Alberto Will Take your Picture Now
A number of years ago, way back when Havana’s Capitolio building was not under extensive renovations, I came across a few photographers camped out front of the building, with massive, ancient cameras on tripods, eager to take your portrait with the distinctive dome as the background. It would appear from the gesturing and sample photos being thrust my way that the photos were going to be printed on the spot and inside these unique photographic contraptions.
Being an avid photographer myself, I enthusiastically consented to a photo simply to experience the whole process and also to have a special Cuban memento to boot.
Today, with the Capitolio building being basically off limits for many years, these photographers have relocated to other tourist areas in attempts to capture their business. One popular hangout for them these days is in Parque Centrale directly facing the Hotel Inglaterra. It is there where I recently met Alberto and his “Kodak” camera.
I could see that Alberto was just arriving to set up for his day of business and I quickly struck up a conversation with him. I had brought with me a small Fujifilm Instax camera that produces instant images, so the first thing I did was to take a shot of Alberto and hand him the small photo for fun. We immediately bonded as two kindred photographers although the photo I had just developed for him was done with a lot less effort than the one he was ultimately going to do for me. We shared a laugh over the image and then he got to work.
The photos that Alberto takes are known as “Cuban Polaroids” which are taken and developed within the large camera Alberto was setting up. Not only does his camera capture the image but, amazingly, the physical photo is also developed inside the camera. The rig is basically a portable photo studio and darkroom that produces memorable results.
Alberto first sets up a very sturdy wooden tripod. This must be strong enough to hold the heavy, homemade wooden box that houses both his camera lens and the chemicals and trays for his “darkroom”, which is actually a dark box! (For those unfamiliar with the ancient and lost art of developing photographs onto photographic paper, one needs complete darkness when developing the image in order to only process the parts of the photography paper that has been exposed to light. If unwanted light seeps into the process the whole image can come out over exposed and ruined.)
Once Alberto has installed the camera box on the tripod he then pulls out a couple of bottles of chemicals from his bag and fills a small sliding two-compartment tray that holds the developing chemical and also the fixer (this is the chemical stops the developing process so that the image development is frozen, as it were, at the right exposure). The process is crazy complicated – we’re lucky to live in the digital age toady! Once the trays are full, he slides the tray into a sliding drawer in the camera box. Then he hangs a small plastic bucket on the tripod that holds water to rinse off the chemicals when the image is complete.
Now to recruit a model. I approach a local woman who is observing Alberto from the shadow of a palm tree and ask her if she would like her photo taken, my treat. She excitedly obliges once she figures out what I am proposing.
Alberto shows her where to stand. He is trying to get the Capitolio building in the background (he is an artist, after all) but a tourist bus is stubbornly in the way, so he carries on regardless and gets ready to shoot.
Once the woman has assumed a rather dramatic pose, Alberto tells her to stand still while he removes the lens cap and counts off a few seconds (to expose her image to the photographic paper inside the box to the light thus capturing it) and then snaps the lens cap back on.
The magic begins. Alberto works his right arm into a flexible sleeve at the rear of the camera box so that he can manipulate the paper inside the box through the developing process without allowing any unwanted light in. He peered into an eyepiece mounted on top of the camera as he develops the paper, first in the developing fluid and then he shifts it into the fixer. After all of this he pulls out a “negative” of the image (on photographic paper), dries it off a bit and then puts it on a small image holder that holds it in front of the lens.
He then takes a photo of the negative that will ultimately produce a positive (confused yet? I know I am). Again he sets about developing this second image in the camera. After that process, he proudly extracts the positive, rinses it off, dries it a bit in the hot, summer breeze and presents it for the woman and I to admire. Perfecto!
I then settle up with Alberto. He charges a mere 5 CUCs for his handcrafted “Cuban Polaroids” which may well end up being the most unique portrait or photograph that you have ever owned. Look for him the next time you are around Havana’s Parque Centrale and then get ready to say “queso!”
If you would like the instructions to build your own “Cuban Polaroid” camera, send AJ an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Soon you, too, could be taking “Cuban Polaroids”
A.J. Twist is a Montreal based travel writer and photographer
who loves his “Cuban Polaroid” portrait by Alberto!