Cuba's digital destination
by Victoria Alcalá
Photos by Julio Larramendi
A man is stalking his prey. He’s been waiting for hours for it to appear or maybe he’s just waiting for it to present its best angle. He’s been cold and he’s suffered excruciating heat; he has gotten soaked in torrential rains and he’s endured practically desert-like dryness that has chapped his lips. His skin has been burned by the sun and felt the bothersome pricking sensation that could be the result of some insect’s bite or the touch of a plant. So much time alone, frozen in the same or almost the same position, cramps his legs and his implacable sixty-odd years weigh heavily on his bones. Maybe he craves a cup of coffee—with that dash of milk he always prefers—and followed up by a cigar to chase away drowsiness and the mosquitoes. But he remains in pursuit until finally the thing he has been waiting for so long comes into his field of vision. Quickly he follows it with his gaze and shoots…once, twice, dozens of times…relentlessly following his objective.
At the end of the day, he can relax, check the results, smile and walk around. The accumulated fatigue seems to fall on his shoulders but he moves agilely through the scrub, maybe even humming a Beatles’ song, as he considers the best destination for his trophy. Perhaps it will end up on the pages of a book.
This man with European, African and Asian blood running through his veins has been attached to his camera for almost fifty years—48 to be exact. His first jobs dealt with scientific and technical photography and then he got involved with the worlds of advertising, fashion, architecture and art. But it seems that nature is the most long-lived of his loves, perhaps because it allows him to merge his academic knowledge with the art of photography to the utmost degree. He has a degree in chemistry and a PhD in sciences which he combines with his sensibilities and humanistic bent. Originally from Santiago de Cuba, he is at the same time down-to-earth and refined, always with a smile on his lips, the perfect host, and able to capture the images of such beautiful examples of Cuban flora and fauna as Polymita picta or Cuban land snail, the tocororo or Cuban trogon, butterflies or orchids. His passion never leads him to neglect the rigors of scientific observation and at the same time, thanks to immaculate compositions, exquisite textures and a masterful play of chiaroscuro, the photo of a seemingly terrifying crocodile can become a work of art. What others simply call “creepy-crawlies” such as frogs, spiders, ants or slugs…are “lovely” creatures for him.
Luckily, he has been generous with his work and so instead of keeping it for his own personal contemplation he has extensively exhibited and reproduced his photos. Exhibitions in dozens of countries, sixty-three years old and the same number of books published with his photos—several of which have won him scientific acclaim—attest to a desire to communicate that is also evidenced by his membership in the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba, the Union of Journalists of Cuba, the Cuban Association of Social Communicators, the International Federation of Photographic Art and the Zoological Society of Cuba. As if that were not enough, he is also assistant researcher at the National Museum of Natural History of Cuba and Distinguished Member of the Gonzalo de Cárdenas Vernacular Architecture Department. He was the founder and first president of the Latin American Photography Department of the José Martí International Journalism Institute and the chief inspiration for Ediciones Polymita, the publishing house which turns out wonderful books on Cuban architecture, art and nature.
Fortunately, such a long list of successes and recognitions has not extinguished his curiosity, nor has it adversely affected his cordial and unpretentious mien, nor has it slowed down his dizzying work pace. The hero of our story, Julio Larramendi Joa, agrees to be interviewed with equal grace by important specialized publications as well as by university students anxious to turn in a class project. He exhibits his work in an internationally renowned venue—I think that he is the only Cuban photographer who has a gallery named after him, in Old Havana’s Conde de Villanueva Hotel. But you are just as likely to see his work in any humble gallery somewhere in Cuba. He collaborates with a very busy publishing house and on the first edition of a magazine whose fate is as yet uncertain. He gets up every day at dawn, attends to children and grandchildren, his gallery, Polymita’s books, classes at several universities, dozens of phone calls; he takes pictures of people, buildings, animals, plants and artworks; he attends a non-specific number of meetings every day and yet he still has the time to welcome friends at home with the traditional courtesy he learned from his elders.
Thanks to this tireless worker, many of us Cubans have come to learn about our country to a greater degree about both its marvelous buildings in heritage cities and humble vernacular structures; about elusive species of flora and fauna, and the many splendid examples we see every day and therefore tend to ignore; about the glitterati visiting our Island and the work-worn faces of regular Cubans. Should you try to find him and can’t, don’t despair: he must be lurking around turtle spawning grounds, or lying in wait for the exact moment when the sun sinks into the ocean or when the mist drapes the fields in grey. He will be looking for the perfect light to shoot an old doorknocker, a shimmering body of water or a malanga field. He will be searching for the precise angle to admire the entire façade of some colonial building, or maybe he will be climbing a mountain seeking the ruins of a coffee plantation. Sooner or later he will reappear with his booty, ready and willing to share.