Fine art

The camera as the artist’s eye

Glimpse of Havana through the lens of David Smith-Soto at DAFA


David Smith-Soto knew at a very early age that photography would always be a part of his life. Looking through his old-school Brownie camera, his nearsightedness faded away and brought clarity to his challenged young eyes and to the streets of San José, Costa Rica, where he was born and raised.

“I’ve had cameras with me ever since,” he said. “They truly are my eyes.”

And what eyes they have grown up to be. Still focused on the street scene, this time in Havana, Cuba, his photographs capture exquisitely wrought moments in time against a backdrop of the decaying elegance of the city. The lives of the city’s ordinary people, who display dignity and resilience despite decades-long chaos, are heartbreakingly real: sometimes gracious, often prosaic, but always authentic.

“In Havana, everything happens on the street; life is lived on the street,” Smith-Soto said. “It’s been my passion to record those moments.”

On Saturday (Sept. 23) Smith-Soto will unveil “Havana Hallelujah: From Hardscrabble Reality to a Vision in a Dream,” a stunning collection of 25 color and black-and-white photographs, at David Anthony Fine Art (DAFA). An opening reception is planned that day from 4-7 p.m. Admission is free.

Also of note, Smith-Soto will be donating all proceeds from the sale of prints to the Taos Gallery Association through the Taos Center for the Arts. “It’s a way to give back to the art community,” he said, and “to further their mission of burnishing the profile of this historic city as an axis for art.”

Smith-Soto and his Cuban-born wife, Zita, have traveled multiple times to the island and are deeply connected to its culture and soul. The exhibition’s name, also the title of an article the photographer wrote for the Feb. 20, 2017, edition of Huffington Post, is an ode to “the art of ‘resolver.’”

“‘Resolver’ is the magic word you hear a lot [in Havana],” Smith-Soto explained in the article, referencing the determination and ingenuity of the Cubans.

“The Cuban sense of humor is also priceless. It has allowed them to live through 60 years of deprivation at a price they say they had to pay for independence, for freedom from U.S. colonialism,” Smith-Soto wrote.

“In Cuba you have to look for the orchid and forget the gnarled tree trunk. Time lost its meaning in Havana and you come here to step out of time. Havana is an alternate reality wrapped in an ebb-and-flow time warp. You are looking through the glass darkly, perceiving changes now and then that worm their way to the surface of the old city only to fade into crumbling rows of unkempt sepia masonry,” he continued.

“Time streaks and fades the mostly 19th century Spanish style buildings that lean into streets cobbled with ballast from ships that docked in the finest new-world harbor centuries ago.”

Smith-Soto’s observations are both poetic and pragmatic: thoughts that translate into his images and dramatically capture the grittiness of the city and the steadfastness of its inhabitants. Taken specifically for this exhibition over three trips to the island – one 10 years ago and two in the last six months – Smith-Soto said he had noticed a heightened interest in Cuba over the last several years.

“It’s a place that is so geographically close to this country, but so shrouded in mystery and misunderstanding,” he said. “People want to know it and understand it.” In fact, in their roles as professors at University of Texas, El Paso (UTEP), he and his wife traveled on their last visit with 15 UTEP students. “We’re trying to get a steadily funded internship program in place so we can continue to make these trips,” Smith-Soto said.

The couple’s outreach to students also includes engagement in the production of UTEP’s digital magazine, Borderzine, which is under the purview of the university’s communications department and whose byline is “Reporting across Fronteras.”

Described by the university as a “multidisciplinary platform that focuses on achieving diversity in news media,” it is a venue through which issues concerning the student body along the U.S./Mexico border can be addressed in an informed and educated dialogue. “Let’s give every student a voice. Let them educate us.”

DAFA owner David Mapes noted that the inclusion of Smith-Soto in his roster of artists is not only a rare gallery opportunity to view these important photographs, but also to marvel at the timeliness of the exhibition and its importance in today’s political dialogue. “If anyone has his finger on the pulse of our times, it is David,” observed Mapes.

Smith-Soto has enjoyed a stellar 60-year-long career, including that as a bilingual photographer, writer, editor, journalist, newspaper and public relations executive and, now, as UTEP’s senior lecturer in multimedia journalism. In addition to the publication of his essay in Huffington Post, he was also interviewed in 2014 by NPR.

His most impressive credential, however, is his rare and compassionate eye on the human condition – wherever that eye may land, but always with a camera in front of it.

David Anthony Fine Art is located at 132 Kit Carson Road. For more information, call (575) 758-7113 or visit