Girls on Film

Alabao! From bongo-banging bathing beauties to piquant pistoleras in their birthday suits, Leo Carbajal's Cuban women are a mouthwatering draw.

One of the top fashion photographers of his era, Carbajal is celebrating the first retrospective of his work during "Cuban Women of the '40s and '50s: A Photographer's Perspective," at Casa Bacardi. Featuring more than 60 sumptuous black-and-white photographs, the show offers a rare glimpse into the sultry charms of mid-twentieth-century Cuba and is remarkable for its sizzling cheesecake.

Carbajal, who opened his studio in Havana in 1938, also worked as the official photographer for the Cuban Board of Tourism, snapping spreads for Christian Dior, Balenciaga, and Chanel on the way to snaring a trunkful of awards, including the Copa de Kodak. "Whenever the glamorous shops like El Encanto or Fin de Siglo premiered a new line, I was the one they called in for the shoot," the retired octogenarian relates.

During his heyday, Carbajal's work appeared in Bohemia, Carteles, and Vanidades magazines and practically every news publication on the island. "I freelanced for the major agencies and photographed everything from architecture, landscapes, and high fashion to nude models that were just starting to gain acceptance in advertising," he adds.

In a phone interview with the photographer in his Culver City, California home, Carbajal painted vibrant pictures of a culture reduced to ashes. "Coney Island in Marianao, the Vedado Tennis Club, the Miramar Yacht Club, the Tropicana -- I shot swimsuit models in every one of those places, and following the revolution, it all disappeared."

After Castro seized power, Carbajal began mailing negatives out of the country. A crackdown by the regime ended with his studio nailed shut and his equipment and photo archives confiscated. "The militia stormed in and took my life's work, my cameras, even my dictionary. Me dejaron pelao!"

Detained and jailed for espionage on the Isle of Pines, he was released eight years later, settling in Southern California in 1970 as a dishwasher. Carbajal returned to his professional roots in 1973 when a local photo lab hired him, ending his career as a master printer. "This is all that remains from my work in Cuba," the lensman remarks of his never-before-exhibited photos. "I hope people can appreciate them. It was a bustling, exciting time."

Discussing his exotic nudes like Chair Girl -- an incendiary brunette with almond-shaped peepers and a drool-worthy figure -- Carbajal recalls their popularity with the wide-open ad biz. "You have to understand the mentality back then. We were obsessed with American pop culture, and pinups were a big influence." He is quick to point out, though, that the art of the tease seems on the decline. "I get scandalized when I see what borders on pornography masquerading as art; it's so over-the-top it falls flat."

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Carlos Suarez De Jesus