Wheel Life

Globetrotting photographer Denise Marino admits she loves to collect old things. She has trinkets from her travels around the world and plenty of antiques from local shops and flea markets. Until recently she even drove a 1965 Mustang convertible. "Old things have more character and more design," she notes, "and everything has a story to it."

So it's no surprise that when Marino took a seventeen-day excursion to Cuba two and a half years ago, she welcomed a sort of sensory overload centering on one type of vintage item: automobiles. The result of that trip for Marino was 5000 photographs -- 500 were of cars. "You see Cuba through the cars," notes Marino. "They're absolutely gorgeous." Following the 1961 U.S. embargo of the island nation, more than 100,000 vehicles from the Forties and Fifties remained there, giving the streets the appearance of being frozen in time. The colorful cars themselves, though, are anything but still. Citizens who each day struggle to survive somehow have managed to keep them running.

Traveling across the country from bustling cities like Havana to rural areas such as Baracoa, Marino got a true feel for the place and its vehicles. "We stayed in the Cuban homes; we didn't stay in hotels. We ate their food. And music was everywhere. You could have a tin can and it sounded good," she says. While Marino witnessed plenty of folks on horses and in wagons (drawn by mules and in one instance a goat) taking up the roads, she was more captivated by capturing the seemingly endless number of Chevrolets, Fords, Cadillacs, and Buicks with her camera. She often juxtaposed the vehicles against Cuba's distinctive architecture. "Whenever I wanted to photograph a building, I waited for a car to come right in front of it," Marino laughs. "Then I would take the picture. There was always a car passing by."

For the last year and a half, Marino, who has Lebanese roots, has dedicated herself to snapping pictures of belly dancers. In fact, last year at this time, she displayed her belly dancer images in an exhibition titled "Supplemented Silence" at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. This year Cinematheque director Dana Keith wanted to organize an exhibition to complement the upcoming documentary Yank Tanks. Made by David Schendel, the 2002 film, to be shown in August, depicts Cuba as a virtual storehouse of antique automobiles. Keith knew Marino had visited the country and tapped her to show off her collection of photographs. Thus the exhibition "The Cars of Cuba" was born.

Charmed as much by Cuba's citizens as by its cars, Marino yearns to return to the island someday soon and document even more of its life. "You didn't want to leave Cuba. You want to go back," Marino says. "I want to know more about these people. They're so amazing."

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Nina Korman
Contact: Nina Korman