Mobile and Havana: Sisters Across the Gulf

A new book is bringing photography and history together to highlight a unique connection.

The Courtyard at the Church and Convent of San Francisco de Asísi in Havana, where Water splashes, fronds rustle and legends are conjured easily. Photos of Havana by Julio Larramendi

Our connection is feeble, the view pixelated. Within the little rectangle of my phone screen, clouds waft over a grand plaza. Locals and tourists stroll across a background of colonnaded buildings painted in bright tropical colors.

Even though the video stalls and blurs, the saturated scenery is arresting. I find myself – unexpectedly on this dreary winter day – pulled right into Old Havana’s Plaza de Armas, plunked down in conversation with photographer Julio Larramendi to talk about his new book.  

The book, “Mobile and Havana: Sisters Across the Gulf,” is the latest chapter in a decade-long collaborative relationship between Larramendi and Alabama photographer Chip Cooper. Slated for publication this spring, the book is an ambitious romp across the two port cities that combs through the many threads of their intertwined histories. 

While Cooper and Larramendi’s sumptuous photographs illustrate the story, chapters written by authors John Sledge and Alicia García-Santana add layers of historical detail. By all accounts, it’s a collaboration made in heaven: Cooper’s images are dreamy and atmospheric, while Larramendi’s are more direct, more figurative. García-Santana homes in on an architectural comparison of the two cities, while Sledge embarks on a sweeping historic overview. Their varying perspectives complement and balance each other.

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“The experience of actually being there (in Havana) is so overwhelming on the first couple of visits, because it’s just so much,” said Sledge. “The architecture is so incredible. The decay is so incredible. But the spirit of the people is so resilient and wonderful. It’s just a sensory overload. It took me a couple of trips to really begin to try to make sense of it and see how it connected here.”

The book is dedicated to the memory of Eusebio Leal Spengler, a Cuban historian and director of a visionary project to restore Old Havana’s centuries-old buildings during the ’80s and ’90s. It is thanks to Leal that the city’s historic center earned its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Left La Giraldilla, “She who turns.” This 17th-century wind vane is a beloved symbol of Havana, representing the devotion of Isabel de Bobadilla, wife of Hernando de Soto. She was Cuba’s first, and to date, only, female governor. Legend places her on Dauphin Island after the Battle of Mabila, where she supposedly mourned her husband’s long absence. 
Center Fort Condé reconstruction in Mobile. One third of the fort was reconstructed at four-fifths scale for a U.S. Bicentennial project in 1976. The original was not so impressive. Elias Durnford, the British commander during the Spanish siege of 1780, considered it “in a sorry state.” Photos of Mobile by Chip Cooper
Right El Morro Castle at the entrance to Havana Harbor. The Pelican Girls passed beneath these same battlements over three centuries ago.

In some ways, Leal himself planted the roots of this book many years ago. Cooper, a longtime photographer at the University of Alabama, had made a habit of traveling to Havana throughout his career to assist with photo projects, and he had met Leal several times along the way. Cooper recounts that in 2008, Leal wrote to the president of the university and said, “I want Chip down here to photograph Havana.” Leal asked for Cooper by name because he could get a book published, and Leal wanted to produce a book about the old city. That assignment would become “Old Havana: Spirit of the Living City,” published in 2012.  

Cooper met Larramendi while working on that project, and they hit it off. “We’re like brothers from different mothers,” said Cooper. “Julio and I are very good for each other, because we help each other see our strengths and weaknesses. I will listen to his criticism without reserve, whereas if someone else jumps into criticism of me, I might not handle it as well.”

Left Decorative encaustic tile, Christ Church Parish House, 115 S. Conception Street, Mobile. Cuban immigrants made many of Mobile’s colorful porch tiles.
Right Spring Hill College, Lucey Administration Building, Mobile. This 1869 building replaced an earlier one lost by fire. Spirited baseball games still take place nearby, where Cuban students first learned the game and took it home during the Civil War. 

The pair embarked on a new book project together, cramming into a little Suzuki and spending three years traveling and smoking across more than 15,000 miles, covering every province in Cuba to document the country’s campesinos, or country folk. “Campesinos: Inside the Soul of Cuba” was published in 2017.

“Then it was my turn to showcase the South for him,” said Cooper. When the photographers brought their cameras to Mobile, they hatched an idea to pitch an exhibition about the sister cities to the Mobile Museum of Art. 

Church of San Francisco de Asísi, Havana. This magnificent landmark is little altered since Elias Durnford sketched it after the British siege of 1762.

“At the same time we were pitching, we were down there photographing a Mardi Gras festival, and I saw Sandy Stimpson walking down behind a float,” Cooper said. As luck would have it, Cooper had met Stimpson decades earlier, in 1985. Their paths had crossed while Cooper worked on his very first book, about hunting. 

There on the street at Mardi Gras, the pair approached Stimpson. “He remembered me. I told him what we wanted to do, and he got behind it 100%.” That chance meeting paved the way for the 2018 Mobile Museum of Art exhibition “Common Ground,” a collection of 50 paired-up photographs depicting shared landscapes, buildings, people, and traditions across Mobile and Havana.

The exhibit caught the attention of Grey Redditt, Mobile attorney and chairman of the Society Mobile-La Habana, a nonprofit dedicated to sustaining connections between the sister cities. “He saw the exhibition and Sandy saw the exhibition, and both said, ‘We need to do a book,’” said Cooper.

“That’s how it all started,” he continued. “We were rocking on it in 2019. We took Sandy and his wife down to Havana to further explain what we were doing.” The pandemic put the project on ice for a couple of years, but the collaborators picked it back up in 2022. Now, the finish line is in sight.

The book spotlights the cities’ shared stories of European conquest, trade, high-society connections, knowledge and culture. Amid Cooper’s and Larramendi’s photographs, the pages are peppered with antique maps, engravings and paintings. “It should be a very rich visual, immersive experience into both the history and the architectural heritage of these two places,” said Sledge.

“It’s been the most challenging book I’ve ever worked on, because of the pandemic, the embargo, the politics, U.S. Customs, on and on.” But he said it’s also been a terrific journey. “I’ve met some of the most wonderful people and discovered a whole new world that I didn’t know very much about.”

Left Wet cobbles, Havana. In his elegiac memoir, Mark Kurlansky described the city’s “sweet, sour, and bitter scents.” During the early 1900s, reforming Americans like Mobile’s own Dr. William C. Gorgas believed these contributed to yellow fever until scientists discovered differently.
Center Mid 19th-century travelers like Mobile’s Madame Octavia Walton LeVert often commented on Havana’s vibrant colors. “The houses are painted blue, green, red, and yellow,” she wrote. “Tall steeples and waving palms rise above them.”
Right Spanish moss, or “tree hair” as the Mobile Indians called it, was used to temper pottery, brew medicinal tea and provide females a modesty cover. 

“There is a big expectation here in Havana for the book,” said Larramendi. “People know we are working on it for three years. They saw us taking pictures, they saw us walking with Alicia and John, so people are asking us, when will it be published?

“Cuban people and American people love each other, respect each other, admire each other,” he continued. “The book will be published in the best moment, just to show that, no matter the differences between the governments, the people are the same.”

“We can learn a lot from each other,” said Sledge. “I think it’s really important, in the spirit of our sister-city relationship, to keep that dialogue open and to continue to support one another across time like we’ve always done.” 

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