Though cigar smokers may not recognize photographer Manny Iriarte's name, no doubt they are familiar with his eye-catching cigar images.
Padrón, Don Pepin Garcia, Alec Bradley, Oliva, Tatuaje—these are some of the big names Iriarte has worked with while becoming one of the more sought after cigar photographers in the industry.
Iriarte has the unique ability to combine commercial photography with art, a trait valued in an industry where the production of cigars is viewed as an art form itself.
"I love the cigar because it is made from the hand of a person," said Iriarte. "The cigar came from the land, people then made it. Each cigar has its own personality."
Born in Santa Clara, Cuba, Iriarte developed his vision of the cigar as a symbol of passion, elegance and power by observing the cigar culture around him.
These themes seem to naturally emerge from his photographs, while of course still managing to advertise the product. One image in particular, his close-up shot of an Oliva Serie V cigar, is a good example.
Iriarte used a macro lens to blow up the cigar so it appears much larger than actual size. A strong light source from the right of the frame hits the cigar and band in a way so the tooth of the cigar and the embossed detail of the band can be seen, giving them the texture of silky, liquid chocolate.
"It's a favorite of mine. If you can transform the single band to a big, big image, then you are OK," said Iriarte.
It was also as a child that he became fascinated with photography. However, Iriarte was not able to afford a camera, and it wasn't until a Spanish tourist heard his plight and gave him a 35mm Olympus OM-10 camera was he then able to begin snapping photos.
At that time, though, Iriarte's first passion was swimming. Showing an affinity for the sport at a young age, the government wanted to groom Iriarte into an Olympic champion.
He spent 19 years as a competitive swimmer, five of those with the national team. His career even brought him briefly to Italy and Brazil. He also was able to attend La Universidad del Deporte, graduating in 1993 with a degree in physical education.
After living in Cuba for seven years, Iriarte felt the desire to escape to America. In 2001, Iriarte found himself flying to Chile, then on to Buenos Aires before taking a final flight to Los Angeles and the protected ground of the United States. He then moved to Miami, Florida, where he took at a job as a physical education instructor. He met his wife, Madeline, also a teacher, while working there. Life seemed good, but Iriarte had other ambitions.
"When I started teaching class, photography was a hobby," Iriarte explained. "But it was something I wanted to pursue as a passion. That is difficult when you work full time."
So Iriarte began to work on his hobby. Although he can't recall exactly how he started photographing cigars, he does remember becoming fascinated by the allure of cigar smoke and how it curls, bends and twists in air.
And then, in 2004, his hard work paid off. He sold a black and white image of a Cuban Cohiba to a cigar lounge in Miami. And the owner wanted more.
"After I sold my first cigar image in 2004," Iriarte said, "I said to my wife, 'This is my niche.'"
Iriarte likes to keep things simple when he works. He prefers to work with natural light, and his studio only contains one light that he will use with a softbox.
"If a professional photographer came into my studio to watch me work, maybe in 30 minutes he would say 'That guy's crazy,'" Iriarte joked.
Although he now uses digital cameras, he loves film.
"Film is more artistic, more natural, more passionate. With digital, everything is technology. Film is more with the hands," Iriarte said.
As for future plans, Iriarte is not sure. He says he likes to "think in inches, not feet."
You can view more of Manny Iriarte's work at his Web site, www.mannyiriarte.com.
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