On Thursday, December 10, from 6:00pm-7:00pm, Key West Art & Historical Society welcomes the public to a gallery talk and sneak preview with photographer Rob O’Neal. The professional photojournalist’s presentation will be based on his new exhibit at the Custom House Museum— “Islands in the (Gulf) Stream: A photography exhibit of Key West & Cuba,” which launches with an opening celebration the following evening, December 11.
O’Neal has captured the heart and soul of Key West and Cuba for more than 16 years with both his talent and his attitude.
“I love shooting,” he says. “No matter how bad things can get, how many missed opportunities, or how many out-of-focused images, my best shot could very well be the next one. It’s corny but true. That’s what drives me.”
His exhibit at the Custom House Museum on 281 Front Street runs through April 19, 2016 and will showcase more than 40 images of his vibrant work. KWAHS caught up with him after his recent trip (his 32nd!) to Cuba to get a little taste of what’s in store for his upcoming gallery talk.
KWAHS: What do you love about Key West and Cuba and how does that translate in your work?
“I love the weather and the people. (Laughs). That’s obviously a ‘Citizen of the Day’ joke. Having said that, I guess what I love most is the weather and the people. I spent my first 35 years in the Midwest having a great time with great people, but when I finally made it to Key West, I started living a life I still don’t think I deserve. Long before my (scooter) wreck, I knew I had great friends. After my wreck, I was blown away by this community and consider it an honor to document it damn near every day.
“As for Cuba, aside from the architecture, land and seascapes, and crazy animals, the Cuban people make it a pleasure to return time and time again.”
KWAHS: What started your connection to Cuba?
“After living in Key West for three years, I kept hearing people talk about Cuba. In 1999, David Sloan and I were enjoying a cold refreshment when a fisherman friend passed the table saying he had just returned. We looked at each other and within a week, we had already been there and back. The hook was set.”
KWAHS: You’ve taken more than hundreds of thousands of photos both here and in Cuba. How did you narrow it down to 40 for your show?
“The editing process is a nightmare on any project and to be honest, the only way I was able to pull the trigger on those 40 was when I granted permission to set up a slideshow on a small television screen somewhere in the exhibit. This way, a good representation of all the crazy stuff I shoot can be seen enlarged and on the wall, as the actual breadth of subjects I shoot every week can be seen on a smaller scale, electronically. At times it can range from a newborn baby to a horrific scooter accident to a plate of hamachi to a Playboy playmate to a perp walk all in the same day. It’s kind of hard to process at times.”
KWAHS: What are some of the subjects of your work in the exhibit?
“After working at a newspaper for nearly 20 years, most of my work has people involved. I’ve been taught, and now firmly believe, it helps bring life to a photo. I also love making aerial photos, most of which being made with my great friend and pilot, Nikali Pontecorvo. Long before drones, there were fixed-wing planes, parasails and helicopters and a huge investment of time and money. But as we all know, the Florida Keys from the air is a special image, so it’s well worth the investment. There are a few editorial images, several portraits and also some stuff from my “Florida Keys and Key West” calendar projects, now in their eighth year.”
KWHAS: Are there any particular images with strong anecdotes you’d like to share?
“One thing that means an awful lot to me is my collection of the Key West characters that have left us. People like Captain Outrageous, Captain Tony, and Wilhelmina Harvey. I would shoot these people every chance I had, and I thank the Lord I did. One of these days, hopefully a long time from now, the Monroe County Library is gonna get a lot of images that cover a staggering cross-section of this little island.”
KWAHS: What can attendees anticipate when they come to your gallery talk in the Distinguished Speaker Series?
“They can expect to see a nervous, middle-aged guy doing his best not to screw up in front of a crowd.”
The gallery talk is part of the organization’s Distinguished Speaker Series, a twice-monthly program that highlights the abundant history and cultural assets of our islands through informal lectures. Tickets are available at KWAHS.ORG/Learn; $5 for members, $10 for nonmembers. For more information, contact Adele Williams, Programs & Education Director at 305.295.6616 x 115 or visit KWAHS.ORG.
Your Museums. Your Community. It takes an Island.