October 14, 2010
Cuba has long been a magnet for photographers. The intensity of the island — its natural beauty, its prodigal hedonism and dire poverty, its political volatility — drew photojournalists like Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson to document it extensively in the first half of the twentieth century. When the charismatic and photogenic Fidel Castro and his companions came on the scene in the late 1950's, opportunities for the saleable shot for thirsty news magazines worldwide proved irresistible.
It is that window of utopian hope, wedged between the Fascist totalitarianism of the 1950's and the Communist totalitarianism of the 1960's, that is the subject of "Cuba in Revolution," an exhibit of photograph and film at the International Center of Photography in New York City through January 9, 2011.
The chronology begins with a room devoted exclusively to the work of Constantino Arias, often called "the Cuban Weegee" for the "flash and run" spontaneity of his pictures. He started out in 1941 as a society photographer for the Hotel Nacional in Havana, snapping photos of overdressed matrons, jitterbugging couples, and bloated businessmen from America, liberated from the button-down life in the States and captured at their most uninhibited. Gradually, however, he was drawn to what lay just steps from the swank hotels — the cluttered alleys and tumbledown tenements of the other Havana, the aging prostitutes, sweating pushcart vendors, and most of all, the homeless and hungry. On the first wall you're amused by a full-length shot of a middle- aged American tourist clad only in swimming trunks and a huge sombrero, with a quart of Vat 69 in one hand and a bottle of Bud in the other, teeth clenching a fat cigar; on the opposite wall, you're appalled by the image of an emaciated young woman in a grimy dress, curled like a fetus against the wall of a colonnaded building. On a third wall is a series of photos of the demonstrations at the University of Havana in 1952, students marching with locked arms in one scene, panicked and scattered by water cannon in another. Arias caught the brewing storm.
In the next room, a collection of news photos from 1953 to 1959, Fidel and Che first appear, boyish and beardless in business suits, predating their hairy transformation. Fidel, fresh out of law school, organized a guerilla band and led a symbolic attack on a military barracks in July of 1953. He was captured and imprisoned, and two years later was exiled to Mexico, where he met Ernesto Guevara, an Argentinian physician whose student travels around oppressed Latin America turned him radical. The two snuck into Cuba in 1956, recruited troops, and engaged in increasingly widespread and effective skirmishes with government forces, eventually toppling the Batista regime in 1959. From the beginning, Castro knew well the power of the press and welcomed photographers such as American Andrew St. George to document not only the battles but the humanizing day-to-day life in camp — Fidel reading newspapers in his makeshift study, Che on his cot, stripped to the waist, dreamily sipping yerba mate tea from a ceremonial bowl and straw.
The revolutionaries entered Havana in triumph on January 8, 1959, and the photographers followed, capturing the gesticulating speeches of Fidel and the adoring faces of the crowd. Shortly thereafter, Castro took a prolonged tour of the Western Hemisphere, attempting to build support for his cause. Rebuffed and embargoed by President Dwight Eisenhower, he went to the United Nations in September of 1960, sidling up to the Soviets and infuriating his American hosts with a trip uptown to Harlem to identify himself as a champion of civil rights. St. George captured the mood in a photo of raucous protesters carrying placards reading fidel is welcome in harlem anytime! and u.s. jim crows fidel just like us.
As he settled into leadership, Fidel exploited the camera to solidify his salvific image among Cubans. One room of the exhibit is devoted to "Heroic Portraits." Osvaldo Selar's ultra-closeups of Fidel, one a profile cropped at the eye, slender fingers cradling a cigarette at his lips, every hair of his beard in crisp detail, and a second one backlit to illuminate the cloud of smoke from his cigar, are among the finest in the genre.
Even more sensuous are the photos of Che, surely the sexiest subversive of all time. Among them is Alberto Korda's 1960 shot of Che with beret, taken on the fly yet so quintessentially iconic that, stylized and colorized, the likeness soon turned up as posters, T-shirts, and among the oeuvres of Andy Warhol.
Even death did not detract from Che's photogeneity. When he was executed in Bolivia in 1966, local photographer Freddy Trigo was present when Che's body was displayed to the public as a warning to would-be revolutionaries. An entire room of the exhibit is devoted to his photos of the corpse, laid out on a slab, stripped to the waist as in the yerba mate shot, head propped up, eyes open, staring at the camera: And you thought this was the end of me.
The remaining part of the exhibit features Soviet-style heroic photos of post-revolutionary life, and a strange little section on the already-subversive youth culture of the late 1960's, images of free love and of teens displaying purloined Beatles albums, along with a propaganda short depicting the singers as chimpanzees.
Two other propaganda films are of more interest, one a lengthy "March of Time"-like chronicle of the revolution, another from the mid-1970's showing "mi hermano Fidel" dropping in on a blind old campesino and ordering him a new home, a pension, and free health care. "Socialism," he tells him (and the viewers), "has something more to do for you."
The exhibit is an extraordinary reminder of the power of the image to shape the attitudes of a nation and the world. Fidel, still before the camera 50 years later, knew that from the start.