- may 26, 2011 • 01:16h
- 4 comentarios
Few revolutions are as photogenic as the Cuban one. Perhaps this is because it coincided with a boom in photojournalism, a postwar genre, and offered the possibility of melding the profession of documentary work with the (North American) photographic tradition of visual humanism in which social and political antagonisms were overcome.
The ideology behind the photographs that established the celebrated agency Magnum, in 1947, was not too far removed from the mythological model used to represent the Cuban Revolution in many of the most important North American media circles.
Some of the greatest photojournalists of the era, such as Burt Glinn, Lee Lockwood, or Grey Villet, walked through the convulsive city like schoolboys at a party. They took photos of themselves, posing with firearms. They saw themselves not only as witnesses, but also as participants in a singular moment. And their photos, which should have shown the panorama of radical change, instead show an idealized epic.
All this is complemented by the propagandistic use to which Fidel Castro put Cuban publicity photography, a genre established in the 1950s in New York. The case of Osvaldo Salas and his son, Roberto Salas, serves as a good example of how Castroist epic photography is constructed by means of the same advertising tricks and tics of the ’50s. And then, of course, there is Korda. Alberto Korda, trained in studio photography during the ’50s, was not only the creator of the famous image of Che Guevara that has become the most reproduced photograph of all time, but was also the sophisticated architect of the eroticized public image of the Caribbean Revolution.
Europeans were not to be left behind. Inspired by Jean Paul Sartre’s visit to Cuba, many photographers and archivists made pilgrimages to the island in search of the perfect image, the “decisive moment” of “the Cuban exception.” Two good examples are Chris Marker and Agnès Varda.
In 1961, the year before making his celebrated La Jetée, the filmmaker Chris Marker went to film in Cuba. The result was an emphatic documentary, Cuba sí, that can be regarded today as the first part of La Jetée, a futuristic fable told as a journey to the past, a story of another world, also threatened, held in thrall to a foundational experiment. Far from the director’s intention (aristocratic origins, Marxist ideology, almost a radical leftist), seen today, Cuba sí reveals the terrifying mark of a filmmaker who has captured, almost without realizing it, the keys to a mythological transformation proposed as a New Beginning, a dystopic rebirth.
For those of us who grew up in the Age of Disbelief, this documentary and its voice-over (La Jetée is also narrated in voice-over) represent scraps of an almost inconceivable memory, an eruption of images intermingling executions and bullfrogs, the poet Nicolás Guillén and a supposed “Athenian democracy”, children and five-cent cigars, military marches and street rumbas. This was Cuba, and it is likely that it will continue to be such for a long time to come. The air of frank primitivism revealed in various episodes of Marker’s documentary has to do with the spirit of a threatened world, but also with the idea of a natural primordial origin, a primitive world such as those we see in certain science fiction movies, that reappears here with tropical trappings (that vilage on stilts, that casual hiker, that celebration of eroticism, that sudden swamp).
The other great “Cuban footage” from the 1960s is Salut les cubains, a “film-hommage”, created from 1,800 photographs selected from more than 4,000 that Agnès Varda took during her trip to Cuba in 1962. With this film, she completes a cycle that runs from mythological images to “revolutionary filmic tourism,” a genre that would flourish during the following two decades and would end up reduced to a didactic vision of documentary photography.
In all of these supposed “visual testimonies” there is a strange mixture od realism, advertising photography (that had taken up the baton of Modernism), social commitment, souvenirs of a different culture (a photographic tradition of the nineteenth century)… The photographs that “documented” the Cuban Revolution were moving ever farther away from the “social fact” in order to insist upon the enchantments of aestheticism. By some sort of “miracle”, the island became the enormous laboratory of a visual myth that has been producing meaning over the course of five decades.
Ernesto Hernández Busto
Photo: Burt Glinn: Cuba. La Havana. 1959. Thousands of supporters flocked in front of the Presidential Palace in La Havana to welcome Castro and Urrutia.
*Fragment of an essay published in the 82 issue of Review. Literature and Arts of the Americas.