PAINTERSTarleton Blackwell Cynthia Knapp Kevin Taylor
PHOTOGRAPHERSJulia Cart William Christenberry Eliot Dudik William Eggleston Walker Evans Gary Geboy Alberto Korda Jack Leigh Kendall Messick Kathleen Robbins Arthur Rothstein Anne Rowland Roberto + Osvaldo Salas Richard Sexton Jerry Siegel Ben Gately Williams Ernest Withers
SCULPTORSBill Long Rod Moorhead
By Rebekah Jacob
Armed with their camera bags, a small group of revolutionaries had photographic firepower, documenting Cuba’s most dramatic period. These photojournalists—Alberta Korda, Raúl Corralles, Osvaldo Salas and, his son, Roberto Salas—were Fidel Castro’s chosen ones, who not only photographed social changes, but who themselves inspired change. In positions of trust, they were beside Castro and Che in the most ignited times, and with a click, created one second exposures that became iconic references to Cuba’s identity.
The shift in political tides exploded around 2 A.M. on New Year’s Day 1959, when U.S.-government-and-mob-supported dictator Fluencies Batista fled by plane from Havana to the Dominican Republic. Outfitted in a green uniform, burly beard and cigar–Castro, like a Roman Emperor, victoriously led his convoy 600 miles across the island into Havana. Millions of supporters roared, “Viva la Cuba!”
Firmly in power, Castro quickly and aggressively took control of the official press and broadcast airways as well as organized Cuba’s press photographers. Promoting himself and his revolution, he understood the significance of swaying public opinion at home and abroad through propagandistic images, many of which would fill the pages of the government newspaper Revolucion. In effect, photography became a “socially significant art—existing for the good of the state.”
Socialism was everywhere, from the battlefield to the newsroom, both of which were heated and uncertain. The journalists were on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, answering the assignments of the clock watchers to cover military and social events. Castro insisted that favoritism not be shown as to who got the best assignment and that the number of stories be evenly distributed.
Like true socialists, these cohorts shared everything—beds, clothes, cigars, rum, and photographic supplies. In particular, film was in such shortage that the men often cut up leftover documentary 35 MM film thrown out by moviemakers and loaded it into their camera, not knowing if it were the correct speed or a reliable brand. The majority of the Revolution pictures were taken without flashes.
Although these native photographers were working within a canon of Communist-driven photojournalism, there was artistic freedom conceptually and technically. The press photographers created images that are inherently political and historically rich with a subtly, individual approach to composition, angle, and light. When the photographers are closely analyzed, one can see that each artist had a unique vision combined with skill and heart that drove each one to create original, dramatic images of the rapidly changing Cuba.
Of all photojournalists, perhaps Alberto Diaz Gutierrez, who took the name Korda because it sounded like Kodak, is unrivaled in producing a rich portfolio of Cuba’s history. In the 1950s, he participated in Cuban advertising and fashion before becoming Fidel’s personal photographer from 1959-1968. His concepts of artistic photography were applied to his journalistic photography in that candid moments were often the most glamorous. This is most evident in his famous portrait of Che entitled Guerrillero heroico (Heroic Guerilla) (1960). Che was attending a funeral rally when Korda spotted him near the tribune where Castro was speaking. With innate skill and shrewd attention to cameral angles and facial expressions, Korda clicked the camera to produce one of the most emblematic images of the Cuban Revolution. Guerrillero heroico (Heroic Guerilla) immortalized Che with a defiant expression and daring, optimistic glaze, and became a Cuban and international favorite.
But one cannot fairly associate Korda’s success or career with one image. Another brilliant photograph by Korda is El Juego de Golf (1960), which is as comical as it is serious. Using the poorest form, Che is crunched over the putter with feet unparallel and shoulders twisted, having taken a hopeful swing; Castro stands with feet apart, watching the ball as it creeps indirectly towards the hole. Castro invited Che to play a round of golf at the old Havana Country Club, a favorite course of Richard Nixon, after incredulously reading in the New York Times that President Eisenhower had spent an entire day playing golf and doing business. Leisure infused with work, in this case, ultimately determined that the land was being used by too few; and in the next few weeks, the world-class greens became the foundation for the University of Havana Art School.
Korda’s contemporary Raúl Corrales also became part of Castro’s hand-picked circle of photojournalists who became the official photographers to Fidel Castro in the critical period from 1959 to 1961. A child of Spanish immigrants who fled to find work in Cuba’s sugar cane fields, Corrales came from an impoverished background. While working as a bell boy at the Havana Hotel, he discovered big picture magazines and a plastic camera. He became a street photographer in the alleys and neighborhoods of Cuba, developing interest in the common man as well as a strong instinct and unique perspective in revealing the humanity of his subjects.
As a photojournalist, he made indelible contributions to modern photography, capturing guerillas in motion or camp, as well as focusing on the social reform acts that affected the farmers and sugar cane workers. One of his most moving images is Los Sombreros (1960), which, from a high angle, depicts a sea of straw hats and bayonets, belonging to a platoon of peasant soldiers, marching into Havana to secure the city for the Revolution. He seems to be glorifying the common man and reinforcing the message that strength is in unity. Another momentous picture is Caballeria Cuba (1960), the panoramic shot of a brigade of urgent cavalrymen and rippling Cuban flags, moving toward the camera at rampant speed. It is an emblematic image that has been muralized all over Cuba.
Osvaldo and Roberto Salas were a father-and-son team within the photographic nucleus of the news team. They were perhaps the most aggressive and prolific, shooting hundreds of thousands of Revolutionary images. The Salases were living in New York when they heard of Castro’s victory on the radio. Days later, Roberto, armed with his camera bag, boarded a Cuban government plane heading toward Havana along with other jubilant Cubans, armed with grenades and guns, and weapons. Osvaldo followed a week later at the personal invitation of Castro.
Osvaldo, the oldest of the group at age forty, contributed some of the most personal images of the Cuban Revolution. He worked to reveal the power and humanity of the leaders, both male and female. His unique style of portraiture made him different from any other photographer, for he liked to get in close, sometimes capturing just the head and neck. One of the most intimate and recognizable photos is Fidel Smokes (1961), which is a cropped image of Fidel casually gripping a cigar, a familiar prop. There is something there beyond the untamed, burly beard, dirty fingernails, and wrinkled fingers—an intense man having evolved from an ordinary lawyer, farmer to a mesmerizing, international hero (Figure 5). Later this image was reproduced in poster form in France, entitled Viva Castro.
Although Osvaldo’s portraits are less posed and more candid, they are always poignant and penetrating, giving us insight into a personality and a particular moment. The visual construction is tight and dark, reinforcing the intensity and seriousness of the person’s mind and position. Osvaldo took the image of Celia Sanchez (1968) in the office of the director of the newspaper Granma. Che’s image, also by Salas, curtains the wall behind her in a subtle and powerful way. Celia, with all her elegance and strength, was part of the female combat group called Mariana Grajales Platoon, named for a black combatant in Cuba’s first war for independence. She met Fidel in 1957 and joined the Revolution shortly after. Whether costumed in a green uniform and black boots or lace and high heels, there is no doubt she was the most powerful woman in Cuba, constantly in communication and contact with Fidel and Che. Castro, particularly, trusted her more than anyone. Celia never liked to have her picture taken, so the informal portrait of her is a prize within itself.
Osvaldo showed the military leaders in particular moments of military or social reform. The image La Plata (1959) tells this story: By August 1960, relations between Cuba and the United States were deteriorating quickly due to the enactment of the Agrarian Reform Law. Castro had confiscated nearly 100,000 acres of latifundios (big estates), many of which were formerly U.S. owned lands in Cuba. He was serious about using the land for sugar production, which he believed would be the major commodity for the island. He preached, if not commanded, that every Cuban should put in some time cutting sugarcane and even took the whole Council of Ministers to Camaguey to cut cane for a week. Taken at his mountain hideout in the Sierra Maestras, this image depicts Castro looking over one of the final drafts of the Agrarian Reform Law, which proved to be the greatest change in Cuba since the revolution.
As the son of Osvaldo, Roberto Salas was often referred to by Fidel and his photographic contemporaries as “Salitas” or Little Salas. At age eighteen, he was the youngest photographer and so impassioned with the Revolution that he once requested to be stationed as a guerilla soldier in the jungles. Castro denied the request, and so subsequently, he continued to work within the newsroom, developing a portfolio of powerful revolutionary figures in historical moments.
Like his father, Roberto had continuous access to powerful revolutionary figures and the innate skill to show these icons as real people. Roberto, however, established his own credibility and developed his own compelling style of journalism. Roberto’s Enero captures Che and Fidel, in the photographer’s words, “fixing the world.” It was January 15th, a week after Fidel had triumphantly come into Havana. Castro quickly took over the Presidential Palace and fortressed himself with hundreds of soldiers. Roberto was there sleeping on a table in the darkroom and became restless in the middle of the night. He walked into the big room to find Che and Fidel intensely conversing about military and social strategies. As Fidel was getting out a new cigar, Roberto crept up the table, braced his camera and made a one second exposure. It was the first picture of Che he ever took and one that would become evocative of Cuba’s most dramatic, modern period
Like disciples, these men were followers of a mesmerizing hero; and positions of trust, they experienced singular and exclusive moments in history. They had the opportunity to closely investigate and record a dramatic, ignited period in the life of a people, a country, and a revolution. Perhaps these native documentaries did not realize the magnitude of their work; but, ultimately, they created the most archival records of Castro’s rise to power. With cameras in hand and a sense of the moment, these photographs created one click at a time the unforgettable and iconic record of Cuba’s new identity.
2. Why did you choose to stay and photograph in the Texas area?
Texas is just one area represented in the project, but it’s primarily because the majority of my life has been spent there. The work is partly autobiographically-driven, so it’s only made sense to return to the places from my childhood
3. Do you intend to evoke a certain sense of nostalgia in your photographs?
4. If you could travel anywhere in the world to photograph, where would you go?
My dad lived in Nigeria for two years, and I visited with my brother in the late 80s as kids, so I’ve really wanted to return. Unfortunately, it would be so incredibly unsafe for me to do so, so that makes me wish I could go even more.
5. What is the last artwork you purchased?
I bought a print of Brian Schutmaat’s before we knew each other, through an online vendor that we both worked with.
6. Your series Nearly West showcases photographs that appear frozen in time; what can we learn about The South’s history from your work?
I think many of my photos serve to reinforce the mental images we conjure of these places based on what we’ve been told, because honestly, those places still exist in that state. I often feel like I’m traveling through photographs when I’m on these road trips. Get off the Interstates and it’s a whole other world.
7. Outside of photography, what do you love to do?
I’ve been a musician since I was 8 years old, but I’d say my primary interest outside of photography right now is working with video. You’re probably looking for a different kind of answer, but the creative lifestyle can be a bit all-consuming, so I find myself constantly thinking of potential projects.
8. What is your favorite building or landmark in Texas?
The Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park is a wonder. It’s worth the several additional hours to get there and back if you ever find yourself in Marfa. Absolutely stunning.
9. How does your Southern identity translate into your work?
I’ve always felt a little out of place in every city I’ve lived. I grew up in West Texas, out in the desert, but moved to deep Southeast Texas (which is practically Louisiana) when I was in second grade. I never felt like I was a real part of either of those places. When I moved to Atlanta for graduate school, I was informed that Texas wasn’t The South, and therefore, I wasn’t really a true Southerner. This was probably said in jest, but it stuck with me. I spent plenty of time in The South as a kid, attending family reunions in Mississippi and Alabama, so it was surprising to hear that I wasn’t one with that place either. I feel like I know and maybe understand The South, and yet I’m not really part of it.
10. Which under-appreciated artist, gallery, or work do you think people should know about?
This is difficult, but I feel like I should mention a few names, and they’ve achieved varying amounts of notoriety. My friend Brandon Thibodeaux is making luscious black and white work in the Mississippi Delta that should absolutely be seen. Matt Gamber is a Boston artist whose work I’ve admired more and more with each new body of work — they’re brilliantly conceived and gorgeously executed. One of my best friends is a painter named Eric Hancock who’s a true Southerner and one of the most brilliant minds I’ve ever known. His work should be getting attention, and his writing might even be better.
11. What was the first artwork you ever sold?
You know, this should be an easy question, but it’s strangely difficult to remember. I feel like I sold a print 10 years ago from a series of musician portraits I was working on in college, but I honestly don’t remember. I can clearly remember selling my first print from Nearly West to a curator at the Menil Collection named Toby Kamps who really helped me launch the series publicly. He included a large selection of the work in a group exhibition at the fabulous Houston Center for Photography, and things have gotten better ever since.
12. Is there a photograph that you have taken that you are particularly fond of?
Yes. Rainbow — a photograph of a liquor store closed on a Sunday morning in Atlanta — is tied with another for my favorite, I think… for now.
13. Do you draw inspiration from other artists or photographers?
All the time. I constantly see images that are clever or have a great light, and I want to straight up copy them. So I try to just lose track of them, and instead let them more subconsciously influence the way I shoot moving forward.
14. What is your thought process behind the scenes you choose to photograph?
I try to find places that shouldn’t exist anymore.
15. What sort of reaction or emotions do you want to draw from your audience?
I’m more interested in the things viewers bring to the photos. When they explain how a particular image reminded them of this experience or that, it’s a much better feeling than hoping they “get” what I was trying to show them.
16. What is your favorite restaurant to eat at in Austin?
Torcy’s Tacos. Hands down. I just told my wife the other day that it seems unfair we can’t know how to season beef and chicken the way they do.
17. Who is your favorite living artist?
William Eggleston is amazing. I kind of love that I can show new photography students his work and they don’t quite get it. I was that way about Avedon as a student and passed up an opportunity to meet him at a book signing after he gave a lecture in Austin. He died the next year, and only around that time did I
start to appreciate his work. Eggleston is that guy for many of my students — once they figure out why he’s so good, they’re enamored.
18. Where is your favorite place to see art?
I love visiting the New York museums, but it really depends on the shows that are up. I will tell you that my two most formative experiences as an artist happened at MoMA when Olafur Eliasson had a giant show there and at PS1, and when I saw Kerry Tribe’s film “H.M.” at a Whitney Biennial at the Whitney. I consume as much art as I can on each trip to New York.
19. What is the most indispensable item in your studio?
My iPhone. I can’t do anything without it. And it’s not like you think. Before the iPhone it was a Palm Pilot, or a notepad. I record everything around me, and take notes, and shoot, and record audio, all with this little device. And most importantly, I live by my calendar. I am useless without that structure, because I’m naturally disorganized.
20. What are your aspirations for future projects?
I have no goals. I just make and make for years until something coalesces. I try to make work I like.