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Shooting Castro

Cuban Photogs Capture Island's Politics, People, and Culture

Gory's "The King"
Raul Corrales' "E. Hemingway, Cojimar, 1950"

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 4/17/2002

Raul Corrales: Emotions of History Gory: Photographs and Memories

C. Grimaldis Gallery through May 4

Just as Lenin knew it was a shrewd idea to have photographers and filmmakers around to document the post-1917 Communist regime in Russia, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro understood the propaganda value of having mass-media images of his revolutionary achievements in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Think of all those lionizing photos in which a military uniform-clad, cigar-clutching, impressively bearded Fidel makes a thundering speech to the proletarian masses. Love him or hate him, you can't deny the guy is photogenic.

Castro and his fellow revolutionaries have had considerable photographic exposure in recent years at Baltimore's C. Grimaldis Gallery. The late Alberto Korda, whose photographic closeup of Che Guevara graced thousands of college dorm-room posters, was the subject of one such show. Currently at Grimaldis, a photographer of Korda's generation, Raul Corrales, is exhibiting similar documentary work. He shares this exhibit with a younger photographer, Gory (the single name used professionally by Rogelio Lopez-Marin), whose subject matter is less overtly political.

If Corrales comes off as the more striking of the two, it's partly because his black-and-white shots are a documentary record of revolutionary history as it unfolded. Besides being of obvious historical interest, his photos also hold your attention because of the formal control he brought to what in other hands would have been no more than standard photojournalism.

Corrales, who still lives in Cuba, is working within a revolutionary artistic tradition dating back to the Russian Revolution. Look at his high-angle, tightly cropped shots of Cuban life circa 1960 and you'll be stylistically reminded of two avant-garde Russian artists in the early '20s: the photographer Aleksandr Rodchenko and the film director Sergei Eisenstein. Whether celebrating working-class heroes or Soviet architecture, they came up with topical shots that also functioned as radical exercises in visual geometry.

Who knows how directly Corrales would link himself with the Russian influence, but it's there just the same. Judging from the photos at Grimaldis, the Cuban government didn't seem to mind granting Corrales artistic license. Of course, Corrales was one of Castro's "official" photographers. He presents the strongman in a favorable light, if sometimes at a sharp angle.

Castro is in his element when standing behind his favorite object, a microphone, addressing thousands of people. In "Tres comandantes" (1959), Corrales' camera looks up toward the revolutionary leadership standing on a sign- and flag-festooned dais. In "1ra declaracion de La Habana" (1960), the camera is behind and above the dictator, sharing his point of view as he speaks to the immense crowd below him. But Corrales goes for more than man-at-the-microphone shots. There are photos of a rifle-toting Castro leading his forces through the forest-cloaked mountains; not surprisingly, he's always at the front of the group.

Also in the revolutionary spirit, Corrales glorifies the ordinary Cubans who marched behind their leader. The strength-in-unity theme is forcefully expressed by his most boldly formalistic photograph, "Sombreritos" (1960). In this high-angle shot of marching soldiers, their consistently spaced straw hats, dark uniforms, and shoulder-slung rifles make them seem like one large fighting machine made out of many parts.

Corrales doesn't always get up high for his effects. Many of his portraits are tightly cropped, focusing on parts instead of the whole body or face. In the pre-revolutionary "Wash and Wear"(1950), for instance, the focus is on the much-distressed shirt and pants worn by a person photographed from the rear. This and other shots featuring patched clothing seem to convey hard work rather than despair. (Of course, such distressed vintage wear would now command a fortune in a SoHo boutique.)

Besides his political and comrade-in-the-street photos, Corrales is represented by a series depicting one of his neighbors in the 1950s, Ernest Hemingway. The ultramacho writer has no trouble being the center of attention. For that matter, Gregorio Fuentes, the inspiration for Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, also is a grizzled presence in another photo (Fuentes died this past January at age 104).

The other photographer showing at Grimaldis, Gory, is Cuban-born and now lives in Miami. His interests are more pop-cultural than political. His shot of a photographic cutout of Marilyn Monroe propped up in a shop window in "I Saw Her Standing There" (1994) is typical of his work. Gory's black-and-white photos are subjected to color tones in the processing, with the end result conveying a gently nostalgic mood; the emphasis is on artistic stage-management, not documentary realism. Gory's photos are skillfully composed, if sometimes rather preciously contrived. In the context of the present show, not even Marilyn is a match for Fidel.

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