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Viva la Fotografia!

Art Shines Through Cubans' Political Photography

Icon-ography: Alberto Korda’s famous image of Che Guevara, part of C. Grimaldis Gallery’s exhibit of Cuban photograph

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 2/16/2000


Alberto Korda, Jose Figueroa

C. Grimaldis Gallery through Feb. 26

Photography buffs of the world, unite. Regardless of your political sentiments, you'll want to catch this exhibit: Cuban photographers Alberto Korda and Jose Figueroa, who have both served as official photographers for Cuban leader Fidel Castro, are showing at the C. Grimaldis Gallery.

Not surprisingly, Korda's portraits of Castro and Figueroa's Havana street scenes portray the Cuban revolution in a most favorable light. You're free to praise this as progressive art or condemn it as Commie propaganda. You're also free to consider the work in more formal terms. Korda's shots of Castro and his people are often more artfully composed than most documentary photos, and Korda's street scenes often deftly place the human subjects within the built environment.

If one must rank these comrades, Korda is the more notable of the two. He knows how to really nail an image, and he also has a professional biography that prompts intriguing comparisons between a major shift in his subject matter and correspondingly large shifts in Cuban politics.

Back in the pre-revolutionary 1950s, Korda was a fashion photographer who, as he related during a recent slide lecture at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, was inspired by the American photographer Richard Avedon. Korda similarly arranged his beautiful models in sparely elegant, sometimes tightly cropped compositions. In a fashion shot from 1958, "Famosa Bailarina," the close-up of a woman's head and shoulders is so tight that all we see of her dress is a bit of black strap. This is fashion photography that can almost dispense with the fashion itself. Glamour, rather than apparel, is being sold here.

So what happened when fancy dresses gave way to military uniforms after the revolution? Having himself embraced revolutionary ideals, Korda went right on shooting—with a camera, not a rifle. While his photography from the 1960s onward more often has a rural or city street setting rather than studio conditions, he was clearly able to apply his fashion sensibility to the new regime.

Korda's most famous photograph, a 1960 portrait of Che Guevara titled "Guerrillero Heroico," is also one of the best-known photographs of the 20th century. Striking a suitably heroic stance, Guevara looks like a secular saint. His beret appears as the military equivalent of clerical headgear, and his curly hair protrudes from under it as if awaiting disciples who'd doubtless treat a few strands of hair as a sacred relic. Most prominently, Guevara's glistening eyes seem to be gazing beyond the camera eye and, indeed, beyond our modern realm toward some ardently pursued ideological goal. It's easy to see why this portrait decorated so many guerrilla tents and college dorm rooms in the 1960s and '70s.

Castro also receives larger-than-life treatment. In "Fidel en la Sierra Maestra" (1962), Korda accompanied him as he returned to the mountains where the revolution started several years earlier. Shown in side profile in the foreground, Castro's prominent nose and beard seem sculpted. In the background are the mountains where his military campaign began. From this perspective, Castro is larger than the mountains.

Another highly effective portrait, "Fidel en una Casa Campesina" (1962), presents the seated leader quietly writing by lamplight. It's a quiet late-night scene whose message might well be that Castro keeps working even at an hour when most of us have put our labors aside.

One of the most memorable of the monumentalizing portraits is also the most literally monumental in nature. "Fidel en Washington" (1959) depicts the Cuban leader looking up at the large statue of Abraham Lincoln enshrined within the Lincoln Memorial. This photo serves as a reminder that Castro admired Lincoln and presumably didn't mind being dwarfed by the American president. It also frankly reminds us that Castro initially sought to have a political relationship with the United States, was rebuffed, and then turned to the Soviet Union for help.

Besides these serious poses, Korda took a number of shots in which the charismatic, media-savvy Castro is shown being a regular guy: Castro plays golf with Guevara, goes hunting in the snowy Russian woods with Nikita Khrushchev.

Among Korda's shots of Castro's subjects, the most powerful is "El Quijote de la Farola" (1959), in which an enterprising Everyman sort of man has climbed atop a street lamp in order to get a better view of the massive crowd around him. It's a shot that perfectly captures the sense of celebrating the collective spirit, as epitomized by a single ordinary person.

A younger photographer, Figueroa is represented by a series of street shots titled Notes on Havana. Figueroa's work—which mostly depicts everyday gatherings and activities in the picturesque, if faded, city—is generally less explicitly political. However, the mere fact that this Cuban photographer is presenting the vibrant daily life there can be seen as an implicitly political response to the harsh depiction of Cuban society conveyed by much of the American media.

Figueroa's well-composed shots include "Calle Reina, La Habana" (1972), which depicts a man in a white suit holding an umbrella over his head as he walks down a narrow street. This is an old man walking through a proud old city, and he's as much a part of it as the pavement and walls around him.

Shots of Cubans sitting on and around national monuments also register. The statuary and inscriptions are a formal commemoration of past events, including the battleship Maine, while the flesh-and-blood Cubans are very much of the present day.

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