The New York Times
November 11, 2010
By KEN JOHNSON
Too bad Fidel Castro cannot come to New York to see “Cuba in Revolution,” an intensely absorbing exhibition at the International Center of Photography. It would warm his heart and make him pine for the glory days of the late 1950s and early ’60s, when his tiny, swashbuckling band of soldier intellectuals overthrew the corrupt government of Fulgencio Batista and prevailed over the forces of corporate capitalism and organized crime. The improbable, undeniably stirring tale of the rise and triumph of the Fidelistas is told by 180 pictures made by 30 photojournalists, including native Cubans like Raúl Corrales and Alberto Korda and international stars like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Burt Glinn.
Organized by Brian Wallis, the center’s chief curator, and Mark Sanders, a guest curator, the exhibition pictures the revolution in black and white, figuratively — Batista bad, revolution good — as well as literally.
Batista was so bad that the initially supportive Eisenhower administration disowned him, and he ultimately fled Cuba with $300 million. His Havana was a sinkhole of moral turpitude.
Corporations like ITT and Standard Oil and criminal luminaries like Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano made Batista their puppet. Tourists came to gambol and gamble at Las Vegas-style casinos. Prostitution and drug trafficking were rife. Meanwhile, most of Cuba’s rural population remained dirt poor, and dissidents were treated with extreme prejudice.
Mr. Castro and his merry men were correspondingly good. They were popular, heroic liberators and, not just incidentally, wonderfully photogenic in their proto-hippie guerilla regalia. From their hide-outs in the mountains to their triumphal processions into Havana and other cities, the revolutionaries come across like stars in a Hollywood epic. Victory over C.I.A.-backed Cuban exiles in the Bay of Pigs invasion only enhanced the revolution’s image, and the turn to the Soviets leading to the Cuban missile crisis is sympathetically understood in light of the United States’ clear determination to restore capitalist order, if not democracy, to Cuba. Going by this exhibition, it seems the worst thing the new leadership did was to ban the Beatles.
These almost metaphysically polarized conditions and the events they incited made Cuba an irresistible magnet for photographers, whose pictures appeared in newspapers and magazines around the globe.
In this context almost every image is loaded with moral and political resonance. There’s the Ugly American tourist in a Batista-era photograph by Constantino Arias: a fleshy, middle-aged guy comically posing in a droopy bathing suit and sombrero, wielding a liquor bottle in each hand. In contrast, you have a beautiful, sad, poor little girl clutching a crude wooden doll in a 1959 photograph by Korda, who would go on to become Mr. Castro’s personal photographer. That child could be the beleaguered soul of the soon-to-be uplifted people.
The curators point out in a wall text that many images of the victorious rebels were but thinly veiled propaganda. Among the most stirring, unabashedly hagiographic images is “La Caballería” (“The Cavalry”) by Corrales, who would become an official photographer for the Castro regime. Mounted on horses and brandishing Cuban flags whipped by the wind, a band of victorious revolutionaries approaches on a dirt road in a composition that could have been painted by a 19th-century academician. It might be Cuba’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware” or “Liberty Leading the People.”
When it comes to political symbolism, the champ is the photograph of a movie-star-handsome Che Guevara in his beret that Korda called “Heroic Guerilla.” Several versions of the image are in this show. And a whole room is devoted to Freddy Alborta’s 1967 photographs of the assassinated Guevara’s corpse, images that seem inspired by Mantegna’s 15th-century painting “The Lamentation Over the Dead Christ.”
A number of decidedly more lighthearted pictures show Nikita S. Khrushchev entertaining Mr. Castro in the Soviet Union in 1963 and ’64. In one, Mr. Castro kneels to snap a group portrait of Khrushchev and eight members of his family arranged against a strangely barren landscape. In another, the two strongmen, dressed in heavy overcoats and fur hats, converse in a snowy forest. Inadvertently, these images of ruthlessly dictatorial rulers of supposedly egalitarian systems hanging out together bring to mind the once-revolutionary ruling-class pigs at the end of “Animal Farm.”
What does all this mean? Why does the exhibition present such a positive image of the revolution? It was, after all, a violent overthrow. Were there no more troubling images to be found of life under Mr. Castro’s iron-fisted leadership than those of young people playing forbidden rock music, as in a 1966 picture by José Figueroa?
From 1965 to 1967 Mr. Figueroa made a series of group portraits of his middle-class family, which was progressively reduced in number as, one by one, its members emigrated to the United States. A wall text observes that the series “captures an inherent contradiction at the heart of the Cuban Revolution, whereby its ideals both forged a nation and divided a people.” Today, the text notes, more than 1.2 million people of direct Cuban descent live in the United States. You don’t have to be anti-Castro to wonder at the paucity of pictures representing the other side of the story.
Be that as it may, this show is as gripping as photojournalist exhibitions get, and it will be especially so for any American who came of age during those strange and frightening decades of the cold war.
“Cuba in Revolution” runs through Jan. 9 at the International Center of Photography, 1133 Avenue of the Americas, at 43rd Street; (212) 857-0000, icp.org.