A Doctor Documents Cuba

By Birbragher, Francine; Siltala, Aleksi | Americas (English Edition), March 1999 | Go to article overview
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A Doctor Documents Cuba

Birbragher, Francine, Siltala, Aleksi, Americas (English Edition)

A physician with a keen eye, Roberto Machado captured sharp images of island life from the 1930s to the 1950s

People referred to him as "that crazy man with the camera." He was an accomplished amateur photographer and cinematographer who dedicated his leisure time to pursue his hobby which, in his case, could be better described as an obsession.

His name was Roberto Machado Ortega. Born in Havana in 1905, he studied at the University of Havana and practiced medicine for twenty-six years. In 1938, he took some time off from his medical duties and traveled to the Cuban countryside, taking photographs and movies. The result of those trips was a film about Cuba, which was exhibited at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Machado also made movies about the cigar-manufacturing and brewing industries. In 1946 he received an award from the American Cinematography League for Kaleidoscope, a short musical film.

But for all his moviemaking skills Machado's passion was always photography, and over the years he developed an extensive collection of photographs of Cuban landscapes and street scenes, capturing the beauty and character of the country and its people.

"His work is especially important," says Robert Levine, professor of history at the University of Miami, "because as an amateur the photographer set his own agenda; he did not have to produce images that reflected the wishes of those who hired him. Most surviving photographs of Latin America in the 1930s-50s were taken by professionals, and therefore--although technically competent--were more likely to select and compose images that illustrated `official' viewpoints."

Machado wanted and succeeded to document Cuba. His pictures of rural and urban places, his dignifying portraits of people at work and leisure, as well as his photojournalistic sports images constitute a valuable historical source. Varied in subject matter and extremely rich in detail, they provide a wealth of information about life on the island over three decades.

His photographs of the Vinales Valley in Pinar del Rio, for example, depict Cuba as a natural paradise. Today, Machado's son Roberto, Jr., recalls these trips into the countryside when he was in his teens. "He had a large-format camera," he says of his father, "and once he set up, he'd take the same shot over and over as the light would change. It would take a long time, but I enjoyed it. These were outings for the entire family."

In another rural series, ox carts filled with sugarcane wait to be unloaded at the mill. Contrary to other portrayals of a similar site by U.S. photographer Walker Evans, Machado's images show the mill during the harvest season. Placing his camera below eye level, Machado alters the perspective to show not only the cane carts as symbols of abundance and wealth but also the sugar industry as underdeveloped, its work heavy and tedious.

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