The Island That Dared: The Cuban Revolution, Which Took Place 50 Years Ago on New Year's Day, Inspired Some of the Most Memorable Images of the Late 20th Century

By Chanan, Michael | New Statesman (1996), December 22, 2008 | Go to article overview

The Island That Dared: The Cuban Revolution, Which Took Place 50 Years Ago on New Year's Day, Inspired Some of the Most Memorable Images of the Late 20th Century


Chanan, Michael, New Statesman (1996)


For such a small country, Cuba is big on iconic images. Some of the most famous photographs from the second half of the 20th century record the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, which took place 50 years ago on 1 January. The momentous events, which inspired enormous devotion around the world and great fear in Washington, are marked by an exhibition by the photographic co-operative Magnum Photos, "Cuba: 50 Years of Revolution".

The exhibition includes some of the best-loved photos of the Cuban revolutionaries, such as Rene Burri's 1963 shot of Che Guevara in his office smoking a cigar, which has been widely reproduced, with and without permission. What makes an image such as this iconic? It is too easy to say--although there is a certain truth in it--that the truly memorable images of Cuba belong to the heroic period of the revolution, which did not outlive the demise of Guevara. I am inclined to follow the analysis by Robert Ha-riman and John Louis Lucaites in their recent book, No Caption Needed, in which they argue that the iconic photo, with a few exceptions, is a dramatic enactment of a politically emotive scenario. Like the raising of the US flag at Iwo Jima, it is an image with more than documentary value that exemplifies ideology at work, and enters and remains in circulation because it activates collective memory.

This goes a long way to explaining why Burri's photograph of Guevara--like that other photo, by the Cuban photographer Alberto Korda, in which, as Richard Gott has felicitously described it, Guevara gazes "fiercely into some distant horizon"--became one of the iconic images of the times. Neither photo fixes a specific historical moment, but rather they evoke a whole ethos; and they affect the viewer according to the ideological sentiments the photograph suggests. (These may be deeply buried--nowadays many of those who wear Che Guevara T-shirts hardly know who he was.)

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The problem for the curators of the Magnum exhibition is that the handful of truly great images inevitably overshadows all the rest. There is a lovely photo from 1954 by Eve Arnold--the earliest in the exhibition--of a fisherman with his wife and child, which was included in the "Family of Man" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1955. It appears here beside two other Arnold photos--a pair of dancers at the Tropicana nightclub and a "bar girl in a brothel" (which looks like a still from a Latin American melodrama of the period, except that the girl here is of mixed race, a mulata). This image does not attain the classic status of the Burri, as it is abstracted both from history and place: the fisherman's family does not speak specifically of Cuba, but could just as easily have been taken in Mexico or Colombia.

Other images draw upon figures and objects which have come to represent Cuba in the collective imagination of the outside world. David Alan Harvey's terrific 1998 picture captures a folkloric ballet troupe rehearsing in a courtyard, and Christopher Anderson's 2003 street scene features a classic 1950s motor car, of the kind that adorns the cover of many a tourist guidebook. Both are highly characteristic Cuban scenes, but while Harvey's dancers are suspended in dynamic poise, Anderson's automobile, captured on a cheap Holga camera, ineluctably fixes an object whose iconic significance is in fact quite changeable. These cars have shifted their symbolic meaning: back in the 1950s they signified Cuba's modernity; then, as the United States turned its back and the island fell under Soviet tutelage, they came to signify its arrested development. Nowadays they have become trophies of postmodernist retro, sought after by foreign tourists prepared to pay hard dollars for them.

One or two of the images in the exhibition are almost anti-iconic. Take Burt Glinn's photo of Fidel Castro riding into Havana a few days after the victory of the guerrillas. …

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