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In Spanish

Photodocumentalism in Cuba 1970-1984:
The Wheel of Fortune

by: Msc. Grethell Morell Otero

Summary

The intense international focus on the 'epic' image of the Cuban Revolution has overshadowed the documentary vision to be found in Cuban photography at home. This article brings to light for the first time the historical, artistic and temporal coordinates of the island's photodocumentaries from the period 1970-1984. On the basis of archival research, the author discusses the most outstanding photographers and series, and the means of dissemination (exhibitions, publications, events), as well as the thematic and conceptual paradigms of image production.

Ivan Cañas, The working class, 1969
Ivan Cañas, The working class, 1969,
From the series El Cubano se Ofrece, 1969-1982

Statements

The Cuban 70s, photographically speaking, ended in 1984, with the 3rd Latin American Photography Colloquium. Held in Havana, this event featured main speakers such as Lesbia Vent Dumois, then director of Casa de Las Américas' Visual Arts section; Mario García Joya (Mayito), vice president of the Visual Arts section of the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba; María Eugenia Haya (Marucha), historian, researcher and promoter of Cuban photography; and Mexican photographer Pedro Mayer and Anibal Angulo, then president of the Mexican Photography Council. The year 1984 also saw the 1st Havana Biennale which showed 130 photographs from 14 countries. Cuba was the second-best
Ivan Cañas, The working class, 1969,
From the series El Cubano se Ofrece, 1969-1982represented country (after Mexico), with Rogelio López Marín (Gory)'s work taking the Tina Modotti Prize. At this time, it seems the positivism of reality - at least the one acknowledged historically - turned on its own parameters of creation, reception and establishment.

The social profile of the Cuban documentary image of the 70s (including the first four years of the 80s, with the permission of the 'decade rule' so much in use in Cuban Art History), published or not, can similarly be characterized as one of representation and respect for technical classicism. Thus, a kind historical view would be used to define congruent thematic lines or particular references. What is certain, to reiterate observations made by other critics, researchers, and witnesses to the period, is that the photographic style of those years owes a debt to the finest graphic or journalistic tradition of the previous decade, and that the protagonism of the subject - 'epic' or popular - is sustained within a pressing and taxing vision of reality. This is what the bold Cuban critic and curator Juan Antonio Molina understands as "realist art" (Molina, 1996: 272) or what his learned compatriot predecessor colleague and historian José Antonio Navarette describes as "analogies between that current and Soviet-style social realism, which finds its argument above all in government-imposed themes and content" (Navarrete, in Molina, op.cit: 272-273).

Ivan Cañas, Untitled from the series Steel Cubans, 1978
Ivan Cañas, Untitled from the series Steel Cubans, 1978

Documentary art of that period, whether in the press, a photo-essay, or series with the same ideological leanings, did not leave many openings beyond the dominance of significant icons for plural messages and cross-readings in the veracity of what was portrayed. I am referring to a nitid camera approach to reality - both close and distant - strongly imbued with the documentary as such, over and above any aesthetic or conceptual explorations of photography and the photographic. Manipulation, in its more contemporary form, was excluded and not valued in most Cuban photographic language and the vision of the 70s. That would come after 1984 (1).

Doubts

The precarious interest in experimentation with motifs, orthodox language and formal technical solutions and the concentration on a typified photographic object have been accepted as the guiding principles for images in those years. Everything pointed to a compact unitary and uniform discourse to a prudent anecdotal image, defended by formulaic photographers, as it were, academic photographers without academies (2). Artifices of a fitting visual reality, reproduced over and over (often under the cloak of anonymity, thinking of work for the press) agglutinated a vast social and political iconography. Moreover, just as post-revolutionary Cuban documentary photography cannot be confined to the work of three (or more) greats, for example, those initiators of the 60s and constants in posterity and history - Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez (Korda), Raúl Corrales and Osvaldo Salas - or to the 'easy' classification of the 'epic' image, so neither is it permissible to contain the 70s photographic image in the traditionalism of frame, content and quest for a 'commonplace' reality. Salaried photojournalists, 'independent' documentary photographers, free-lance photojournalists, and documentary photographers flirting with an 'artistic' status more in tune with what was happening internationally: all seemed to make and 'defend' something tangential and harmoniously distinct.

Ivan Cañas, Guarnición Mambisa (The Bodyguard), From the Series El Cubano se Ofrece, 1969-1982

Ivan Cañas, Guarnición Mambisa (The Bodyguard), From the Series El Cubano se Ofrece, 1969-1982

Despite ostensibly falling within a generalized thematic norm and a particular photographic imprint, the work of magazine photographers was not like that of documentary photographers, who produced more heterodox, personalized series or essays. The images they published, mostly in the self-styled 'magazine for Cuban press photographers' (Fototécnica, published by the Cuban Union of Journalists (UPEC), 1968-1987, with a gap in 1979), are not on the same level, either conceptually or in their definition of objectives, as series published in the pages of Cuba magazine (successor of INRA magazine, founded by Fidel Castro in 1959), or work left in personal files, laboratories or domestic spaces, or that of the late 70s fighting to attain a level of artistry parallel to the spectrum of work being produced abroad at the time. The photographic essay as such would seem to be more interesting in that period than the huge avalanche of separate images or those reproduced in monthly publications and one-off catalogues (3). I am thinking basically of isolated works disseminated throughout the period, more than in groups of photos characteristic of a decade, or of a period of art and history vertically dissected. I am thinking of attractive essays - perhaps less felicitous in how they were handled publicly and editorially - such as "La imagen constante" (Constant Image), by Ramón Martínez Grandal (1973-1977); "Con sudor del millonario" (Millionaire Sweat), by Rigoberto Romero and Leovigildo González (1974-1975, (prepared as a book that never saw the light of day); "El patio de mi casa" (The Patio of my House) (1977), also by Romero; or "El cubano se ofrece" (Cubans), by Iván Cañas (which came out in book form in October 1986, although the preparation of the initial images dates back to 1968-1969, with design by Raúl Martínez, its editing was scheduled in 1980, and it is recorded in Ediciones Unión as of 1982).

Tito Alvarez, The Butcher, From the series Peoples from my Neighborhood, 1980-1982
Tito Alvarez, The Butcher, From the series Peoples from my Neighborhood, 1980-1982

I have taken on the 70s Cuban documentary image without placing photography in the historical segmentation of the decade, since the reception, thematic fixations, reach and determinism of the primordial functions of images were not the same during and after the early so-called five-year "grey period."

In the second half of the 70s, photography gained in impetus and depth with the founding of the Ministry of Culture (1976) and a Photographic Department; academic interest in researching the history of Cuban photography (4); the 1st Latin America Photography Colloquium (1978); and what writer Jaime Sarusky called the "international boom" in Cuban photography from 1976. And yet, according to Marucha, only three officially approved photographic essays were published in 70s catalogues: "A la plaza con Fidel (To the Plaza with Fidel), by Mayito; "La microbrigada" (The microbrigade), by Ernesto Fernández; and "A pesar de" (In Spite Of), by Liborio Noval.

Juan José Vidal Hernández, Untitled, From the series Men from Matahambre Copper Mining, 1982.
IJuan José Vidal Hernández, Untitled,
From the series Men from Matahambre Copper Mining, 1982.

At the same time, a 'different' image was also distinctly palpable in the techniques of some. Photographers not restricted to UPEC, "26th of July" National Salons, Graphic Propaganda Salons organized by the Department of Revolutionary Orientation, the photographic section of the "13th of March" Competition and journalistic publications (5) could enjoy certain stylistic experimentation. Through magazines and the scoops of contemporary foreign photographers such as Robert Frank and William Klein, there began in our milieu a "disrespect" (to paraphrase a friend) for traditional techniques. This was something that had been building up since the 1960s and the creative teaching of several generations by maestro Raúl Martínez.

Salons organized by the Department of Revolutionary Orientation, the photographic section of the "13th of March" Competition and journalistic publications (5) could enjoy certain stylistic experimentation. Through magazines and the scoops of contemporary foreign photographers such as Robert Frank and William Klein, there began in our milieu a "disrespect" (to paraphrase a friend) for traditional techniques. This was something that had been building up since the 1960s and the creative teaching of several generations by maestro Raúl Martínez.

When I referred earlier to key thematic lines or areas of attention in national photodocumentalism, I was specifically thinking of approaches to photographic motifs and objects. Cubans of, by and for the people, and everyday life in a non-urbane Havana or other parts of the island, countryside and town (like Caibarién or Trinidad) proliferated in the images of virtually all photographers, although with disparities in detail and scope of purpose.

When the photographic object is a subject, on the one hand this demands a naturalness and altruism in establishing a social, epochal or historical "truth", a  credibility and ennoblement of the person portrayed - as in the work of Roberto Salas (Salitas), Rogelio Moré, Ernesto Fernández, Enrique de la Uz, Félix Arencibia, Iván Cañas, Luis M. Fernández (Pirole) or Juan José Vidal. On the other hand, the register of the figurative models is based more on the author's personal vision or interpretation, with a less dense - or more blurred - apologetic sense, and captured from an always-open area of current reality (Mayito, José Alberto Figueroa, Grandal, Marucha, Rigoberto Romero, Ernesto Fernández, Mayra A. Martínez, Leovigildo González, Iván Cañas or Tito Alvarez).

Juan José Vidal Hernández, Untitled, From the series Men from Matahambre Copper Mining, 1982José Vidal Hernández, Untitled, From the series Men from Matahambre Copper Mining, 1982

Another exploitation of motifs found fertile ground in a kind of à-la-carte photo-reportage: on the military image, little published and focused on one country, Angola, (Figueroa, Ernesto Fernández, Ramón Pacheco); in magazines, by staff photographers, celebratory and published (on Latin America and, to a lesser degree, Angola, and other politico-commemorative topics by official photoreporters like Rogelio Moré, Constantino Armestos (Cala), Argel Gómez, Mario Ferrer, Perfecto Romero or José and Jorge Oller Oller); and the vision of solidarity, this being established even as a competitive category in the "26th of July" Salons.

However, the theme of the sugar harvest continued to be a recurrent motif, with similarities to but also differences from the 60s, as the cane cutter figure and the feat of unflagging labor to meet high targets represented the encounter of intersecting visions - an obligatory stopping point for visualizing the moment, official firm terrain for reclaiming visual urgency. The sugar harvest, those involved in it and its implications became the doctrine and impulse for the consolidation of a valuable documentary image. Without dwelling on the aim of this type of photography, its scope and its debt to the most classic technical-aesthetic language of the genre is undeniable. (Think of the series "No hay otro modo de hacer la zafra" (No Other Way to Make the Harvest), by Iván Cañas, Enrique de la Uz and Luc Chessex, opening the decade from the pages of Cuba; "Con sudor de millonario" (Millionaire Sweat), by Rigoberto and Leovigildo González; or the work of Mayito.

Mario García Joya (Mayito) and Maria Eugenia Haya Jiménez (Marucha). Untitled from the series La Peña de Sirique, 1970
Mario García Joya (Mayito) and Maria Eugenia Haya Jiménez (Marucha).
Untitled from the series La Peña de Sirique, 1970

For salaried photoreporters and freelance documentary photographers alike, confronting this motif implied creative engagement, and yet the vast register of the photographic object in this committed visually realist field, the functions of this documentary trend remained limited, rather than elucidated.

Figures and symbols formed another noble arena for Cuban photographers of the period. While always present in the most extensive and exhaustive Cuban documentary photography over various periods, in the years 1970-1984 the figures of political leaders, heroes, patriotic symbols (in the work of Grandal, Mayito, Iván Cañas) and Christian religious symbols (Rodríguez Ante, Gory) (6) are markedly found in varying nuances and forms. They range from a bold, literal conception, inherited from the previous decade, to the popularization or everyday irradiation of insignia. This is something both persistent and oscillating in the history of Cuban photography of the last 30 years.

From recording leaders there was a move to photographic representations, projections of immense political and historical figures immersed in an everyday setting graphically mythicized. Posters, drawings, graffiti, literal socialized symbolism, presented through the lens of a photographer who has learned to capture beyond the impact of the subject. This (re)nascent relation to reality served to confirm the extrovert need latent in the creative spirit of the moment, aspiring to surmount temporal barriers to achieve poetic dialogue.

Rigoberto Romero Carmona and Leovigildo Manuel González Pérez,
Rigoberto Romero Carmona and Leovigildo Manuel González Pérez,
Untitled, from the series about the sugarcane harvest, With Sweat of Millionaire Men, 1974

Certainties

So I would look on those years of history without prejudice, as a wheel of fortune. It was documentalism in the construction of the Cuban photographic image on the part of a segment of society on whom it befell to mark the 'big prizes': the transcendence of a number of names and an eloquent dose of images. Only the roulette wheel seemed to stop repeatedly in the same slot.

To speak of privileges - or the privileged - in Cuban documentary photography of the 70s is to fall on the slippery ground of exclusionary definitions and 'easy' extemporary interpretations, and channel responsibility to extra-artistic terrain. I prefer to speak of the existence of a multiple, schismatic body of work, of familiar known names (as opposed to names not known to all), and real spaces for a considerable volume of photographic production of the time. I think what that Cuban documentary work set out to do, despite its rough edges, is not to be relegated to obscurity. The breadth of focus and scope of purpose - beyond the inciting propensity to epic - were not trapped in a spider's web. The photographic object, visual language and reach are not so forgotten or indivisible.

I'm not one for extremes. I think that a good part of the work 'moved' within the pastures of 'official' knowledge (but not that alone). The images, in their wide register of social, political, cultural, economic, urban… human reality, lie dispersed between the pages of Cuba and Fototécnica, between committed documentalism and formal photojournalism, between the often anonymous press photos and contact prints and negatives relegated to studios or homes. The images and spaces (magazines, salons and to a lesser degree galleries, though restrictive and co-religious) existed, as did the theoretical approximation to the "poetic" of the genre. So why talk of a sole selection criterion in aspiring to the catwalk?

Methodological wild cards and historical stamping and classification always survive, whether of art or a country's social and political history. The fact is that a large percentage of the photography that was published and praised fulfilled a social responsibility, defined by worthy educational or dogmatizing ends - what Cristina Vives (2001: 56) calls the "populist, demagogic intention of reality, fulfilling a pragmatic and representational role". But the work transgressed the principle of simplicity.

To what does the biased attribution that has been given to the Image of the photographic image of those years correspond? To an edified awareness, to the spirit of the period modeled, to cultural determinism, or to the touch of flights of chance?

Ramón Martínez Grandal, (Grandal) Untitled, from the series The Constant Image, 1973-1977

Ramón Martínez Grandal, (Grandal) Untitled, from the series The Constant Image, 1973-1977

 

Notes

(1) It was not a common heritage prior to 1984 to value photographic creation under the precept of manipulation (of the photographic object or of the image itself). There were those who did so, more as a principle of personal search, than as the result of an experimental spirit of the period and context. Examples are series like "En el camino" (On the Way), by Grandal (1982) or "Jodidos pero contentos" (Done In but Happy), by Adalberto Roque (1981).

(2) It should be noted, in spite of not having had Photography Academies or Centres for Advanced Photography Studies for a long time, that in Cuba we have always debated learning, technical evaluation and photographic language. We were (or are) a photographic country, of good, magnanimous images, with photographers learning from their predecessors, before the enlarger, many times in improvised studios, accompanied by cups of coffee or rum and, above all, in the heat of daily work.

(3) The term 'essay' has been used in post-revolutionary Cuban photography criticism since 1959, although initially it only included the development of a photographic theme or object in a group of related images. This is something that tends to be confused with 'series'. Historian, critic and essayist Cristina Vives uses it to refer to works presented in the Salón 70 and then the 1st Latin America Photography Colloquium in 1978. Likewise historian and photographer Marucha talks of essays published since 1959 in the Revolucíon newspaper, and critic Adelaida de Juan lays emphasis on the use of the term after the inauguration of the Casa de las Américas Photographic Essay Prize (first known as the Contemporary Photography of Latin America and the Caribbean Prize, 1981). Lesbia Vent Dumois, an institution in the Cuban visual arts, states that prior to the Casa Essay Prize, Cuban photographers had not consciously incorporated the concept, although there are works identified with that principle dating back to the 60s. Then the term used was 'series' or 'report'. To extend the use and application of the term, see Cristina Vives (2001) and Maria Eugenia Haya (1980). Lesbia Vent Dumois' opinions are also always to be recommended.

(4) Marucha and Mayito, after 1973, when they decided to complete their degrees in Philology, a specialty within Cuban Studies, with a thesis on Cuban photography.

(5) Fototécnica, Verde Olivo and Bohemia magazines and Granma, Juventud Rebelde, Trabajadores and Girón newspapers, the last from Matanzas.

(6) The religious symbols presented in the work of certain photographers in the second half of the 70s and the early 80s are fundamentally addressed to iconographic representations of a Catholic-Christian nature, where human figures are displaced by the enthroned sculptural object. Incipient incursions into images from the African heritage are limited and do not appear until the 80s. I am thinking of the "Los paleros" series by Abelardo Rodríguez Ante, ready for exhibition from 1984.


References

Haya, Maria Eugenia (1980) "On Cuban Photography", in Revolución y Cultura, No.93, 1980, pp 41-60.

Molina, Juan Antonio (1996) "History of the Destined Gesture", in Cuba 20th Century Catalogues, Modernity and Syncretism, Ed. Centro Atlántico Arte Moderno, Fundación La Caixa, Centre'Art Santa Mónica, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria / Barcelona, April-December 1996, pp 272.

Sarusky, Jaime (1992) "García Joya: Alchemies of a Photographer and Filmmaker", in Revolución y Cultura, No 2, 1992, pp 22-29.

Vives, Cristina (2001) "Cuban photography, a personal… history", in Arte Cubano, No.3, 2001, pp 49-59.

Copyright for this work is held by Grethell Morell Otero under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-No Derivative 3.0 Licence.

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