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Monthly Archives: December 2013
We can all debate the pros and cons of the ongoing 54 year experiment with socialism that has existed since Fidel and Raul Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos, and Che Guevara led the Cuban Revolution that overthrew the regime of Fulgencio Batista in 1959: Most are aware of the very high literacy rate of the Cuban people who have all benefited from a high quality education. Health care in Cuba is considered to be a human right for all citizens, and therefore access to high quality care for all citizens has been a priority of the government, and despite economic handicaps, Cuba has scored well on major health indicators: In the World Health Organizations first assessment of world health systems in 2000: Colombia, Chile, Costa Rica and Cuba are rated highest among the Latin American nations – 22nd, 33rd, 36th and 39th in the world, with the U.S. ranked 37th out of 191 countries despite spending a far higher percent of GDP on health care.
Of the several benefits of the Cuban Revolution, what is far less well known, but does become readily apparent during a visit to Cuba and interaction with the genuinely warm and friendly people, is the tolerance of differences amongst and between people. Based on my experiences, the Cuban people do not “see color” the way that many in the U.S. see it and experience it. There is a mix of race, religion, and ethnicity that appears to be just accepted and part of the fabric of Cuban life and culture. I am told anecdotally that much of this tolerance is a result of how the school populations were constructed by Fidel Castro after the Revolution: each school would matriculate 1/3 from African or West Indian ancestry, 1/3 from European or White ancestry, and 1/3 from mixed or Mulatto ancestry.
From my relatively limited experience with religion in Cuba, it appears as if Catholicism and Santeria predominate, but there are active groups of Anglican (25,000), Baha’i (800 members), Buddhist (400), Jehovah’s Witness (95,000), Jewish (1500), Methodist (20,000), Later Day Saints/Mormon (500), Muslims (9000), Quakers (350), Russian Orthodox (800), and Seventh Day Adventists (30,000) amongst many other Protestant denominations (400,000). While in accordance with the traditional anti-religious doctrine of Marxist and Leninist ideology, the state initially adopted a policy of promoting atheism (and in the early days, the CDR or local Comités de Defensa de la Revolución told neighbors that it was not good for the children to attend church services), in July 1992, the constitution was amended to remove the definition of Cuba as being a state based on Marxism-Leninism, and article 42 was added, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of religious belief. Today, in 2013, the Cuban government respects the right of citizens to “profess and practice any religious belief within the framework of respect for the law.” During my time in Cuba, I observed Catholic Mass, Jewish Shabbat services, and Santeria (more on Santeria in a future blog post). From my observations, the Cuban government has both created an environment where people of all races, religions and creeds live in relative tolerance (despite sometimes difficult economic conditions, which in other countries have driven people apart and toward racism), and has relaxed or eased many of the restrictions on religion associated with the ideologies that guided the Cuban Revolution in its formative years.
As I enjoy my traditional Christmas dinner of Chinese food and Coca-Cola, I do wonder whether, somewhere on the beautiful island of Cuba, Fidel Castro is joining me with a Coke, a smile, and a plate of Kung Pao chicken out of respect and tolerance for all the people that live on this earth. For one of the very nice things about Cuba is the apparent high degree of racial, religious and ethnic tolerance!
Source: Photography Collection of Argentina Estevez, Revolutionary and Fiance of Camilo Cienfuegos.
Before the seminal depression-era work for Roy Stryker at the Resettlement Administration (RA) and then the Farm Security Administration (FSA), that ultimately led to the classic vernacular photographs of three sharecropper familes in Hale County, Alabama, included in James Agee’s epic documentary Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Walker Evans was commissioned by polemic journalist Carleton Beals and the editors at J.B. Lippincott to travel to Cuba to illustrate the atrocities of the Gerardo Machado regime for Beal’s soon-to-be-released book The Crime of Cuba. It was May, 1933, and back home in the United States, we were living through the absolute worst of the Great Depression as well as a politically charged atmosphere in which the controversy over Diego Rivera’s mural “Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future” was a subject of almost daily discussion in the press. Rivera was one of young Nelson Rockefeller’s favorite artists, and Rockefeller had commissioned him to paint a mural for the spectacular new office complex known as Rockefeller Center. Yet, when a figure of Lenin appeared in a central panel of the mural, holding the hands of both a black American and a Russian solider, it was ordered to be boarded up and taken down. But, not before Walker Evans had captured several panels with his 8×10 view camera:
Walker Evans had lost his close friend Hart Crane to a suicide on April 27, 1932: Crane had jumped off the oceanliner Orizaba on his way home from Mexico, where he was travelling under a Guggenheim Fellowship. Walker’s father, Walker Evans Jr., had died on May 1, 1933, no doubt deepening the doom and gloom surrounding the young artist. As reported in Belinda Rathbone’s controversial biography: “By 1933, at the age of twenty-nine, Evans had learned that the creative life was uncertain at best, at worst suicidal. He was also well acquainted by then with the difference between privilege and poverty. In the worst year of the Depression so far, survival was a matter of daily concern.” (Walker Evans, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1995, page 75).
So it was perhaps with this mindset that a 29 year old Evans arrived in Havana with two cameras in tow: a medium format 2 1/2 by 4 1/4 for hand-held shots (most likely the Kodak Tourist that his father had given him in 1927), and a 6 1/2 by 8 1/2 view camera replete with tripod for more deliberate, measured exposures (while probably a necessity of my geekish, OCD mind, I plan to do an upcoming post on the cameras used by Walker Evans even though Evans emphasized the importance of the eye over the equipment). Evans spent a little over a month in Cuba, including a one week extension as a guest of Ernest Hemingway who was introduced to Evans by newspaper contacts, enjoyed his companionship, and convinced him to stay on at Hemingway’s expense to enjoy margueritas at La Floridita and go fishing on a boat that Hemingway hired for excursions (the famous Pilar was not delivered to Hemingway from Wheeler Shipbuilding until April 1934). While I have always wondered why there are no pictures of Hemingway (who could have resisted taking just a few after spending at least a full week with the writer?!), perhaps Walker Evans was too shy or just wanted to protect the man’s privacy in an effort to build a more special relationship. But, amongst the 400 pictures that Evans took in Cuba, there are several of old movie theaters, including one with a poster reading Adios A Las Armas, a clear reference to Hemingway’s classic A Farewell to Arms, which was first published in 1929, then adapted to stage in 1930, and finally to film in 1932. Was this the young Walker Evans clever way to appropriately remember his special time with Hemingway?
According to the wonderful biography of Walker Evans written by James Mellow (Basic Books, New York, 1999), Beals had already spent six weeks in Cuba in September-October, 1932, and provided a draft manuscript to his editors at J.B. Lippincott. Evans apparently arrived in Cuba in mid-May, without the advantage of having read Beal’s book, and proceeded to take over 400 images of Havana and the countryside, of which 31 are included in a sequence prepared and submitted by Evans to the editors of The Crime of Cuba. These 31 photos which appear at the end of The Crime of Cuba include some newspaper photos that Evans is purported to have “borrowed” to show the horrific atrocities and exigencies of the Machado regime that he was unable to capture with his camera.
I encourage readers to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with identification of those images from those provided below which are from newspaper and police department files. I also encourage all readers to tell me why there are exactly 31 photographs by Evans at the end of The Crime of Cuba as well as why there are exactly 31 photographs at the beginning of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men?! Correct or at least plausible answers will win either a copy of Havana 1933 or Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Thank you!
Beals text has a clear axe to grind: the atrocities of the Gerardo Machado regime supported by the imperialist American government and business enterprises which all conspire to oppress the Cuban people. Evans’ photographs, on the other hand, appear to portray the people, places and things of Cuba in the “straight, documentary photography” style to which Evans was already known by an observant few (Evans had his first major exhibit before his trip to Cuba at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in February, 1932. In this exhibit Evans’ “New York Atget” photographs were displayed opposite and contrasted with the exquisite, stylized studio photographs of George Platt Lynes) and would soon be known by generations of photographers and Americans after the epic documentary Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was published in 1941.
While it is hard to find copies of Carleton Beals’ The Crime of Cuba , two additional books that focus on Walker Evans time in Cuba are available and well worth reading: (1) Walker Evans, Havana 1933 (Pantheon Books, New York, 1989), with Essay by Gilles Mora and Sequence by John T. Hill; and (2) Walker Evans Cuba (Getty Publications, Los Angeles, 2001), with Essay by Andrei Codrescu and Introduction by Judith Keller of the J. Paul Getty Museum. The Getty has collected most of the over 400 photographs that Evans made in Cuba; and Jeff Rosenheim, Curator at the MET, has written extensively on Evans and assembled a wonderful archive of Walker Evans photographs, negatives, and other materials.
With thanks to the J.B. Lippincott Company for including the 31 aquatone illustrations at the end of The Crime of Cuba and photo credit to the Walker Evans Archive at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (with the exception of the negatives and prints in the collection of the Library of Congress which are in the public domain, all works by Walker Evans in all media, are © The Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art), I have provided scans of the sequence of photographs that Evans submitted to the editors at Lippincott to hopefully educate readers on the approach taken by Evans:
Source: The Crime of Cuba, J.B. Lippincott, Philadelphia, PA, 1933.
All works by Walker Evans in all media (with the exception of the black & white negatives in the collection of the Library of Congress) are Copyright © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
It is the fervent hope of this blogger that by sharing these wonderful photographs and providing appropriate credit, that I am not violating any copyrights and realizing a goal of educating readers and fellow photographers.
“I wanted so much to write that I couldn’t write a word.”–Walker Evans
I think we are all lucky that Evans “couldn’t write a word” and focused on straight, vernacular photography, as I think that most will agree that for a few years there in Cuba and then in Hale County, Alabama, he produced some of the best, “straight” photographs that the world experienced until Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Sam Abell arrived on the scene.
Throughout the storied history of Cuba over the past 600 years, there have been many famous and even infamous characters to emerge that are worthy of exposure and further study (from Christopher Columbus to Jose Marti to Ernest Hemingway to Fidel and Raul Castro). But, in modern times, there is arguably no one person more recognizable or famous than Castro co-revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Perhaps there is just something about a handsome, bearded physician who goes out of his way to help the man in the street. Or, perhaps it is the value of an iconic image that resonates with the masses, since as they say, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” But, whatever the reason, one cannot argue with the assertion that the image of Che Guevara taken by Cuban photographer Alberto Korda in 1960, is globally the most recognizable photographic image of the 20th Century. The images seems to just appear whenever there is a cause, a revolution, or a Bob Marley concert. Shot from a low vantage point with a clear background that gives the subject great impact and even heroic qualities, the image arguably is now a symbol for revolution, opposition to the establishment, and even freedom.
This image known as Guerrillero Heroico (Spanish for “the heroic revolutionary”), was taken on March 5, 1960, during a march to the memorial service for victims of the explosion of La Coubre, a French freighter that was carrying 76 tons of Belgian munitions to be used to support the Cuban Revolution. While no one has explained why La Coubre was allowed to unload such dangerous cargo directly onto the docks in Havana against existing harbor regulations, many believe that the explosion was the work of a man named William Alexander Morgan, operating under the direction of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency or CIA. Even though Morgan fought side-by-side with Castro in the Revolution and led the forces (he started the famous Segundo Frente Nacional de Escambray–the SFNE) that along with Che ultimately captured the city of Santa Clara on December 31, 1958 (which led to Dictator Fulgencio Batista’s rapid departure from Cuba within 12 hours of the fall of Santa Clara), and even though Morgan was one of only three foreign nationals to have been awarded the title Comandante (Argentinian Doctor Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Spaniard Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo were the other two foreigners who, along with Morgan, were bestowed this very high honor and recognition of leadership), the Cuban Revolutionary government executed Morgan by firing squad on March 11, 1961, for his potential role in the sabotage of La Coubre on March 4, 1960, as well as his potential involvement in leading young, student counter-revolutionaries in the Escambray mountains who were in favor of a parliamentary, democratic regime over the socialism and Pro-Soviet approach that Castro began to favor.
The memorial service for the 81+ killed in the explosion was to be held in the famous Cuban cemetery, Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón (subject of a future blog post), located in the vibrant Vedado neighborhood of Havana. On March 5, 1960, less than 24 hours after the explosion, a memorial funeral march began in Old Havana at the the seawall boulevard known as the Malecon (subject of a future blog post), and continued to 23rd Street where Fidel Castro issued a eulogy for those who died in the explosion and continued with a fiery speech in support of the Revolution, in which he first publicly uttered the words, Patria o Muerte (Spanish for “Country or Death”). According to the book, Cuba by Korda, during Fidel’s fiery speech, at about 11:20am on the morning of March 5th, Che Guevara stepped forward to survey the reaction of the crowd. While only in sight for a few minutes, Korda, who was working for the newspaper Revolucion, captured a set of frames, with one that will be remembered by millions forever:
While it may disappoint the “purist” photographers who believe that a photographic image must be visualized and then captured “in full frame” in the camera, similar to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s iconic 1932 image Derriere La Gare Saint-Lazare, and Martin Munkacsi’s iconic 1932 image Boys at Lake Tanganyika, Korda’s iconic 1960 image Guerrillero Heroico is a cropped and slightly rotated version of the original full-frame image. It may also delight amateur photographers to note that the editor-in-chief of the newspaper Revolucion chose to run an image of Fidel Castro instead of the later-to-be-global-icon image of Che (and also recall that Fortune magazine turned down Agee and Evan’s epic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and Arnold Newman’s iconic image of Igor Stravinsky at the grand piano was also initially rejected for publication).
In the book Cuba by Korda, Korda remarks: “At the foot of the podium draped in black crepe, my eye pressed to my old Leica, I was focusing on Fidel and the people around him. Suddenly, through the 90mm lens, Che loomed above me. I was surprised by his look…. By reflex, I snapped twice–one horizontal shot and one vertical. I didnt have enough time to take a third photo, as he stepped back discreetly into the second row. Back in my studio, I developed the film and made a few prints for Revolucion. Because there was a head showing over his shoulder in the vertical shot, I cropped the horizontal photo. The editor-in-chief chose to publish a photo of Fidel on the front page instead, but I liked the Che portrait so much I later made a bigger print, 11 by 14 inches, and hung it in my studio…” So, in just seconds, and from a cropped image, emerged one of the most iconic photographicimages of all time!
Of the three “famous Cubans” discussed in this blog post, only one was born in Cuba: Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez, later to be better known as just Korda, was born in Havana on September 14, 1928. The other two were born outside of Cuba: Ernesto R. Guevara de la Serna in his native Rosario, Argentina on June 14, 1928, and William Alexander Morgan in his native Cleveland, Ohio on April 19, 1928. Ironically, only Morgan died on Cuban soil, as Che was was put to death on October 9, 1967, while supporting revolution in Bolivia, by Bolivian soldiers that were trained, equipped and guided by U.S. Green Beret and CIA operatives; and Korda died in Paris of natural causes on May 25, 2001. Yet, the final resting place for all three men is in Cuba. Alberto Korda and Alexander Morgan were both buried in the Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón. On a recent visit to this truly exceptional cemetery named for Christoper Columbus, I was able to find the simple but quite beautiful marble grave marker for Alberto Korda. I was unable to find a similar marker for William Alexander Morgan, but am told that he was burried there after the firing squad ended his life and controversial roles both for and, apparently against, the Revolution in Cuba. Perhaps the grave marker is no where to be found due to Fidel Castro’s agreement with the requests made on a visit to Cuba in April, 2002, by U.S. House Representatives Charlie Rangel and Marcy Kaptur to return Morgan’s remains to the U.S.
The remains of Che Guevara were found in Bolivia in 1997, exhumed, and returned to Cuba. They are now housed in the Che Guevara Mausoleum in the city of Santa Clara, the very same Santa Clara that Morgan and Che liberated on December 31, 1958, that led to the depature of Fulgencio Batista from Cuba within 12 hours of the fall of Santa Clara.
Walker Evans, the documentary photographer of the vernacular, probably best known for the compelling images he created of the Great Depression era for Roy Stryker at the Farm Security Administration, was commissioned to photograph the harsh conditions under the Machado regime for Carleton Beal’s book The Crime of Cuba. This work completed in Cuba in 1933 was Evan’s first “commercial” assignment, and arguably his first full body of photographs–so it warrants attention and study of the artist Evans as a young man. Evans created most of the images and “borrowed” a few from the files of the newspaper and police department in Havana. He sequenced the images, and they appear in order at the end of The Crime of Cuba. This work will be the subject of a couple of posts next week.
Evans worked for Roy Stryker at the FSA from 1932 to 1937, when he was released by Stryker for Evan’s desire for editorial independence as well as an apparent lack of productivity –which he more than made up for in terms of the incredible quality and emotion of the images that he created.
In 1936, Fortune magazine dispatched photographer Walker Evans and author James Agee to Hale County, Alabama, to document, both in words and images, the lives and hardtimes of the tenant farmers who worked in the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression. While Fortune ultimately rejected the story for publication, it was later published as a book in 1941. This book “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” has gone on to become a classic, studied for its innovative journalism and compelling photographic images.
Many of the photographs taken by Walker Evans are included in the Archives of the Farm Security Administraiton (FSA) in the United States Library of Congress. The vernacular style….. the dignity of the people…..
Due to the good fortune of meeting some of Walker Evans’ friends (John T. Hill, Jerry Thompson, Alan Trachtenberg) in recent years, I have tried to learn something about the life and times of Walker Evans. It was this desire to learn about Walker Evans that initially led to my first visit to Cuba. And, I now have started a longer term project to “walk in the footsteps” of Walker Evans in Cuba. I plan to host a People to People Cultural Exchange in November, 2014, entitled “Havana 2014: Walking in the Footsteps of Walker Evans, 80 Years Later.” The overarching goal is to revisualize, reinterpret, and rephotograph the people, places, and things that attracted Walker Evans’ hungry eye during his visit to Cuba in 1933–to see what has changed, as well as what has stayed the same–and ultimately reset a new baseline for the changes that are likely to come to Cuba over the next 20 years. And, if God is willing, we will go back to Cuba in 2023 and 2033 to record this change.
While I aint no Walker Evans, and never will be; I was consciously thinking about Walker Evans as I walked around the countryside of Vinales, Cuba. I wondered how Walker Evans would approach these wonderfully dignified people, and how he would photograph them. While it has never been easy for me to walk up to people and ask them if I can photograph them, I think it was the inspiration of Evans that allowed me to do it in Vinales. My Spanish is quite poor, almost non-existent. But, with a smile, and a few words (“Tu fotografia, por favor…..Ah, los ojos, bonita…..Guapo…..Gracias Senior….Gracias Seniora….Gracias Seniorita…..Adios…..), I took these photographs of the warm, friendly, dignified, and hard-working people of Vinales. Borrowing from Walker Evans, I tried to let these wonderful people pose themselves, and did my best to wait for them to look me (and now you) right in the eye.
Photo Credit for all Walker Evans Photographs on Left of Page: Walker Evans Archives, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and Farm Security Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture.