Earlier this week, Cuban Art News caught up with Brian Wallis, chief curator at ICP and co-curator (with Mark Sanders) of the exhibition. Here, Wallis explains the thinking behind the show, the revelation of Cuban work rarely shown in the U.S., and why Ernest Hemingway keeps turning up at ICP.
In the press materials for the exhibition, you talk about “the tremendous influence of photography in recording and encouraging the revolutionary movement in Cuba.” What is the exhibition’s perspective on this?
Our perspective is photography itself—how does photography function, how does it influence people socially, politically, culturally? The Cuban revolution, and the years just before and immediately after, were a period in which there was an intense concentration of photographers working in a variety of mediums. Our focus is on how that came about, how the photographs were used, and what some of the consequences were.
The engineers of the revolution were obviously very media-savvy, in terms of how news opportunities were constructed for photojournalists but also in terms of self-presentation. We’re looking at the way in which a particular aspect of the revolution was presented through the media internationally.
It was a youth movement, a people’s movement, and an intellectually driven movement. So the types of images that you see of the leaders are these heroic images of young, brash revolutionaries reading their theory books (laughs). That’s a very specific and in some ways unique description of a revolution, and I think it influenced subsequent youth movements and student rebellions throughout the world in the next decade.
How is the show organized?
It’s done in a pretty straightforward chronological manner, but there’s a high degree of interest in particular photographers’ perspectives on specific moments. So for example, the pre-revolutionary section is devoted exclusively to Constantino Arias. During the moment of victory, there’s an extensive series of works by Burt Glinn. In looking closely at an interview with Che Guevara, there’s an extensive set of portraits by René Burri. So it’s chronological, but it also has this concentration on individual photographers’ perspectives.
Is there a difference in the subjects that Cuban photographers chose to depict, as opposed to the foreign photographers? A difference in approach?
I think the way to look at that is not so much in terms of a stylistic distinction, but in how the pictures were designed to be used—the types of media and the purposes in the media that those were intended for. Most of the foreign photojournalists were working with news agencies, so there’s a greater emphasis on spot news and personalities. Whereas with the Cuban photographers, many of them were working for the government or with the government, so there is much more of a euphoric, propagandistic feeling to the pictures, including some restaged moments of the revolution where they’re trying to recreate pictures that don’t exist.
Would you say that in general, there’s a conceptual difference between the work of the Cuban photographers and the foreign photographers?
Again, I’m not sure that I would make a real distinction. But I would say, based on the materials that we’re showing, is that there’s a greater tendency among the Cuban photographers to create images that are more artistic, more suggestive, more allusive—less bound to representing the specific facts of a particular event. And again, I’d say that’s not a distinction of style so much as of purposes for which the pictures were created.
Which of the foreign photographers, if any, would you say had an influence on their Cuban colleagues? How does it show up in the work?
That’s a really good question, because I don’t know enough about how the works of the foreign photojournalists were circulated within Cuba. So I don’t know what of those foreign photographs the Cuban photographers saw. But again, based on the materials in this exhibition, I wouldn’t necessarily see any influence one way or the other. But the Cuban revolution was a major news event, a major historical event, and it attracted the leading photojournalists from around the world. That in itself is interesting, to see the perspective developed by these foreign photojournalists, who are coming in for just brief periods of time and trying to assess the situation through photography.
In addition to Burri and Burt Glinn, there were Elliot Erwitt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and a lot of the Magnum photographers. But also some lesser-known American photographers like Lee Lockwood and Andrew St. George. There were also prominent photographers from the Soviet Union and throughout Europe. It was a major international event with lots of press coverage. Too, the exhibition covers a 20-year period, from the late 1940s through the 1960s, so it’s not an isolated moment.
In your estimation, which of the photographers did really significant work in Cuba?
One of the great revelations for me was the work of Constantino Arias. I think in general, the work of the Cuban photographers will be the most surprising to people. José Figueroa, for example, and obviously Korda. There are probably a dozen Cuban photographers in the show, and they’re each interesting in their own way—and for the most part unknown in this country, or largely unknown. To be able to see a large number of great works by these people is exciting.
I would say that the work of the foreign photojournalists is better known. In many cases the works are quite iconic. You recognize them immediately, like the Burri photo of Che Guevara, or Burt Glinn’s photographs, or some of the others—those are key images in the show.
Are most of the images vintage photographs—prints made at or close to the time the negative was exposed? Where do they come from?
For the most part they are vintage, from a single collection. There’s a foundation in London called the International Art Heritage Foundation, which has assembled an archive of photos of Cuban revolution. It’s the brainchild of a gentleman named Arpad Busson, who has developed a special interest in Cuba. It’s a collection of about, I would say, 2,000 to 2,500 photos of Cuba, and it’s one of the principal holdings of the foundation. The exhibition has been drawn from that collection.
At ICP, Cuba in Revolution has been paired with a second show opening at the same time: The Mexican Suitcase, which presents the recently rediscovered work of three photographers who documented the Spanish Civil War. How did you come to pair these two shows?
To some degree the timing was coincidental. But I actually like the pairing a lot because it’s two different looks at the uses of photojournalism. It’s obviously two key historical moments, and how, in those moments, 30 years or so apart, photojournalists responded to particular international political crises or upheavals. There are some interesting, and sometimes funny, overlaps. Like the different approaches to photographing combat and war and the effect on civilians, and so forth. The number of Magnum photographers in each exhibition. And the surprising reappearance of Ernest Hemingway in both the Spanish Civil War and the Cuban revolution. It’s always interesting when you juxtapose dissimilar things, how similar they begin to look.
Any final thoughts?
I think what’s exciting about this show is the more in-depth look at some of the key Cuban photographers of this period. To my knowledge, they haven’t really been shown to this degree in the United States. It’s a great opportunity to see, first of all, the strength and the interest and intensity of the work that was created in Cuba at that time, but also to see these photographers alongside international photojournalists working at the same time, and the different perspectives and uses of those pictures.
Cuba in Revolution remains on view at the International Center of Photography through January 9.