Cuban photography of the later 19th century is an unexplored area of Cuban art, despite being one of the most active periods in the history of photography on the island. It is, in fact, the moment when this reproductive technology was introduced in Cuba.
Among the photographers of this era who have been largely overlooked is José Gómez de la Carrera, a pioneer in this medium who was for decades considered the best 19th-century Cuban photographer.
The Spanish-born Gómez de la Carrera arrived in Havana in 1885. He set up his studio at 23 O'Reilly Street, a major commercial artery in what is now the Habana Vieja district. There, he began his photographic production, which unfolded, more or less, in four phases: commercial advertising photography from 1885 to 1890; social photography from 1890 to 1895; war photojournalism from 1895 to 1902; and studio photography from 1902 to 1908. In this last phase, the photographer recorded a detailed vision of Cuban life of that time—its architectural and urban features, its social types, customs, and national identity. His images became historical artifacts of an era, which can be revisited and rebuilt from these visuals.
Photoengraving began in Cuba in 1881, prompted by the initiative of Portuguese artist Alfredo Pereira Taveira, who founded the first photoengraving workshop. This process allowed photographic images to illustrate the newspapers and magazines of the time, and encouraged the spread of these image across the country. Newspaper editors began including photographers on their staffs, whose work provided a greater sense of immediacy and reality than earlier procedures such as etching and drawing. Photographic works flooded the pages of newspapers, and photojournalism emerged in Cuba.
José Gómez de la Carrera was, above all, a man of the press. He worked for national newspapers such as La Caricatura (1888-1892), La Lucha (1892-1895), La Discusión (1898-1903), Cuba y America (1904-1906), La Ilustración Cubana and El Figaro (1893-1902). He also worked for international journals: La Ilustración Española y Americana, The Illustrated American and Harper’s Weekly.
The images from Gómez de la Carrera’s early career, produced for commercial advertisements, depict entertainment spaces of the upper classes: business, shopping, clubs, and ostentatious houses—a testament to the late 19th-century Cuban bourgeois lifestyle. The interiors of houses and other premises, and the elegance of the façades, reflected the status and economic power of this social strata, conforming to Spanish media policy, which was related to the interests of the colonial government and Cuban fundamentalist groups.
Between 1890 and 1895, Gómez de la Carrera´s social photography could not escape the Spanish censorship restrictions. However, the works of this period offer wider visual documentation, as they not only noted the lifestyles of the upper classes but also events of local or national significance, as well as images of farmers, former African slaves, and street vendors. Everyday Cubans were of the time were indelibly recorded on his photos, to become part of the nation’s history.
It was between 1895 and 1902 that Gómez de la Carrera made his most significant record of the Cuban social and political situation of the late 19th century. The relaunching of the wars of independence on February 24, 1895, not only advanced photography on the island but encouraged a growing movement of war reporters. Many photographers quit their studies to document the Cuba-Spain conflict. Among them, Gómez de la Carrera amassed the largest body of work related to the war and the period leading to the establishment of the Republic in 1902.
Over two hundred snapshots—a technique that he introduced in Cuba—made up his war diary. Portraits of military leaders, company formations and parades, brigades, camp scenes, battle sites, great events, and commemorations of independence heroes were some of the topics addressed by the photographer. In addition to the sheer volume of his work, Gómez de la Carrera—unlike other photojournalists of this era—could photograph both Spanish and Cuban combat forces. His U.S. citizenship allowed him to assume a "neutral" position, which was useful to record the war’s progress in detail, and the characteristics of both forces. Due to massive censorship of the Cuban press, Gómez´ shots of mambises [independence fighters] appeared in foreign magazines only; yet those of the Spanish army did appear in Cuban publications.
For many years Gómez de la Carrera was the official reporter for El Figaro magazine, one of the most important journals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. An important channel for the diffusion of Cuban photography during this time, particularly military and war photography, El Figaro presented the work of more than 40 photojournalists, who documented the war in different parts of the country—among them Ramón Carrera, Otero and Colominas, Luis Mestre, Rafael Blanco Santa Coloma (who covered the war in Havana), Manuel Jimenez (Holguin), Rafael Delmonte (Port au Prince) Juan Pérez Argemí (Santiago de Cuba), Miguel Reina (Bayamo), Pedro J. Pérez (Cárdenas), Eugenio Rio Pelle (Caibarién), Gregory Casañas (Sagua la Grande), C. Hernández and Luis V. López (Las Villas), José Trellez (Sancti Spirutis) and J. L. Quintana (Gibara).
However, the supremacy of Gómez de la Carrera´s war images is evident in every issue of the magazine. The photographer traveled to various parts of the country to report on the war and the progress of the Spanish army. His professionalism quickly made him respected and admired. Unlike his peers, his photographic work was far from the rigid photographic canons of the time. He easily handled documentary photography, instantly capturing everyday scenes and big historical events, and exclusively moved between both the Spanish and mambis forces. Undoubtedly, he was the leader of the war photojournalists’ movement.
But we owe him not only the visual record of common situations in the course of the war. He was able to document dramatic historical events: the cruel reconcentration of Cuban farmers conducted by Spanish General Valeriano Weyler in 1896-1897; the sinking of the USS Maine in the bay of Havana in 1898, the first US intervention in Cuba (1899), and Tomás Estrada Palma´s seizure of power in 1902 as the first president of the Republic.
José Gómez de la Carrera stands as the highest representative of Cuban war photojournalism and photography during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His career ended only with his death in 1908; his final working years (1902-1908) were devoted to studio work. The lens of this Spaniard—who was also Cuban, through his depiction of the Cuba of his time—left behind a large body of photographic work that insightfully grasped the sociohistorical details of an era and paved the way for the future of 20th-century photography in Cuba.