Recently we’ve been noticing a renewed interest in photography from the “heroic” era of Cuban photojournalism, spanning the early years of the Revolution through the 1970s. Sparked in part by social, cultural, and economic transitions currently underway on the island, recent exhibitions—like Korda: Revolutionary Photographer at the Museum of Latin American Art and ¡Cuba, Cuba! 65 Years of Photography, presented by the International Center of Photography at the Southampton Arts Center—offer the opportunity to re-evaluate those images, and the iconography they constructed, from a fresh perspective.
At the Galería Villa Manuela in Havana, Enrique de la Uz: Millonarios documents, from the perspective of its workers, an event of great significance in the history of the Revolution but little known outside the island: the Zafra de 10 Millones, the unsuccessful campaign to harvest 10 million tons of sugar during the 1970 season.
Here, a brief essay by curator Claudia Taboada, which explores the significance of these photographs in light of contemporary changes on the island, and a selection of images from Millonarios.
The Retinal Persistence of an Epic
The myth of persistence of vision was intended to explain the phenomenon of seeing a sequence of images as an uninterrupted flow, as opposed to a succession of independent frames and still images. Supposedly a trace of the prior image remained on the retina, allowing it to merge with the one that followed, creating the perception of motion. The Spanish theorist José Luis Brea metaphorically equated this visual duration of the cinematic image with memory, capable of continuing, repairing, and stitching together what is technically presented as a still image, a record, a trace. For Brea, each microrrecuerdo, or micro-memory, impregnated on the retina claimed as much importance as the image that followed, to be superseded and recovered later.
Although Brea did not apply this concept to photography—since it is not a moving image—there do exist sequences of shots that are almost cinematographic, and that contradict this supposition. The physical separateness of the photographs, the sense of their being cobbled together in a sequence, becomes immaterial, and they are understood in a manner that goes beyond cuts and cadences.
The Cuban photographer, cineaste, and critic Enrique de la Uz (Havana, 1944) has justly conceived a large part of his photographic work as a succession of images in which each shot leaves its trace on the next, from the immanence of visual movement or from the situations that the scenes suggest and the figures they depict. As a result, it’s almost impossible to overlook the influence of documentary film in works that, far from being a mere archival record, present a restless and perspicacious look at the memory of sociopolitical image-making in the early years of the Revolution.
The political, economic, and social changes that elevated the previously disfavored masses were accompanied by propaganda intended to both narrate and magnify the epic of a people dignified by collective labor and the force of socialist ideology. The historiography associated with the photography of the 1960s and 1970s acknowledges the candid shot as an effective photographic medium and as a means of communication suitable for the campaign of propaganda; it was dubbed by historian and photographer María Eugenia Haya [Marucha] as fotografía épica, epic photography. Although this term included photo essays documenting the principal leaders, popular demonstrations, and events like the October Missile Crisis and the Harvest of the 10 Million, among others, many broke with the norm.
This was the case with Enrique de la Uz, who approached the life of the sugar mills and began to record, in their extensive labors, the different attitudes of the macheteros, stevedores, and rough laborers. Enrique brought a certain lyricism to the brutal roughness of the work. From the mass of faceless workers he singled out distinct individuals, imbuing them with the gentility of ennobled labor and subjectively framing the proportions between the machinery and the hand that activated it, subverting the discourse that apparently encouraged a simpler language.
His shots owe much to the reflections on Cuban culture and identity advocated by the historian Manuel Moreno Fraginals, expressed in his socioeconomic studies of the sugar mills and plantations, and the importation of black slaves in the 16th through 19th centuries, the period in which our national identity was formed. Fraginals analyzed the output of sugar production and related it to the condition or status of Afro-Cuban blacks (enslaved or freely hired). His findings underscored the sugar industry’s intense dependence on the slave trade to achieve higher productivity. Those four centuries saw violent processes of deculturalization, gradually accompanied by those of mestizaje and creolization. The link between Afro-Cuban workers and the machinery of sugar production, technological modernization, and the pro-slavery landowners’ solutions with respect to the length of the work day and its optimization resulted in factors, both negative and positive, that contributed to the creation of our distinctive national character. In this sense, Fraginals suggested: “Cultural identity is a historical result, achieved by the common evolution of common socioeconomic complexes.”
Thus the idea of survival spread, along with the phrase “here the problem is not to die”—as Fraginals asserted—in the face of excessive hours of productive labor without rest, reducing life to the mere act of subsistence.
If we despise those drastic elements of the slave trade, the fact remains that the balance of this legacy later served the Revolution and its call for the enormous Zafra de los 10 Millones, the sugarcane harvest of 10 million tons. It’s clear that that philosophy of survival was backed by the strong conviction of ideology. In contradistinction to what Fraginals revealed about the cartillas [identity cards] of the 19th century—with Afro-Cuban laborers being prevented from working in silence because they can think, and required to sing while they worked—in the Revolutionary era this obligation was reversed to a requirement of “unspoken and silent heroism.” While the slave in the colonial era lost his signification as a human being, the worker of the last century took center stage at a moment of great impact, decisive for the country’s economy, in a challenge that included the commitment to maintain whatever gains had been won. The sugar mill of Fraginals was symbolically converted into one of the most decisive vehicles for the formation of our identity as Cubans.
On this occasion, we return to Enrique de la Uz’s black-and-white images from the 1970s, presented in recent, large-format prints but with the poetic nostalgia of a history that speaks to new circumstances. Sugarcane, a distinctly national product, was the country’s principal export in those years when Cuba sustained ties to the USSR. Now these microrrecuerdos return, obliging us to update our collective memory. There’s nothing dusty here: these photographs, pristine and unpolluted, have returned, relevant to a context that renews them, tests their strengths, and measures their opportunities. But these still images, like bits of film left on the cutting-room floor, preserve more than the “old” moment of the revolutionary sugarcane plantation: they speak of a history constructed from the sweat of those men and their hard-won gains, as they yearned for progress.