Why is Cuba Beautiful? Review by Sean Sheehan
Cuba in Revolution, texts by Richard Gott, Peter Kornbluh, Mark Sanders (Hatje Cantz) Cuba, Andrew Moore (Damiani)
There should be a place in everyone’s home for a copy of Cuba in Revolution with its 433 photographs that capture the convulsive course of the Cuban revolution. The iconic pictures of Che Guevara taken by Alberto Korda is here of course; taken in 1960 at a mass funeral in Havana, the two elegiac images of the insurgent are also shown in one of the contact sheets of shots that Korda was taking at the funeral when, for a few moments, Che Guevara came into the viewfinder of Korda’s Leica M2 camera and 90mm lens. There was only time for two shots, a vertical and a horizontal one, and the book reproduces the uncropped horizontal one. At the time, neither of the two photographs possessed the significance that the vertical one, cropped, would later acquire. It was only years later, after the execution of Che Guevara by the Bolivian military, that the image became familiar, all too familiar. This is how ‘texts’ (books, art, photographs…) are constituted: not through some immediacy, an essence of the thing-in-itself that reveals its self-identity once and for all; but, on the contrary, through a process of redoubling that enshrines a multitude of readings. The efficacy of a text is not to be located in the presence of some originary core meaning, waiting there to be grasped, but in the external reflections that come after the event. And so a man who formally attired himself — zipping up his jacket, framing his long hair either side of his black, star-affixed beret — to pay respects to the crew and 75 dockers who died when a ship, carrying arms and ammunition to meet an imminent US invasion, blew up in Havana harbour, becomes a poster boy, a mythical icon of revolutionary purity, an authentic inspiration, an advertising ploy for Smirnoff vodka, a tool for selling T-shirts. Ten other photographs in this book, by Rene Burri, balance Korda’s two by snapping Che in the course of an interview in 1963, revealing aspects of his persona that do not so heavily lend themselves to the psychoanalytic concept après- coup (the present retrospectively overdetermining the past).
Cuba in Revolution is not a book for hero worshippers but a study of the photography of the Cuban revolution in the 1950s and ‘60s. There is a scholarly essay by Mark Sanders on this subject, followed by two historical accounts by Richard Gott and Peter Kornbluh, before the book unfolds its treasury of photographs. They are divided historically, starting with pre-revolution Cuba, and work their way through the momentous decade that followed. As the pages are turned, it quickly becomes obvious that a number of the photographs could have achieved and deserved the status that Korda’s one achieved. And not just shots of the leaders but also those of ordinary Cubans who rose to the challenge and trauma of transforming their country from a corrupt satellite state for American capital into a socialist society that the US government sought repeatedly to undermine and destroy.
The enmity of the US brought disinvestment as the island was embargoed and cut off from the West, only surviving with the assistance of the USSR. While elsewhere modernity surged forward aspects of Cuban life, from its cars to its architecture, were held in a time capsule that only now is beginning to be opened. This is fertile ground for the truffle hounds of nostalgia, Hegel’s ‘beautiful souls’, who look in foreign places for semblances of poetic beauty that they feel is denied them in their own worlds. Cuba, an oversize book of photographs by Andrew Moore, occupies this bittersweet space. His large-format camera renders landscapes and interiors on a scale that in the past was the province of painters working on large canvases. There is no denying the sensuous appeal of his photographs, especially the mournful ones, but there is also something disingenuous about them. We see a barber snipping a customer’s hair amidst the fading elegance of a once-grand room from the colonial era — chandelier hanging from the rafters, paint peeling off the walls, a classically designed arch – and the viewer is invited to savour the aesthetic disjunction between the past and the present. Photographs of semi-ruined and decaying buildings share the pages with bright colours and the alluring effects of light and shade. It is all very beautiful but dishonest too because of what is left unsaid, unphotographed.
Cuba in Revolution is available here.