Pictures at a revolution

Though sanctions mean they have no colour film, Cuban photographers' images of their people and country are far from monochrome
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The Independent Online

If you have been alive and conscious and using your eyes for more than a couple of decades now, it is a dead cert you will know the image well. It's the face of a young man, as flagrantly handsome as any American movie star but with a kind of stern, battle-tempered strength that even Gary Cooper lacked, staring off to the left and slightly upwards towards an unseen horizon. He has the wild flowing locks and sketchy beard of a traditional representation of Christ, and the light that gleams in his right eye rhymes neatly with the five-pointed star set in the middle of his black beret. The badge works like an inverted visual footnote - it glosses the precise political content of that idealistic twinkle.

If you have been alive and conscious and using your eyes for more than a couple of decades now, it is a dead cert you will know the image well. It's the face of a young man, as flagrantly handsome as any American movie star but with a kind of stern, battle-tempered strength that even Gary Cooper lacked, staring off to the left and slightly upwards towards an unseen horizon. He has the wild flowing locks and sketchy beard of a traditional representation of Christ, and the light that gleams in his right eye rhymes neatly with the five-pointed star set in the middle of his black beret. The badge works like an inverted visual footnote - it glosses the precise political content of that idealistic twinkle.

For all we know, the young man was thinking about what he was going to have for lunch that day, or how uncomfortable his underpants felt, but what the image speaks of with such seductive forcefulness is vision, masculine resolve, physical courage and - for those of us who can remember how this man met his death - incipient martyrdom.

You know the man's name as well as you know his face. He is, of course, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, Argentine hero of the Cuban Revolution, the least tainted of all Socialist leaders. (The late Sir Kingsley Amis despised him so much that, according to one of his letters, he almost had an involuntary bowel movement when he saw that The Listener had voted Guevara "Man of the Decade".)

Unless you have looked into these matters quite deeply, though, you may not know the name of the man who captured that picture - one of the defining photographs of the last century, one of the very few that actually deserves to be awarded the otherwise tawdry adjective "iconic".

It's pleasant, then, to be able to give credit to the photographer who pressed the shutter on his Leica at 11.20am on 5 March 1960, training his telephoto lens onto the face of Che as he stepped forward onto a podium at a state funeral (Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were there, too) and into the world's reservoir of deathless images.

That photographer was the Cuban Alberto Korda, who last week celebrated both his 72nd birthday and a landmark courtroom verdict that established, once and for all, his privilege as copyright-holder to regulate the use and forbid the exploitation (as, recently, by a well-known vodka company) of that very photograph.

Korda was in London last week for the opening of Cuba, Si!, a large and handsome exhibition of Cuban photography of the last 50 years, arranged by the Akehurst Bureau and now on display at the National Theatre. Korda's immortal "Che" image is present and correct, as is the original horizontal composition from which it was cropped, but - and this is perhaps the highest compliment one can pay the show - it somehow doesn't upstage the rest of the work.

Indeed, it doesn't even dilute the fascination of Korda's other images in the show, which are far more varied in content and often a good deal lighter in tone than might have been expected: Fidel Castro, cap respectfully doffed, peering up at the vast white statue of Abraham Lincoln in Washington (scope for a full-length critical essay, there); another solo portrait, of a beautiful young militia woman with a rifle staring away to her left, in a pose so happily symmetrical with the Che icon that you could set them side by side as a revolutionary diptych; and - a wonderfully rich character study - Sartre perched nervously on a couch, interviewing Guevara. Che, though cradling a delicate coffee cup and saucer in his hand, looms ominously over Jean-Paul, whose feet are curled in on themselves as if he's a naughty schoolboy being dressed down by his headmaster (scope for a short story, there).

Not that Korda seems to have viewed Sartre satirically on all occasions: his other portrait of the French philosopher tactfully uses the reflection in his spectacles to soften the effect of Sartre's trademark boss eyes. The fellow looks almost presentable.

As Dr Stephen Wilkinson of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign pointed out, in a panel discussion with Korda and some of his brother photographers, one defining feature of the Cuban Revolution was that it was "so tremendously photogenic" - a remark that may sound a trifle flippant, yet speaks volumes about the way in which that revolution was regarded from overseas, both by the New Left and by fuzzier types who couldn't have told Batista from Batman, but thought that this Che must be a real groovy cat, man.

It also says quite a bit about the condition of Cuban photographers at the time of the Revolutionary War. Happy the artist who has a world-historical event right on the doorstep; happier still the artist with such comely fellow citizens caught up in that history. It's hard - well, no, it's impossible - to believe that Korda's picture would have attained its mythic status if Che had been as plug-ugly as Sartre.

And the evidence of that legendary photogenic quality is here in abundance. There's a really magnificent shot by Korda's near-contemporary Raul Corrales, of cavalry riding towards the camera, Cuban flags flying in the breeze against a sky churning with clouds. And Corrales has another memorable, if much more contrived picture, entitled The Dream, Caracas, of a sleeping infantryman. It's almost too artfully composed - the sleeping soldier's arms mirror the arms of a naked woman in the portrait above his head (insinuation: his dreams are erotic; no wonder he's kept his cap over his groin area), a resting rifle slices the picture into exact horizontal halves. Yet Corrales has contrived to make it look utterly spontaneous, too: the study of a man so exhausted that he doesn't even unbutton to go to sleep.

These revolutionary documents of Corrales and Korda are prefaced by a brief selection of Batista's Cuba by Constantino Arias (1926-1992), and succeeded by a generous sampling of more recent work of almost a dozen other photographers, including Cristobal Herrara Ulaskevich, who is still in his twenties.

The former section unites deadpan studies of the old high-life - gamblers, dancing girls, gangsters and their molls in cheesecake poses - with harsher images of black gravediggers and amputee beggars: a world of enticements and blights about to meet its quietus. (Look out, by the way, for the shot of Churchill, printed up only recently from a negative discovered in a shoebox by the English photographer Keith Cardwell, whose fine studies of contemporary Cuba are also on show.)

The latter group defies - as one would hope it might - easy summary, even into the two categories that the visiting Cubans themselves were inclined to make, those of Conceptualists and Documentarians. José Marti (b 1953), for example, is obviously fascinated with textures, and his series "Contrasts" is a striking exercise in semi-abstraction, using extreme close-ups and minimal lighting. But he also concentrates on the familiar humanist repertoire of hands, eyes and tears.

Conversely, José Figuera (b 1946) is represented by some urgent reportage (a giddying high-angle shot of the crowd at a protest rally against the USA) but also by a number of more playful studies, including one of a bed wholly covered with prints of Korda's "Che" shot: the perfect quilt for boudoir revolutionists.

In short, Cuba, Si! amounts to an admirably rich and varied show, well worth a visit even by those who despise Fidel and all his works, provided that they have decent control of their bowels. It shows at least three distinct phases of a nation's history, and it does so with a scrupulousness and restraint engendered as much by necessity as by ideals. Cuban photographers have to work in black and white, since they have no colour stock or processing materials; and they are forced to think long and hard about what they will photograph, since they have almost no stock of any kind, and cannot afford to spray off roll after roll in the manner of the wasteful West. No person of good will wishes material want on their neighbour; but for Cuban photographers, at least, poverty appears to have been the mother of poetry.

* Cuba, Si! continues in the Lyttleton and Olivier Foyers of the National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (020-7452 3400) until 11 Nov

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