The exhibitions of the International Center of Photography recall the civil war in Spain and the revolution in Cuba
NEW YORK – Photography stops time. Museums are collapsing it. They are collapsing space too. It is difficult to imagine a more powerful demonstration of this twin capacity of space-time than the two exhibitions currently at the International Center of Photography.
A quarter of a century and more than 4,000 miles separate the Spanish Civil War and the July 26 movement of Fidel Castro. Yet the two connect on many levels – visual, emotional, ideological – in “The Mexican Suitcase: The Rediscovered Negatives of the Spanish Civil War of Capa, Chim and Taro” and “Cuba in Revolution”. Both shows run until January 9. .
“The Mexican Suitcase” has as its source one of the all-time finds in the history of photography. It had been assumed for almost seven decades that the negatives of Robert Capa’s Spanish Civil War had been destroyed. It was no small loss. Capa, fearless and glamorous, is as close to an avatar as photojournalism has had it. His stay in Spain took place when Capa the photographer began to become Capa the legend. Then in 2007, three boxes were found in Mexico City containing nearly 4,500 negatives. Most belonged to Capa. There were also others from David “Chim” Seymour (with Capa, co-founder of Magnum, the legendary photo agency); Gerda Taro, Capa’s lover; and a few by Fred Stein, composed mainly of portraits of Taro.
The show samples this discovery. The images themselves are striking. How could they not be? Few conflicts have captured the modern imagination as did the Spanish Civil War. Even three quarters of a century later, the scenes of military and civilian life in Madrid and Teruel and the Basque Country retain a special force. Portraits of Chim de Garcia Lorca, taken shortly before the poet’s death, or those of Ernest Hemingway de Capa, conferring with fellow reporters.
Yet the larger purpose of the exhibition has more to do with the photographs than their subject. With all due respect to the photographers, the most eloquent elements here are the three boxes, all the more beautiful as they are aged and beaten. Equally beautiful, in their weathered fashion, are the faded and yellowed negative envelopes they contained.
The idea of the exhibition is to give meaning to the working procedures of photographers and the dissemination of their work. So we see enlarged contact sheets as well as old and newly developed prints (many of the latter previously unknown). In addition, the windows contain contemporary magazines with these images. It’s almost like looking back on the birth of media studies. However, there is nothing educational about the show. It is a model of explanation without pedantry.
With “Cuba in Revolution” substance predominates over style. More than that, the style becomes a kind of substance. The sense of upheaval, urgency and ideological fervor felt in the photographs of the Spanish Civil War finds a counterpart in these 180 images, taken by 30 photographers. That’s a lot of images, but the number doesn’t seem overwhelming or stuffy. The images are so varied, so exciting.
Some of the photographers are well known: Henri Cartier-Bresson (another co-founder of Magnum), Elliott Erwitt, Burt Glinn, Rene Burri. But many of the most striking images come from anonymous or little-known photographers. The numerous photographs of Cuban photographer Constantino Arias, for example, offer an extraordinary and extraordinarily damning look at pre-Castro Havana: budding American tourists, the gloom of life in apartment buildings, the student demonstrations.
Style becomes substance on the walls of the ICP because the Fidelistas have practically made style an official substance policy. They instinctively understood the power of the image. Military fatigues, beards, cigars: these were statements as well as matters of costume, grooming and indulgence.
Something as basic as machetes and hats becomes a version of that classic radical image, clenched fists clenched, in a photograph by Flip Schulke. Two bearded Cubans in fatigues standing inside the Lincoln Memorial send a political message simply because of their appearance. Che Guevara became a preeminent symbol of the 1960s as much for what he looked like as for what he stood for. An entire gallery is devoted to the images of his corpse, and with justification. Even in death, he was such a visually compelling figure.
If self-awareness marked Cuban revolutionaries, so did what we can now recognize as essential conservatism. A Cuban short film from 1965 is played towards the end of the exhibition. An attack on the Beatles is so simplistic that it includes shots of a chimpanzee playing the drums. Poor Ringo! It is a reminder that revolution is not necessarily the same as liberation. Long before Che went to Bolivia to stir up revolt, Fidel was dating Nikita Khrushchev.
Perhaps the most revealing image of the show is Raul Corrales’ “La Caballeria (The Cavalry)” from 1960. Flapping flags, Fidelistas on horseback fill the frame under ominous clouds. It is an exciting and exaggerated spectacle, between glory and self-parody. As their mode of transport suggests, bikers are stepping back from the past. They too seek to make time collapse. Except they can’t. This is not the future they are headed for. It’s the camera.
Mark Feeney can be contacted at [email protected]
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