In 1959, Castro asked father-son photographers to record the people of his new Cuba.
As an 18-year-old photographer in 1959, Roberto Salas departed on the adventure of his life. Fidel Castro, fresh from his victory over Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, personally asked the Bronx-born Salas and his father, Osvaldo, to be part of an exclusive group of photographers to chronicle the revolution.
Osvaldo Salas, whose New York photo studio was the cultural epicenter of the tight-knit Cuban exile community, had earlier impressed Castro with his work.
Those were heady days for both photographers and their subjects. The pair packed their bags, closed their New York studio and boarded a plane to the island.
“To leave our routine life in New York for the tropics and a revolution--I didn’t even think twice about it,” said Roberto Salas, now 59. “For me it was a super adventure--especially at that age. And that super adventure turned into where I ended up living the rest of my life.”
Salas, his father and a select group of photographers captured the turmoil and victory of young Castro and his crew of barbudos (bearded ones) including the revolution’s commanders Camilo Cienfuegos and Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
L.A. Is the First Stop on
Exhibition’s U.S. Tour
Looking back at pictures of those historic moments of 40 years ago, Roberto Salas can only reminisce.
Cienfuegos, Guevara and, most poignantly for the photographer, Salas’ father have all died.
But the images live on.
The Salases’ photographs can be seen through Feb. 27 at the Fahey/Klein gallery in Los Angeles, the first stop on a U.S. tour of commercial galleries.
Featuring more than 100 photographs by Roberto and his father, the retrospective and the accompanying book capture Castro, Che and others from their pre-revolutionary days in 1955 through the Bay of Pigs crisis, to present-day Cuba.
The Salases’ adventure began in the early days of 1955 when Castro, a young, dapper man in a three-piece suit, visited the exiled Cuban community in New York to raise funds for his cause.
Looking more like a banker than a Marxist, Castro was not a recognizable figure to the young Roberto.
“He was totally unknown to me at the time,” Salas said in an interview at the gallery. “He was, to me, just another one of the many people that came to visit my father in his studio.”
But by Jan. 2, 1959, when Castro ran Batista out of the country, the revolutionary leader had reached celebrity status. The younger Salas wasted no time in jumping on an airplane with his cameras--alongside other Cuban Americans carrying bazookas, grenades and big guns--to the island. Neither Salas was driven by ideology; rather, it was Castro’s powers of persuasion that drew them in, Salas said.
Ever the astute politician, Castro realized it was essential to publicize the revolutionary cause to the populace. Since most of the Cuban population was illiterate, Castro’s small band of photographers were given the task of filling the pages of the daily newspaper Revolucion with images of the people and their leaders.
The elder Salas headed the operation, overseeing a group of photographers including his son, Mayito, Korda, Corrales and Liborio.
Together, these men set about to show the human face of the revolution--the guajiros, or peasants who had taken arms in the sierras against Batista and the women who formed part of the war effort.
Then there were the minds behind the revolution, many of whom were mysterious figures to the majority of Cubans.
There was Camilo Cienfuegos, a former tailor. By 1959, Cienfuegos was posing for Osvaldo Salas in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, forcefully peering at the camera in military fatigues and boots, long hair and beard, as one of the revolution’s most important commanders.
There was Guevara, the enigmatic Argentine who was not immediately accepted by the Cuban people as one of their own, but whose charisma and premature death turned him into a mythical figure.
Considering that Guevara’s time in the spotlight spanned only five years, the breadth of photographs taken by the crew of photographers is astounding, Salas said.
“There are so many excellent photographs--of real artistic value--of the guy way before he became a legend,” he said. “By contrast, Fidel is probably the most photographed figure of the 20th century, but I don’t think there are even 20 outstanding photographs of him.”
Rural Literacy Campaign
Throughout the early 1960s, Salas, his father and the other photographers captured the daily occurrences of life in post-revolutionary Cuba. Perhaps one of the most important journalistic endeavors for Salas was the literacy campaign undertaken in Cuba immediately following Castro’s victory.
Nowhere in Latin America has there ever been such a sweeping effort to educate the masses. From 1960 to 1961, young, literate Cubans hiked into the sierras and fanned out into the countryside to teach their fellow Cubans to read and write.
But if Salas has any regrets, it’s that he did not shoot more rigorously during the literacy campaign.
“There is so little in our photo archives that reflects the importance of the literacy campaign,” he said. “These opportunities turned into historic moments, and we were not capable at the time of recognizing its immediate importance.”
The most personal regret, however, is that Salas’ father did not live to see the book and the exhibition. Osvaldo Salas died in his native Cuba on May 5, 1992, at the age of 78. Though the pair had discussed the idea of a book, it was not until two unlikely Americans stepped into the picture five years ago that it became a reality.
Doug Smith, a hotel owner in Palm Springs, and Ted Anderson, a Portland car dealership owner, came to know Roberto Salas in the steamy cafes of Havana, a city both men visit frequently.
After a three-year effort, Anderson and Smith convinced Thunder’s Mouth Press and Beyond Words Publishing to co-publish a book of photographs.
“I hope people will read this and see the pictures and come out with the feeling that these are wonderful people and a wonderful country,” Anderson said. “They are not our enemy.”
Their next effort is publishing Roberto Salas’ photographs of Ho Chi Minh in North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Salas, who said his Vietnam work is the highlight of his career, was the only Latin American photographer to chronicle the North Vietnamese leader.
* The exhibition runs through Feb. 27. Fahey/Klein Gallery, 148 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.