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About print

Roberto Salas

To face the mysteries.

The real story becomes a conversation, in which the author/photographer is simply the most prominent participant. 1

The current aesthetic status of photography is extraordinarily ambiguous. It has never given rise to a wide-reaching general theory, but it has been discussed by countless (art)historians. Photographs in their ambiguity can provoke, motivating the reader to interrogate their meanings. The photographs may create enough confusion and curiosity to stimulate the viewer. Luckily, we are not so naive as to think that there is only one photographic way, one kind of photography and one way of taking photographs. Therefore I find it interesting that, even though many people take great pains to write extensively about the medium, hardly anyone feels it necessary to define the words photo, photography and taking photos. Who can explain this gap? Let’s go back into time.

About 33 years ago, I discovered as a left-wing student at the high school the photographs from the new Cuba-generation. The first of the photo books that ended up in my hands was from the famous Osvaldo Salas. In the following months I devoured other photographs from photographers as Raúl Corrales, Liborio Noval, Korda, Venancio Díaz, Roberto Salas, Ernesto Fernández, Luis Pierce and José Agraz, and in the following years – when I started to study photography and cinema at the Academy in Brussels – I reviewed them, with a more tempered passion though, without losing the trill of the first viewings. Thanks to the pictures of Che, Fidel Castro and the daily life of the Cuban people, we could share their own stories of (new) identity in a (new) society. The power of imagination is the ultimate creative power. These photographs have all a visual and human density that brought me what I wanted most out of photography: the ability to face the mysteries that nest in the souls of all people. In his time photographers as Roberto Salas had the ability to bring me that sense of exaltation that 20 years later, in the peak of my own discovery of the so-called boom of the Latin-American novel had spurred me to read García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortázar (‘Las Babas del Diablo’: Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up!) and Cabrera Infante. These photographers and writers, together with their North American counterparts I admired – from Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald to Salinger and John Updike and of course Paul Auster and Raymond Chandler (and locally Hugo Claus with The Sorrow of Belgium) – constituted a solid cadre of favourites.

The last decade I was introduced – mostly thanks to the website ‘From the light screen – ZoneZero’ (edited by Pedro Meyer) in Spanish and English language to new and contemporary faces in the world of photographers and critical writers. I view and read (and review and reread) all the pictures and books with the same delight I experience drinking my favourite Cuban rum.

In my memory these Cuba-pictures of Roberto Salas are linked by a kind of digital dialectics between theory and practice. The battle between medium and métier seems to be settled. Photography needs to cause tears in the fabric of societies where consensus is imposed by force. We had better realized that a commitment does not owe its existence to radical individual choice with its concomitant act of resistance, but also depends upon the enthusiasm of the observer. Commitment in Cuba in the 1950’s or in our region today is not an individual choice but the expression of a collective engagement to a crucial movement or development. This catalogue is the story behind the curtains of photo culture in Cuba and of media ethics to stimulate within scientific discourse the analysis and production of a visual representation in the Southern Hemispheres.

Today, photography and critical commitment is difficult. It’s a big challenge for an artist to manage it in Neoliberal times. Human consciousness and human experience constitute the artist’s domain. Now that this domain is at risk of being swept away by a worldwide movement aiming at insignificant and mediocre averaging – out and overgeneralized experience, the photographer can play a new part in the world. Let’s start the new photography thinking …

Johan Swinnen

Prof. Johan Swinnen, PhD (born 1954) is an art and new media critic, editor and writer who teaches modern and contemporary art history at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and at University College Artesis Antwerp. Guest professor on a regular base at the Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle - Paris III, Pathshala, the South Asian Institute Media Academy - Dhaka and at the University of Communication Beijing. Author (with Luc Deneulin) of ‘The Weight of Photography’ (ASP, 2010). He has written extensively for numerous catalogues and magazines on the central role of historical theory in contemporary art and information and communication media, and did also curatorial projects.

1    Darcy DiNucci, Print magazine, 1996

Myths and realities in the Nostalgias series of Roberto Salas.

Cuba is a country with a rich photographic tradition. Among the photographers that stand out and make possible the undeniable visuality of the Antilles, Roberto Salas is undoubtedly one of them.

His beginnings in photography were necessarily bound up with his father Osvaldo Salas. Referring to that unquestionable apprenticeship, he pointed out: “In that way, by alternating the classroom and the photographic darkroom, I gradually began to acquire the habit of silver and gelatine. As yet, I keep alive the memories of the dreams roused by photographic books and magazines.”

His first photograph, which he considers as the photograph of greatest importance, was of the Statue of Liberty, La Señora y la bandera. It was taken in 1957 in New York when Roberto was only sixteen years old. It was published in LIFE magazine and included on the front page of four of the seven city’s dailies, so marking the beginnings of a giddy rise to fame and a prolific career.

As the doctor and art critic, Rafael Acosta, would say: “If we had to indicate a photographer who, within post-1959 Cuban art, best represented the itinerary of photographic art, its profound change and the diversity of its thematic richness, we would undoubtedly refer to Roberto Salas.”

When we review his performance as a photographer from his beginnings under the supervision of his father, Osvaldo Salas, himself a highly acknowledged artist inside and outside the country, we are going to come across the stages of learning in the development laboratory, his period as a part-time and lambio photographer1, his early career as a precocious roving photographer whose photos would be rapidly included among those most emblematic of the so-called photography of the revolutionary epic, as a press photographer accompanying Fidel Castro, as a creator of intensive photographic essays and reportages, as a war correspondent in Vietnam for almost five years and, finally, as an artist of nudes and portraits.

With over 50 years of intense and unceasing searching and mapping behind him, his photographs reflect identity, dream and reality, introspection and draw closer to anthropological studies, so marking a return to origins through the portrait. We see it in works such as Tumba, bembé y batá in 1963 in Galería Habana, the first exhibition he would present and which reflected our African but native roots; or such as El último Cabildo de Regla from 1961. In the process, he draws nearer to ethnographic and sociologic studies of the Cuban people in an essay such as Así son los cubanos until his most recent incursions, where, putting the full extent of his skills to work, he makes use of the state-of-the-art techniques of digital photography to deliver his Nostalgias.

The very personal manner of interpreting the contexts through which he moves in different ways, whether starting with central ideas that guide him during the artistic process or endeavouring to catch the changing face of reality from his stereotype plate, reveals an untiring creator to us. He has his followers and his detractors, but that does not worry him, because the most important thing for him, as it should be for any self-respecting artist, as long as he has the strength to continue, is to feel content with himself and to be the most convinced critic of what he has done.

His restless eyeballs steered him to whatever caught his attention and seemed interesting to him, even though they may involve all sorts of controversy, refutation or disagreement; his premise is to remain consistent with his concerns and gratify his desire to always do something new which keeps him active; to bear witness to something in his own way.

With his most recent work Nostalgias, started in 2008, as the opening of another stage in his tireless search for forms and themes, he has captured different places and situations: Havana, Amsterdam, Paris, Seville, Madrid. He calls it Nostalgias so alluding to the technique he uses, in an entirely digital process, where white and black contrast with colour providing emphasis in specific areas and yet, the overall effect is a pervading feeling of melancholy though it is not his essential priority.

The series comprises, up to now, 40 photographs, exhibited for the first time as the serie Habanera, in May-June of 2009 in the Fototeca de Cuba, the country’s leading photographic centre. Concerning the exhibition, Doctor Eusebio Leal stated:
It would be pretentious to make an assessment of such an acknowledged work, a work in which two lives melt into one: a master, a pupil, an inspiration from yesterday, a reason for today and for ever. An exhibition in which the splendour of Havana, in these photographs, although shrouded at some point and over very large areas by veils of decay, emerges with extraordinary beauty like a spirit from its own body.
They are photos moreover, which give the profile, the depth, the textures, the poetic enchantment of a city which for me, for him and for all those who love it, is always immortal… it is an anthology and a symbol of the artist’s maturity, reiterating the conviction that reflecting reality would be easy, but the important thing is to be able to see it deep down and truly as it is.

We present only a selection of 13 photographs which, in a brief overview, at the curators’ discretion, endeavours to capture this creator’s spirit, his calling to the art of photography and even more so, his unique way of apprehending our reality to make it his own and show it to us through his eyes.

Lourdes Magdalena Socarrás Ferrer
Historian and representative of Osvaldo & Roberto Salas Estate
Havana, April 2011

1 Lambio is a term that appeared in the 1950’s to classify those photographers who used  to take photos at banquets, baptisms and weddings. (Note from the curator.)

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