“At 11pm on December 31, 1958, I decided to fly to Cuba. At daybreak, I was sharing the streets of Havana with hundreds of delirious Cubans. Within four days, I had found Fidel, and by January 10 this project was completed.”
These are the words of young Magnum photographer Burt Glinn who, on New Year’s Eve 1958, was celebrating at a black tie party in New York. All the talk that evening was of corrupt Cuban dictator Batista, rumoured to be ready to flee for his life from Havana and said to have already backed his army trucks up to the Treasury.
Burt borrowed $400 from Magnum president Cornell Capa, grabbed his camera gear and raced to La Guardia just in time to make the last flight to Miami. He arrived in Havana just after dawn. Batista had fled, Fidel was still hundreds of miles away, nobody knew where, Che Guevara was on his way to Havana and nobody seemed to be in charge. As Burt said “you just can’t hail a taxi and ask the cabbie to take you to the revolution”.
Cuba, 1959. A country in the grips of a chaotic and world-changing revolution. And now Burt’s extraordinary photographs of the Cuban revolution as it unfolded have been brought together in a new book, Cuba 1959, that includes iconic images as well as unseen shots, in both black and white as well as colour.
And accompanying the new book, Serena Morton Gallery is hosting an exhibition of some of these photographs.
The show, and the book, brim over with chaos and the hope of the revolution. They convey the revolutionary idealism, mayhem and excitement of that moment in history.
You had Che arriving in Havana to cheering crowds, Castro supporters emerging from hiding, and the streets were in chaos – the rounding up of the Batista Secret Police, the prominent women rebels, ecstatic reunions between mothers and sons as the revolutionaries returned home.
Jubilant crowds called for Fidel as Cubans celebrated their liberation. Fidel, his aide Celia Sanchez and their escort of 11 ‘bearded ones’ travelled from the Sierra Maestra through Santiago, Santa Clara, Camaguey, Cienfuegos towards Havana gathering tanks, jeeps, buses, bicycles and thousands of supporters along the way.
Fidel’s triumphant entrance into Havana was one of these many incredible scenes that Burt caught on film. As Burt says, “this was no photo-op, this was a real revolution and it was one of the greatest adventures of my life.”
Sadly though, all that hope and all that promise, well, maybe Burt says it best. “I only wished in all these years since then that Fidel had done the Cuban people better and that we had been smarter.”
Indeed. But there’s no doubting the brilliance of Burt Glinn and his photography of a country both in turmoil and, seemingly, on the cusp of something great. A legendary talent and a legendary catalogue of images.
Book Information: £40 / $60; ISBN: 978-1-909526-31-0. Hardback; 176pp; 150 colour & b/w photographs, 304 x 245 mm / 12 x 10 in.
Exhibition Information: Cuba, 1959: Photographs by Burt Glinn, 28th October – 20th November 2015 at Serena Morton II, 343 Ladbroke Grove, London W10 6HA
Image Credits: © Burt Glinn / Magnum
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