The ambivalent tone of the outsiders' images is countered by the jubilant mood of photos taken by Cuban photographers during the heady days of the revolution in the early years of Castro's rule. Some, like Perfecto Romero's image of Camilo Cienfuegos asking Batista's soldiers to surrender, depict actual historic watersheds. Others were staged to promote revolutionary ideology. Castro, a master in constructing his own brand of celebrity populism, grasped the propaganda value of photography and how it could be used to forge a new Cuban identity. That intent can be seen in Osvaldo Salas' photos of young artillerymen at the Bay of Pigs, defiantly brandishing their rifles after the disastrously failed U.S.-backed coup attempt.
The Getty's show, which runs through Oct. 2, is one of L.A.'s opening salvos in a months-long cultural salute to the island nation that's taking place on both U.S. coasts this year. Upcoming happenings include a display of Cuban film posters at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, performances by the Ballet Nacional de Cuba in Costa Mesa and Los Angeles, a spotlight on contemporary Cuban cinema at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and an Aug. 24 Hollywood Bowl concert headlined by the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club.
A recent easing of travel restrictions between the countries may permit more such cultural exchanges. That could broaden perceptions of Cuba on this side of the Florida Straits, beyond postcard images of white-sand beaches or bleak impressions of tattered buildings and empty store shelves.
"It's a very picturesque place, and one of the challenges is capturing it in a way that goes beyond the picturesque," Abbott says. "There's so much politics wrapped up into all of this. But I think especially the contemporary photographers are trying not to be political, even though there are political undercurrents."