Passage through life. Notes on the work of Raúl Corrales

/ 23 July, 2019

O’Reilly Street has a famous tradition of photographers, and buildings dedicated to photography since the 1940s. That Havana street was full of establishments, photographic galleries, studios, daguerreotype laboratories, stores selling photographic implements. Travelers, emigrants, adventurers, artists, merchants, all attracted by Daguerre’s fantastic invention, established their firms on a street that deserved the nickname of the street of the photographers. (…)

Giving continuity to this tradition, the Raúl Corrales Gallery, an unavoidable name of Cuba’s photographic art, opens its doors today on 524 O’Reilly Street, ground floor. On January 29, the day commemorating his birth, the space was inaugurated with a tribute exhibit. A wide selection of his work celebrated a journey through more than 50 years of photographic work.

This blissful site, that the youngest of his heirs is responsible for, devotes its white rooms to encouraging exchange and not allowing the sowing of oblivion or dependence on dogma. “To materialize Corrales’ wish for a place to meet and for open dialogue in Cuba, where photographers, including the youngest and future generations, have a place to exhibit, print and discuss their work in a constructive, professional and friendly way,” is stated among its main purposes.

A photo gallery that started off by being a private place that aspires to broaden dispositions and reception. The project undertakes a multiplying character by setting aside a wing of the building for events, workshops, screenings or conferences. Visitors are welcomed, right in the antechamber, by large printouts of who was one of the deepest architects of his time and of the visual memory of the country: Raúl Corral, known under the signature of Corrales.

Little will I refer to his training times, his passage through the press and news agencies before the triumph of the Rebel Army, to be part of the establishment of the new press in 1959, to be in the select group of photographers at Fidel Castro’s side, and to belong to the so-called golden age of Cuban photojournalism (1959-1965). Nor will I stop to go through academic categories by stages and dates. The history of this man is well known, justly called Maestro and the first photographer to be awarded the National Prize for Plastic Arts (1996), when photography did not even apply to such hierarchies. I will speak of his work, of the absolute richness of a life, a country, a fragment of human history, translated into images.

(…) Several elements differentiate his work. When compared to his contemporaries, details jump into his photographs, making them have a very personal look. Not only aesthetic details –relative to composition, framing, management of light, privilege of the classic and focused photographic objective–, but also in the way of assuming common themes, in the enriched combination of message and graphic content, the clear emphasis in the discursive intentionality and the subtle beauty of providing the objective.

(…) While others looked at structures and the dynamics of subjects in general planes, Corrales would stop more on details and emphasis of the synchronic dialogue between the objectives portraits. It is not that this photographer did not like to capture the big stages or take wide shots. The historical conditioning required it from all those in the profession of practicing the photo-documentary of the moment. (…) But it is the closed frames, the capture of fruitful details, that project another characterizing force in the immense work of Corrales.

(…) His poetics is that of a deep humanism. His view of the common individual was always deconstructed of contraptions, fertile in commitment and honesty. Whether it was from the most precarious social sectors, such as in the deep countryside or the inhabitants of the Ciénaga swamp, individuals in close coexistence, those from the fishing community of Cojímar where he lived most of his life, to the faces of notable political and cultural figures, his view was direct, explicit in intentions, without cyclic eloquences and, above all, not neglecting beauty.

Figurations conceived from the most careful control of light and compositional language, which speaks of a genuine photographer in the way of assuming the model. Works that present the face of the farmers (Stinson, 1950), of the militiamen (Malagón, 1960), the children (Anselmo y el niño, 1950; Beauty rest, 1948), the fishermen, to the series on U.S. writer Ernest Hemingway in the 1950s; works distanced from the collective replica that resort to a legitimate taking of sides that isn’t only photographic.

Grethel Morell Otero

Historian of Cuban photography, curator and art critic. She is author of the books Otras Historias de la Fotografía Cubana (Other Histories of Cuban Photography) and Damas, Esfinges y Mambisas: La Mujer en la Fotografía cubana desde el siglo xix (Ladies, Sphinxes and Warriors: Women in Cuban Photography since the 19th century). Co-curator of the exhibitions The Lost Gaze, Cuba 1970-1984 and Small Maneuvers: Cuban Contemporary Photography.

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