The camera sometimes lies: making myths through a lens
In these three edited extracts from his latest book, Rod Stoneman examines the real story behind sometimes misleading photographs of Che Guevara, the fall of Berlin and Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway on the cover of Picture Post in 1954. Photograph: Earl Theisen/Picture Post/IPC/Getty
The raising of the Soviet flag over the Reichstag in Berlin, Germany, May 1945. Photograph: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images
The iconic photograph of Che Guevara taken by Alberto Korda in 1960
RAISING THE FLAG: SPOILS OF WAR
History decomposes into images, not into narratives. Walter Benjamin
A Soviet soldier raises the red flag on the roof of the Reichstag in Berlin in May 1945. His profile on the finial echoes the stone statues along the cornice. It is a statuesque and justified moment of triumphalism.
Just before the assault on Berlin, Yevgeny Khaldei, a photographer working for TASS, the official Soviet news agency, made a brief trip to Moscow. He asked his friend Israil Solomonovich Kishitsev, a tailor, to sew him three red flags. Kishitsev made the flags out of red tablecloths stolen from a government office.
Khaldei flew to Berlin and reconstructed a moment that had taken place at night several days earlier (at 10.40pm on April 30th) when 23-year-old Mikhail Minin climbed the statue and inserted the Soviet flag into Germania’s crown. The next day the flag was taken down by pockets of Nazi resistors, who were defeated only after further fighting. Finally, on May 2nd, Khaldei scaled the now pacified Reichstag to take this photograph with three handpicked soldiers: Ukrainian Alyosha Kovalyov; Georgian Meliton Kantaria (to please Stalin, who was also Georgian); and Russian Mikhail Yegorov.
Apparently the emotions of the restaged moment had to be retouched in the studio because, when the soldier supporting his comrade on the balustrade extended his right arm, the photograph displayed the several wristwatches he was wearing. This minor material detail would have indicated the pillage and plunder that had taken place or, at the very least, reflected an unseemly interest in consumer goods.
Soviet authorities took 10 days to decide who should get the medal for raising the flag. Stalin said, “Let there be one Russian and one Georgian”, and so Khaldei’s flag-raiser Kovalyov was passed over. In 1995 he was asked why he had never told anyone that he had raised the red flag over the Reichstag. He said, “They called me to the NKDV and said ‘Shut up that it was you, what Stalin said is what will be, and if you start letting out that it was you in the picture, you’ll be in trouble.’ ”
Vengeful cruelty of Russians
My father told me stories about the vengeful cruelty of Russians using German soldiers to clear mines in the Danube at the end of the war. He travelled there in an RAF bomber carrying prototype vessels that the Royal Navy had built entirely of wood. “Without a metal nail or screw in them,” he said, they were made to navigate the river and sweep for the magnetic mines the Germans had placed there. When he arrived, to his horror he found that the Russians who controlled the area preferred putting German POWs on rafts with a large chunk of metal, like a car engine, on the centre of the wooden float; the machine gunners on the banks forced them to float downstream with the current, until they triggered a mine.
The Reichstag photograph is also a premonition of immediate transition from the second World War to the Cold War in its representational rivalry in intertextuality: Yevgeny Khaldei had seen Joe Rosenthal’s constructed image of US Marines raising the Stars and Stripes on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima, on February 19th, 1945. He drew on it to imagine an equally dramatic picture resulting in soldiers of the 3rd Shock Army re-enacting the raising of the Soviet flag after the battle of Berlin on May 2nd, 1945. Photographing flag-raisings was a speciality of his: he had already taken pictures of soldiers planting the other two flags in Berlin – at Tempelhof Airport and the Brandenburg Gate – before setting up the image at the Reichstag. Fifty years later, after the two photographers were honoured at a ceremony in Perpignan in the south of France, Khaldei referred to their famous images as “The revenge of two Jews – or three, counting Kishitsev the tailor.”
The beginning of the Cold War was concurrent with the development of an international image system. The Soviet and socialist camp made weak attempts to keep up: at the level of the military industrial complex, there were parades and sputniks; at the level of culture, ballerinas and a pale shadow of consumerism. The turning point could be the moment of political theatre in July 1959 when Richard Nixon confronted Nikita Krushchev in the “Kitchen Debate” and the image triumphed over rocketry: “There may be some instances, for example colour television, where we are ahead of you,” said Nixon.
If the Berlin flag signalled starter’s orders, the most powerful image system began a long route to victory from that moment on.
ERNEST HEMINGWAY: THE WRITER STANDING IN FRONT OF HIMSELF
In some images of the ageing Ernest Hemingway, he is posed in front of his portrait as a young man and we can see that “false hair on the chest” described by Gertrude Stein, as the youthful, self-confident moustache grows to a wise beard. Even though he was a writer and not a painter, the importance of Hemingway’s image underpinned readings of his texts.
This has increased in subsequent epochs, as Roddy Doyle remarked: “The image of the writer has become more important as a way of selling a book. Writing is a solitary process and should remain so; the appearance of an author shouldn’t be relevant, but the publisher’s publicity machine increasingly sells a writer through their image.”
Ernest Hemingway always fought for control of every detail of his existence, and his apparent life of adventure involved the cultivation of a specific public image. So many of the pictures of Papa Hemingway published during his lifetime have him with gun or fishing rod in hand, hunting and shooting, a white hunter often standing over dead animals.
In a desk drawer in Finca Vigía, his farmhouse outside Havana, there is photographic testimony to the care Hemingway took to project a self-consciously public figure. There are 2,000 pictures, including long strips of proofs of the photographs taken by Earl Theisen on safari for Look magazine in 1953. The magazine had offered to defray $15,000 of the expenses if it could send a photographer along.
Hemingway had written in pen a resounding “NO” on a photograph that showed him smiling sarcastically at a dead lion, but he approved of those that showed him wearing the expression of the experienced, hardened hunter. The consequences of his international fame were brought home to him when he was recognised and mobbed in a liquor store in Cuneo in the Italian Alps in 1954. He shaved off his beard the next day.
In fact, it was a different picture that the writer Norman Lewis found in late December 1957 when he sought him out, late in the day in pyjamas, fortified by a tumbler of Dubonnet. Hemingway was composing a letter to explain why he intended to evade the challenge of a duel that had been made to him by Edward Scott, the editor of the Havana Post, a man who posed as a British colonial patriot in Havana and liked to display naked prostitutes in his apartment.
Scott had thrown down the gauntlet when Hemingway’s companion, the film star Ava Gardner, had removed her pants at a party in honour of the British queen’s birthday. Hemingway had decided not to take up the duel because he “owed it to his readers not to jeopardise his life” by acceptance. Clearly this was a debt that he was able to set aside when he took his own life in a farmhouse in Ketchum, Idaho, four years later.
Encounters with danger
In earlier phases of his life, Hemingway had come nearer to real danger and closer encounters with political engagement. The young man in the painting was the ambulance driver in the first World War and the reporter in the Spanish Civil War. He denounced John Dos Passos for continuing to report exclusively on the atrocities of the fascist Nationalists, whom Hemingway also disliked, while apparently suppressing the excesses of the elected and radicalised left-leaning republicans they both favoured.
What Hemingway sardonically called his “premature anti-fascism” was important in the second World War, but the FBI did not have a sense of irony and used different syntax. Files “discovered” much later under the Freedom of Information Act show that he was used by the US embassy to organise informants in Havana in September 1942 (he hired four men, and was paid $500 a month).
John Edgar Hoover was wary of Hemingway’s Spanish Republican connections and general demeanour: “His judgment is not of the best and his sobriety is certainly questionable.” This was said in response to a defensive memo reiterating “We are advised that he [Hemingway] has denied and does vigorously deny any communist affiliation or sympathy.” All of this was at a time when the Soviets and the Americans were allies and fighting the same war.
Hemingway was under FBI surveillance for the last 20 years of his life but he continued to mock and defy McCarthyite anti-communists. Through his friendship with his doctor, Jose Luis Herrera Sotolongo, whom Hemingway had first met during the Spanish Civil War, he provided some initial financial aid and continued to support the Cuban Communist Party, even adopting the formulaic Marxist phrasing of “I believe completely in the historical necessity of the Cuban revolution”. And elsewhere, “I’m not a Yankee, you know.”
Feeding his political associates and his relationships with women into his image was as far away as possible from the narrative Hemingway created in The Old Man and the Sea, where the myth and possibility of heroism is fabricated through a story of a man isolated against nature. The frame of a distant sea is crucial for the scale of the enactment of timeless human drama by “noble savages”, which always takes place in front of a remote and dislocated backdrop.
The writer stands propped up by a frame of masculine heroism, restored through brief but constant contact with the full-blooded life of the poor, consonant with the projections of his narratives.
CHE GUEVARA: THE FACE OF ICARUS
Alberto Korda took his most famous image on March 5th, 1960 at a memorial service for those who died when the La Coubre, a freight ship carrying weapons, was blown up in Havana harbour; swivelling the 90mm lens of his Leica along the podium past Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, he saw the face, caught the “decisive moment” and made what may well be the most reproduced photograph in the world.
The coincidence of image and history in Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s case was the high-octane fuel to power this photograph towards endless reproduction; an indication of its status which, for once, deserves the overused term “iconic”. This would not have been possible, for instance, with the image of the bedraggled captured figure who emerged, wounded, rough from living in the Bolivian countryside, on the morning of his execution, or the close-shaven businessman he adopted as a disguise to gain clandestine entry to Bolivia on a false passport. He looked the part, however, for his role as president of the National Bank in Cuba. When appointed, he had quipped, “I hate money – it’s just a f***ing fetish.”
The unique value of that image arises from the potent conjunction of a specific available picture and the meaning of the man’s life and, crucially, in cases of heroism and martyrdom, his death. Che’s fate carries the enhanced poignancy of loss for a lost cause, even when, as an adolescent schoolboy, I heard of him for the first time in the short report published in the Times newspaper the day after he died.
The unfranchised and non-copyright marketing of myriad high-contrast versions of Korda’s original image on T-shirts and mugs is a commercialisation of the icon as a marketable commodity. It is predicated on its dislocation from history, repurposed within capitalism’s omnivorous ingestion of dissent and deployed for commercial purposes; “revolution” becomes a brand, not a goal in itself. The ironies come close to the surface as new layers of self-aware usage emerge: Che’s image on a garment with the slogan “This T-shirt is brought to you by capitalism” and a stencil that combines Che’s face with the phrase “Viva la Merchandise”.
“Left-wing politics is so subordinate to the global capitalist system that it has become a tradable ‘product’ within it. This is especially so with the symbols and imagery of the left – no more so than with the Che icon,” writes Michael Casey in his book Che’s Afterlife: The Legacy of an Image.
Even amid such extensive commercial appropriation, there is some trace of Guevara’s political meaning. From his youth, Guevara was clear about moving “in transit to another conception of the world”, as he wrote in Motorcycle Diaries. Nuances are lost in the simplifications needed for the constructed persona of an infallible heroic freedom fighter. The image is also contested through immoderate denunciation: from Che Guevara: A Biography by Daniel James to Exposing the Real Che Guevara and the Useful Idiots who Idolise Him by Humberto Fontova, or the graffiti “Red Murderer” scrawled in thick felt pen over the mural of Che on St Enda’s school wall in Galway.
The struggle over Che
The struggle over his representation began almost immediately: the CIA tried to invent sexual scandals to destroy the memory of Tamara Bunke (“Tania”), who fought alongside Guevara. Furthermore, its efforts to redraft Che’s Bolivian Diary to discredit him were thwarted by Antonio Arguedas, who took a copy of the original to Cuba.
On the day Guevara was killed, October 9th, 1967, writer Richard Gott and Granada Television film-maker Brian Moser drove from Santa Cruz de la Sierra to Vallegrande. The first photographs of the body taken by Moser were rough, made maybe five hours after Guevara’s death. Overnight the military cleaned up the body, as they were anxious that identification would be confirmed when the press arrived the next day. Although thinking they were laying a dangerous myth of immortality to rest, they created one. His body was carried by helicopter and laid out on a slab in the laundry at the back of the hospital. The locals were not so surprised by this spectacle – the hut had recently been used to display the corpses of other guerrillas. Gott was able to confirm that this was the same man he had interviewed years earlier in Havana. “I knew at that point that the rural guerrilla strategy had come to an end,” he said later. Pictures of Guevara’s corpse, taken by journalists who arrived from La Paz the next day, echoed Philippe de Champaigne’s The Dead Christ on His Shroud, and began to circulate around the world.
The history of history is a pad of sad corpses, squandered mortality; like the remains laid out on display in Vallegrande, there are only the shattered bodies and wasted lives passing too early.
Rod Stoneman is a documentary film-maker and director of the Huston School of Film and Digital Media at NUI Galway. He was previously the chief executive of the Irish Film Board and a deputy commissioning editor at Channel 4. These edited extracts are from Seeing is Believing: The Politics of the Visual, Black Dog Publishing (£19.95). blackdogonline.com