Two photography shows that capture live-action — human beings moving in real time with no staging whatsoever – nonetheless represent almost opposite ends of the genre’s spectrum. “Embedded” at the Freedom Tower is classic photojournalism, a document of Cuban exiles on a mission to overthrow Castro in the heady, post Bay-of-Pigs era of the 1960s, from one of the first photographers ever to have been embedded on a military campaign. The other is an artistic chronicle of contemporary dance shot by one of the greatest dancers and choreographers of all time, Mikhail Baryshnikov, hanging at Gary Nader Fine Art.
To use the word “tender” to describe the way Jim Nickless photographed the armed and ready-for-battle members of the Movement for the Recovery of the Revolution (MRR) may seem an odd choice. But the NBC cameraman, who slept, lived and ate alongside these determined men, shows them more often than not smiling, cradling their weapons, or sleeping, while in one shot dolphins dance around their boat.
The 60-plus black-and-white photographs on display – presented by Miami-Dade College’s Art Gallery System -- would not carry as much weight without the back-story, which is integral to the resulting individual portraits.
The 29-year-old Nickless initially wanted to make a documentary film about the CIA-funded MRR, with its mother ship and two swift boats determined to harass the government and insert operatives into the island. It was headed by Manuel Artime (Miami’s downtown theater is named after him), a Bay of Pigs veteran and the man responsible for getting Nicaragua and Costa Rica on board to serve as training grounds for Cuban exile groups.
Nickless first followed the MRR to Costa Rica, where he photographed them training with brand-new weapons supplied by the U.S., including the M16. He then boarded the main Santa Maria ship and in 1964 “embedded” himself with about 600 men as they headed to Cuba. For nine months he snapped his camera as the group carried out multiple missions, which in the end, as history knows, failed to achieve its goal.
Some of the most powerful shots are of men gingerly, delicately, handling the bullet belts and machine guns. These hard metal objects of war take on a life of their own in some photographs. One captures the second the bullet leaves the gun during target practice, making it appear an almost mystical moment — and beautiful in its composition.
In another, a shirtless fighter stands in profile manning his boat-mounted gun, with a wavy Caribbean sea as the background. The men wear jaunty cowboy hats and berets. Aside from several shots depicting the recruits in repose, almost all the others in faces are visible, the men are smiling and laughing. There are in fact no truly somber pictures. It’s almost as if failure was not even a prospect; these are men with a singular mission.
There are some nice photos of the boats themselves, which make up an essential part of this story. The Santa Maria was a 180-foot cargo ship, from which two attack boats – the Gitana and Monty – would depart for raids against Cuba. Pictures of these “bases” with men arrayed on deck, manning mounted guns, cleaning munitions belts and reading, give an idea of this life at sea.
And then there are the portraits of the main characters. Manuel Artime is shown smiling while greeting his crew; the captain of the Gitana in profile looks noble and ready for his mission, if almost alone; and the captain of the Monty laughs as he studies the cast on his arm caused by shrapnel. There are also a couple photos of Nickless himself, with his form of weaponry around his neck, his cameras.