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.
The nine months that Nickless spent photographing the MRR soldiers convey a much broader picture of the times. By the end of the 1960s, such CIA-funded military raids on Cuba were a thing of the past; but images of swift boats and M16s would become ubiquitous in coverage of the Vietnam War.
Artime died in 1977, not having lived to see his ultimate dream of a deposed Castro, like so many of his fellow compatriots, and those who are still waiting. “Embedded” would be a way journalists and photographers cover all battles, particularly after the beginning of the Iraq War. There could be no better place to exhibit this historical survey than in the Freedom Tower.
While Nickless caught human beings preparing for battle, no fire fights are actually depicted – the main action for the most part is off to the side. Baryshnikov’s colorful photography, on the other hand, not only captures dancers in the midst of movement, they often seem to still be moving. This is stunningly beautiful, at times abstract imagery that nonetheless documents a wide variety of dance styles from 2006 to 2011.
Baryshnikov is of course one of the most well-known and well-regarded dancers of all time, but he was not a practicing photographer. Yet when he decided to focus a lens on his own field, he managed to translate his remarkable skills to this form of art with amazing success. Dance in its essence is hard to convert accurately to a still medium. Although painters, sculptors and photographers have depicted dancers through the ages, capturing live performance has never been easy, and the results rarely engaging. Baryshnikov has made them so.
The series of 28 photographs on the second floor of Gary Nader’s sprawling Wynwood space in an exhibit titled “Dance This Way” are almost as captivating as the dances themselves must have been, when Baryshnikov caught tango, contemporary, ballet and folk dancers in mid twirl, feet inches from the floor in a leap, hips starting to swivel. But that’s not the real achievement here -- these do not feel like stills of movement, they seem to continue to follow and communicate the motions.
The best examples of this are Baryshnikov’s photographs of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, the experimental contemporary dance troupe founded by another pioneering choreographer, Merce Cunningham. The colors from the outfits swirl around in these – bright yellows jump out – and add to the blurred figures in perpetual motion, expressing the heart of the dance. Feet, legs and torsos lose their definitions, yet not their positions in the performance, or in the frame. The moment – or moments -- captured in Cunningham’s “CRWDSPCR” is the standout in the exhibit.
But Baryshnikov knew Cunningham’s work well, having performed it himself. What’s maybe more amazing is the way he has brought to life dances further from his roots. Like “Dancing the Bachata in the Dominican Republic,” where a duo in the foreground can’t seem to stop their rhythmic movements, while psychedelic green lights flash across the floor. Again, nothing is static.
There is a shot of several Hula dancers, whose yellow, feathered skirts blend together in a riot of swirls. Their bodies and hair are so similar it suggests a repetition of the same person, in stop-motion fashion, but it is a photograph of a live performance. Like the day-in-the-life photos that Nickless shot, nothing is posed here. It’s the real deal.