March 29, 1914 – May 5, 1992
Osvaldo Salas, widely recognized as one of the world’s great press photographers, was born in Havana, Cuba in 1914. At the age of fourteen, he left Havana with his parents and immigrated to New York. After several odd jobs at Madison Square Garden, Salas began taking pictures for an international boxing association that had the major champions of the time under contract.
By the end of the war, Salas had fallen in love with photography and he won his first award in 1947. As a publicity photographer, his work was published in Life magazine as well as The New York Times. When Fidel Castro visited the United States in 1955 to raise funds for the revolution, Salas was assigned to photograph him in New York City.
After several visits to Salas’ studio, Castro invited him and his son Roberto to Havana. Salas and his son became Fidel’s semi-official photographers and worked for the government newspaper Revolución. For several years, Salas traveled between his studio in New York and the harsh reality of the Cuban revolutionaries in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra. A strong supporter of the Revolution, Osvaldo finally returned to Cuba two days after the victory in 1959, and lived there for the remainder of his life.
His stylistic images expertly communicate Cuba’s evolving cultural, social and political realities. Among his many awards and honors, he was acclaimed an International Master of Photography by the International Press Association in 1983.
Osvaldo’s son Roberto Salas was born in New York City in 1940. His photographic journey began in his father’s studio where he would lend a helping hand after school. At the age of 15, Roberto left school and followed in his father’s footsteps to become one of Cuba’s most successful photographers.
Roberto Salas has documented the revolution from the Sierra Maestra to the Bay of Pigs, as well as the only known meeting between Castro and Ernest Hemingway. He served as a U.N. correspondent and war correspondent in South East Asia, including Cambodia and Vietnam, spending a year behind the Vietcong lines.
His artistry and great ability to capture the common people led to over 40 solo exhibitions worldwide and garnered more than 100 prizes and honorable mentions. In a joint retrospective with his father, two books of their beautifully crafted photographs were published: Ernesto Che Guevara, printed in 1997, and Fidel’s Cuba: A Revolution in Pictures, printed in 1998.
Biographies courtesy of LaHabanaPhoto.com
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Photographer Roberto Salas Had 'Privileged' Access to Fidel Castro
by LESTER HOLT | August 15, 2015
HAVANA — At 15 years old, Roberto Salas tagged along with his photographer father on an assignment on this Caribbean island to cover a group of Cuban activists who were opposed to the government.
One of the activists Salas met during that 1955 trip was Fidel Castro. The turn of fate gave the budding shutterbug, whose father was Cuban, a front-row seat to the impending revolution.
Salas, who was born in New York, became part of a small group of photographers who were given what he calls "privileged" access to Castro — allowing him to capture up-close images of the future president when the paparazzi was swarming.
"He was a magnet for cameras, photographers," Salas said.
He was also given the chance to document images of Castro in more intimate settings.
The images Salas shot of Castro with American author Ernest Hemingway and Castro in a more raw state — including relaxing in a hammock with a cigar — would become iconic. But a photo snapped on the day the American embassy closed in Havana would prove to be one of the most gripping.
"This guy was selling papers around what was the embassy ... I said let's take a picture of you with the newspaper," Salas recalled. The front page of that newspaper said, "Viva Cuba Libre" — "Finally we're free."
Salas' father, Osvaldo Salas, an award-winning photographer whose work was published in Life magazine and The New York Times, was also invited to cover Castro and did so for many years. Salas said his father used to be asked, "'Salas, what's your favorite photograph?' And my father used to say, 'I'm going to do it tomorrow.'"
"I thought it was just a line," Salas said. "But after my father passed, I realized that isn't a line, it's a concept ... saying you can always do it better."
Book remembers 'Fidel's Cuba' during days of promise
By CNN Interactive Writer
ATLANTA (CNN) -- He was considered by some to be merely a pawn of the Soviet Union in the Cold War chess match. But eight years after the U.S.S.R.'s collapse, 40 years after he seized power, at the brink of a new millennium, Fidel Castro is leading the Cuban people into yet another uncertain future.
Castro, the revolutionary, made the unlikely transformation into a powerful political figure who looms over the late 20th century landscape -- an army-fatigued caricature who contrasts himself at every turn. One moment, he's a dictator of a country which clings to an outdated cause, marred by rampant poverty and pockmarked by a crumbling infrastructure yet boasts of almost no illiteracy and a healthy medical system. The next moment, he's the magnetic caudillo who took power through revolution, the man who chomps on cigars, meets with the pope, and believes in the magic of baseball.
"He's an individual of enormous charisma," says Roberto Salas, a photographer who has witnessed first hand the enduring reign of Castro.
Salas and his Cuban-born father, Osvaldo, met Castro in 1955. In 1959, following Castro's rise to power, the Salas' were invited by Castro to Havana to work the government newspaper Revolución.
The Salas' work during that time is now offered in a new hardcover, "Fidel's Cuba: A Revolution in Pictures." The book is filled with black-and-white images taken in "the golden age of Cuban journalism," the time between 1959-68 when revolution was still fresh in the air, when Salas says he and his Cuban colleagues were focused on telling the story through pictures.
The book, in essence, is a freeze-frame of Cuba yesteryear, and a haunting reflection of Cuba today. There's the famous matchlit picture of Castro plotting strategy with his top lieutenant Che Guevara; there's the picture of Castro playing baseball, and the one recording his meeting with then-Cuban resident and writer Ernest Hemingway; there's the pictures of the Cuban people, simple shots of lonely faces set against the backdrop of the island nation, working for the promise of the revolution. It's a time that no longer exists.
Osvaldo Salas was born in Havana in 1914, and when he was a teen-ager he emigrated to New York City with his family. He lived there for 34 years, first working in manual labor before hooking up with a photography club. Soon he was winning prizes, and in 1949 he established his first studio on 50th street, "across from the old Madison Square Garden," his son says.
Through hard work and a sensitive eye, Osvaldo Salas became a favorite publicity photographer of celebrities and sports heroes, his work seen in "Camera over Broadway," "Life," "Look," and "The New York Times."
Roberto Salas, born in 1940, says he can't recall when he first took a photograph.
"I haven't the slightest idea," says Salas. "Me and my sister were the test props for my father. And when I came home from school I used to help him out in the studio. So I learned photography through birthright, you might say."
The Salas' father and son team met Castro in 1955 when a journalist friend brought the passionate young lawyer to their apartment. Castro immediately began talking about the coming revolution (he was in town to drum up financial support from Cuban exiles), and Osvaldo instinctively started taking pictures of Castro, following him to conventions and through a jaunt in Central Park.
It was the first of many revolutionary photo shoots that Osvaldo and Roberto would take part in.
By 1957, Castro was orchestrating guerrilla movements against dictator Fulgencio Batista, who had left Cuba on the brink of economic and social collapse. And in New York, the younger Salas had joined Castro's 26th of July Movement, which promised a better future for Cuba.
To draw more attention to the cause, Roberto Salas and some friends trekked to the Statue of Liberty, hanging the flag of the 26th of July Movement from the crown. Salas snapped a photo of the picture, which was picked up by New York newspapers and bought by "Life" magazine.
Later, when the Salas men joined the newspaper "Revolución," they found themselves in the heart of the movement, and in the aftermath of loose ends that were never tied.
Roberto Salas says he was never intimidated by the presence of Castro or followers like Guevara.
"The importance or magnetism or any world leader, when you're doing you're job, you're isolated from this," says Salas. "You're not a part of what's happening. You're a spectator. Maybe later when you've put away you're camera, you say, 'Jesus, I took pictures of so-and-so.'"
Perhaps that is why Salas and his father managed to capture so many intimate and revealing portraits of Castro. Another reason: Salas says the Revolución editors gave him the freedom to take any pictures he wanted. It was part of the effort to bring the story of the revolution to the Cuban people.
"The policy of the paper at the time was to put out on the street, on a daily basis, a magazine-style full-page spread of photo essays of everything that was happening at that time," Salas says.
One picture taken by Roberto Salas shows Castro in the rugged jungle, shirt off, leaning on a thin tree. He recalls the moment when he took that picture, and Castro's reaction.
"He says to me, 'You going to take a picture of me without a shirt?' I say, 'Yeah, but it's not gonna look bad,'" says Salas. "It's one of my favorites because it shows a very intimate type of individual. It's very personal. You normally don't see chiefs of states or leaders in that kind of situation."
Another memorable photo by Roberto Salas features Castro and Guevara huddled over a table, the glow of Castro's match reflecting off their faces. Salas says he happened upon the scene in the middle of the night while staying at the government palace. It was dark, and he had to rest his camera on a table to support it.
"Coincidentally, Castro lights a match, and at that time the matches in Cuba were right on the verge of becoming flares and it illuminated everything," Salas says. "It was one of those decisive moments -- a little bit before, a little bit after and you wouldn't have the photograph."
Another picture from that time offers a completely different view of Castro as the Cuban diplomat. It shows American writer Ernest Hemingway and Castro side by side.
"My father always liked that picture a lot," says Salas. "Believe it or not Castro has mentioned that he had read a lot of Hemingway and he had certain inspirations from the writing of Hemingway. Yet this is the only time these men ever spoke together. And that picture is of that moment."
And what book on Fidel Castro -- former baseball player -- would be complete without a picture of him on the diamond. Dressed in army fatigues, boots and a team Cuba pin-striped jersey, the picture of Castro readying to throw a pitch symbolizes Cuba's national obsession with the sport.
"Castro always used to be there when they threw out the first ball at the beginning of the seasons," says Salas. "Castro's style of throwing out the first ball is to pitch a couple of things, and hit a couple of things."
Salas says Castro used to organize pick-up games between government officials and Cuba's finest players, playing games at three in the morning.
"This sounds very absurd, but these are things that are very possible with Fidel Castro," says Salas.
Even in hindsight, Salas can see the aura of possibility, the promise that led Castro to power.
'Frozen in time'
The latest news from Cuba this week has been the reaction to President Clinton's plans to improve communication between the people of Cuba and the United States. While the plan doesn't directly remove the U.S.'s 36-year-old economic embargo on Cuba, it is another step towards better relations between countries.
Salas, who lives in Havana, says the time has come for Washington to treat Cuba with the respect it treats other communist countries.
"I don't see a logical reason for (the embargo) to exist," he says. "If you have relations with China, why don't you have relations with Cuba? I do believe there has to be steps taken on both sides to normalize relations. It's the natural thing. They are 90 miles apart, it's a natural market for both sides, and there's historically always been a good relationship with the people of the United States and the people of Cuba. There's no real logical reason for this to continue anymore."
Meantime, the pictures taken by Roberto and Osvaldo, who died in 1992, stand as now-surreal interpretations of a country's lost legacy, whose people boarded one man's steamship to the promised land but now float uneasily on an ever-changing sea.
"Cuba is a bit frozen in time," says Salas. "Things have changed but ... Cuba is more or less the same."
In 1959, Castro asked father-son photographers to record the people of his new Cuba.
Putting a Human Face on Revolution
January 28, 1999|LORENZA MUNOZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER
As an 18-year-old photographer in 1959, Roberto Salas departed on the adventure of his life. Fidel Castro, fresh from his victory over Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, personally asked the Bronx-born Salas and his father, Osvaldo, to be part of an exclusive group of photographers to chronicle the revolution.
Osvaldo Salas, whose New York photo studio was the cultural epicenter of the tight-knit Cuban exile community, had earlier impressed Castro with his work.
Those were heady days for both photographers and their subjects. The pair packed their bags, closed their New York studio and boarded a plane to the island.
"To leave our routine life in New York for the tropics and a revolution--I didn't even think twice about it," said Roberto Salas, now 59. "For me it was a super adventure--especially at that age. And that super adventure turned into where I ended up living the rest of my life."
Salas, his father and a select group of photographers captured the turmoil and victory of young Castro and his crew of barbudos (bearded ones) including the revolution's commanders Camilo Cienfuegos and Ernesto "Che" Guevara.
L.A. Is the First Stop on Exhibition's U.S. Tour
Looking back at pictures of those historic moments of 40 years ago, Roberto Salas can only reminisce.
Cienfuegos, Guevara and, most poignantly for the photographer, Salas' father have all died.
But the images live on.
The Salases' photographs can be seen through Feb. 27 at the Fahey/Klein gallery in Los Angeles, the first stop on a U.S. tour of commercial galleries.
Featuring more than 100 photographs by Roberto and his father, the retrospective and the accompanying book capture Castro, Che and others from their pre-revolutionary days in 1955 through the Bay of Pigs crisis, to present-day Cuba.
The Salases' adventure began in the early days of 1955 when Castro, a young, dapper man in a three-piece suit, visited the exiled Cuban community in New York to raise funds for his cause.
Looking more like a banker than a Marxist, Castro was not a recognizable figure to the young Roberto.
"He was totally unknown to me at the time," Salas said in an interview at the gallery. "He was, to me, just another one of the many people that came to visit my father in his studio."
But by Jan. 2, 1959, when Castro ran Batista out of the country, the revolutionary leader had reached celebrity status. The younger Salas wasted no time in jumping on an airplane with his cameras--alongside other Cuban Americans carrying bazookas, grenades and big guns--to the island. Neither Salas was driven by ideology; rather, it was Castro's powers of persuasion that drew them in, Salas said.
Ever the astute politician, Castro realized it was essential to publicize the revolutionary cause to the populace. Since most of the Cuban population was illiterate, Castro's small band of photographers were given the task of filling the pages of the daily newspaper Revolucion with images of the people and their leaders.
The elder Salas headed the operation, overseeing a group of photographers including his son, Mayito, Korda, Corrales and Liborio.
Together, these men set about to show the human face of the revolution--the guajiros, or peasants who had taken arms in the sierras against Batista and the women who formed part of the war effort.
Then there were the minds behind the revolution, many of whom were mysterious figures to the majority of Cubans.
There was Camilo Cienfuegos, a former tailor. By 1959, Cienfuegos was posing for Osvaldo Salas in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, forcefully peering at the camera in military fatigues and boots, long hair and beard, as one of the revolution's most important commanders.
There was Guevara, the enigmatic Argentine who was not immediately accepted by the Cuban people as one of their own, but whose charisma and premature death turned him into a mythical figure.
Considering that Guevara's time in the spotlight spanned only five years, the breadth of photographs taken by the crew of photographers is astounding, Salas said.
"There are so many excellent photographs--of real artistic value--of the guy way before he became a legend," he said. "By contrast, Fidel is probably the most photographed figure of the 20th century, but I don't think there are even 20 outstanding photographs of him."
Photographers Covered Rural Literacy Campaign
Throughout the early 1960s, Salas, his father and the other photographers captured the daily occurrences of life in post-revolutionary Cuba. Perhaps one of the most important journalistic endeavors for Salas was the literacy campaign undertaken in Cuba immediately following Castro's victory.
Nowhere in Latin America has there ever been such a sweeping effort to educate the masses. From 1960 to 1961, young, literate Cubans hiked into the sierras and fanned out into the countryside to teach their fellow Cubans to read and write.
But if Salas has any regrets, it's that he did not shoot more rigorously during the literacy campaign.