By Dawn Watson
One of the foremost photojournalists in the world for more than five decades, Burt Glinn had an uncanny sense for being in the right place at the right time.
The award-winning New York and East Hampton-based photographer captured his fair share of crucial and memorable moments, including moments from the Sinai War in 1956, the US Marine invasion of Lebanon in 1958, the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and Robert Kennedy’s Presidential Campaign in 1968. Additionally, his photographic portraits of everyone from Andy Warhol and Elizabeth Taylor to Sammy Davis Jr. and Marilyn Monroe, plus an extremely recognizable image of “Members of the Seattle Tubing Society” and a very famous one of the back of Nikita Khrushchev’s head as he stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., have monumental visual and historical impact.
Though the legendary photographer, who was married to Elena Prohaska Glinn and was the father of Samuel Pierson Glinn, died in 2008, his work documenting the Cuban Revolution has recently been gathered in a posthumously-published book, “Cuba 1959.” Photographs included in the Reel Art Press tome, as well as others famously shot by Mr. Glinn, are now on view at Tulla Booth Gallery in Sag Harbor.
“His timing was brilliant,” says Ms. Prohaska Glinn, whose first date with her future husband resulted in yet another iconic photo—one taken from a helicopter, which included the Statue of Liberty, the World Trade Center and Manhattan skyline all in a single frame. “His nearly 60 years of pictures show that.”
The photographs in “Cuba 1959,” taken directly from Mr. Glinn’s archives and some of which had never before been shown, tell a fascinating photographic story of first few days of Fidel Castro’s takeover of Cuba. And the backstory of the photographer’s adventures there is almost as exciting.
With little more than whispered rumors of dictator Fulgencio Batista’s imminent exile to go on, the Magnum Photo photographer bolted from a Manhattan New Year’s Eve party in 1958 and headed south, straight into the Cuban Revolution. It was the last night of 1958 and a tuxedo-clad Mr. Glinn was enjoying himself at a black-tie party at the apartment of friend and fellow journalist Nick Pileggi. But talk soon turned to Batista, who was rumored to have backed his trucks up to the treasury in Havana and was making haste to get the heck out of Cuba. By 10 p.m., the photographer had made the decision to fly to the Caribbean island, without the backing of an assignment, to cover the revolution as it unfolded.
Once he scraped together enough money for airfare and expenses, and stopped by home to change into more suitable clothing and to
grab his cameras and film, the seasoned photojournalist was on his way. By 7 a.m. on New Year’s Day 1959, he was in Havana and ready for action.
The shooting he heard in the streets left him no time for rest or preparation. Leaderless crowds—amped up, ready for action and armed to the teeth—were indistinguishable from the true rebels, namely the followers of Castro, Che Guevara and general Camilo Cienfuegos and his group of “bearded ones.”
Heading straight into the fray, Mr. Glinn shot all the action he could with his cameras as others discharged their firearms into the air and at each other. Tired, hungry, dirty, without a change of clothes, and having lost his shoes along the way, he spent nine days capturing the ensuing drama, eventually linking up with Castro and documenting his journey to Havana, to his position of power.
Mr. Glinn was, according to Ms. Booth, “a soldier with a camera instead of a gun.” His body of work, she says, is “not just a collection of pretty pictures but iconic images that always captured the unexpected.”
The photojournalist modestly said that his impressive collection of photos was the result of his occupation, and not so much about heroism. Nonetheless, the images that Mr. Glinn shot and captured over the years offer a special insight, the essential truth of a situation, and the legendary lens man’s unique point of view.
“Contrary to the romantic misconceptions about the job, I was not particularly brave,” the legendary photographer said in 2001. “I really hated it when people I did not know began shooting at me.”