One of the highlights of the XV Córdoba International Biennal of Photography has ubdoubtedly been Susan Meiselas´s exhibition Nicaragua including pictures made by the great Magnum Agency photographer, and which from March 23 until May 7, 2017, has had the Rafael Botí Art Center of Córdoba (c/ Manrique, 5) as a venue,
with a daily massive attendance of visitors who have relished the direct observation of king size pictures belonging to the mythical reportage made by the American photographer in the Central American country in 1978 and 1979 during the Sandinist Revolution against Anastasio Somoza´s dictatorship.
Nicaragua makes up one of the diachronic benchmarks of war photojournalism, because of the quality and impact of its images (captured by Susan Meiselas with a rangefinder analog Leica M 24 x 36 mm format camera and Kodachrome 64 colour slide film from an amazingly near distance either regarding the core of combats or as to defining instants with a number of inhabitants inside villages and rural areas) and the fact that it was a photojournalistic war essay pioneering the use of colour, a real documentary milestone which had huge significance as a turning point marking the future of the best illustrated magazines since eighties (reaching superb qualitative levels of images reproduction on paper thanks to the use of top-notch professional colour slide films in photomechanics and printing, optimizing each and every stage of the keynotes set forth by J.S. Mertle and Gordon L. Monsen in 1957) and whose influence still lives on within the XXI century, already immersed in full swing digital era.
- The 35 mm Kodachromes ASA 10 exposed by Charles Cushman with his Contax II camera of landscapes all over United States from 1938.
- The 35 mm Kodachromes ASA 10 exposed by Walter Bosshard in 1938 with his screwmount Leica II (Model D) capturing Mao Tse-Tung, in addition to a soldier of the communist troops and a group of twenty soldiers in the city of Yan´an in the northwest of China and which were published by Life magazine in its number of August 8, 1938.
- Foure 35 mm ASA 10 Kodachromes exposed by Robert Capa in Hankou, China, on July 19, 1938 just after the air raids of Japanese aviation and which were published by Life magazine in full colour double page inside its number of October 17, 1938.
The large format 4 x 5 Kodadhromes used by the photographers of the Farm Security Administration of United States during the second half of thirties and first half of forties, among them the famous portrait of the Jack Whinery family made by Russell Lee in Pie Town, New Mexico, in 1940; the superb portraits of illegal immigrant workers made by Arthur Rothstein in Robstown, Texas and Pie Town, New Mexico and the pictures of working women employed as wipers in roundhouses made by Jack Delano in Chicago and Iowa in 1943.
- The cover of the march 1950 number of Ladies´ Home Journal magazine with a picture of a housewife in a fruit shop made by Ruth Orkin; etc).
And throughout fifties, Kodachrome film was also used by Wayne Miller, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Werner Bischof, Inge Morath, David Seymour " Chim ", Burt Glinn, René Burri, Georg Rodger, Elliott Erwitt, Erich Hartmann and others.
But the pictures made with Kodachrome film were overwhelmingly less abundant than the ones made in black and white, which was the common choice for the photographic reportages until early eighties, as well as being very static images because of the very low sensitivity of that 35 mm chemical emulsion — between ISO 8, 10, 12, 16 and 25 — until the introduction of the Kodachrome-X ISO 64 (manufactured between 1962 and 1974) and the Kodachrome 64 (produced from 1974), so the blossoming of colour as a usual photographic means inside the pages of the foremost illustrated magazines arrived above all with William Egglestone, Ernst Haas, Larry Burrows, Harry Gruyaert, Alex Webb and Susan Meiselas, with the Nicaragua essay being the one which exerted more influence for its full-fledged worldwide spreading from around 1980 onwards.
Men of the FSLN practice the hurling of contact bombs in the wood surrounding the neighbourhood of Monimbó, Masaya, in the Department of Jinotega, in the north of Nicaragua. They are wearing indigenous traditional masks to conceal their identities.
One of them is Justo Román González, popularly known as "Tarzán", who passed away on June 24, 2016.
Throughout the forty-six days in which it has been held at the Rafael Botó Art Center in Córdoba, this historical and very important exhibition has allured many thousands or visitors from every procedence and age, stirring up very high levels of interest,
enhanced by the remarkable quality of the prints made from original Kodachrome 64 slide films exposed by Susan Meiselas in Nicaragua between June 1978 and July 1979.
Pictures whose colours and tones are much more frequently dim and restrained than vivid, which sometimes brings about slightly irreal images featuring a painterly effect.
August 26, 1978. First day of popular insurrection.
In this great photograph you can see the means shortage of the FSLN, one of whose integrants appears with a red handkerchief and armed only with a pistol.
It must be likewise underscored Susan Meiselas´s impressive timing accuracy on pressing the shutter release button of her Leica M4 camera with Kodachrome 64 film (which she used in Nicaragua with another Leica M camera loaded with black and white Kodak Safety Film 5063, id est, Kodak Tri-X 400), masterfully capturing the movement of the guerrilla man in full run with the handgun in his left hand, while the whole weight of his body rests on his right leg and foot, ans at the same time his left foot is in the air and appears blurred (in the same way as the rest of his body waist up) thanks to the slow shutter speed and great depth of field attained by the photographer through the use of the hyperfocal technique enabling to get very good sharpness from half the minimum focusing distance to infinite, focusing the lens to the hyperfocal distance, using the scales of distances and depths of fields with wideangle objetives (24, 28 and 35 mm) and standard (50 mm) which are the most suitable to get advantage of this resource, unlike the tele lenses from 75 mm onwards, whose hyperfocal distance is very far.
It confers the image a spectacular dynamism in stark contrast to the static position of both the woman and the man visible in the background on top left of the picture and who are standing beside their homes doors, watching what´s going on.
On the other hand, the Leica M bright-line frames are exceedingly useful when it comes to creating this kind of photojournalistic war pictures in which the photographer is very near the core of action, risking his/her life, because this classic mechanic viewing system sporting a very high production cost and projection with metallic masks of the frame lines of different focal lengths of the Leica M System makes possible to see what is happening outsiede the framing lines at the moment of the photographic act.
A woman of Monimbó taking home the body of her husband to bury him in the back garden. Masaya, 1979.
Another outstanding image in which the observer is crisply shown the destitution and poverty accompanying human beings living in countries whose civil population is permanently poverty-stricken, in the middle of a prevailing social and economical chaos.
Furthermore, the mythical Kodachrome 64 colour slide, by far the best photographic emulsion ever made, shows here all of its splendour, getting extraordinary sharpness, a very natural reproduction of the most hidden subtleties of colurs, a practically total absence of grain and an impressive dynamic range for the time of roughly eight diaphragms, along with a spectacular translation of the woman´s red colour dress, the greens of the lavish vegetation in the background, the textures of the strings tying the body, etc.
In spite of the controversy aroused then, time has proved that the use of Kodachrome 64 24 x 36 mm format film by Susan Meiselas to do her reportage Nicaragua was a wise move, since light conditions usually existing in that country are very good, with a bright sun, an exceedingly adequate environment for shooting a low sensitivity film for daylight per excellence and to generate impact framed by the colouring immanent to this Centroamerican country and built-in within its atavistic essence and culture.
Besides, in 1978, the year in which Susan Meiselas begins her Nicaragua photographic essay, the Kodachrome 64 colour slide — launched into market in 1974 — is by far the best chemical emulsion on earth (though it is really a black and white film whose yellow, magenta and cyan colour couplers are not included inside its three capturing layers sensitized for the three primary colours, but added during three separate colour developments begetting blue, green and red in those layers), fruit of a 42 year stunning evolution whose origin was the Weston 8 (ASA 10) 35 mm Kodachrome film from 1936, invented by Leopold Godowsky and Leopold Mannes.
Even, 1978 is also the year in which Hiroji Kubota gets his iconic picture The Golden Rock in Kyaiktiyo (Burma), likewise using Kodachrome 64 colour film, of which the famous selected image was the last K64 frame of the 35 mm film roll he exposed the specific spring day of that season.
Additionally, the Kodachrome 64 magenta bias is more acceptable than Kodachrome 25 greenish tonality, and above all, Kodachrome 64 boasts 1.3 f stop more of exposure speed, a key factor when the time comes to being able to get pictures, no matter how much available natural light there can be, because an ISO 25 very low sensitivity film would have been much less versatile to achieve that aim.
Susan Meiselas was well aware that though in the technical tests K25 slightly beat K64, in practical real situations difference are barely perceptible as to exposure range, lack of grain and excellent saturation of colours, even more if we bear in mind that in war photojournalism the technical perfection of images is not the most significant aspect, because the most important things are that the picture conveys a message, tthat has impact, to be at the adequate place in the suitable moment, to approach as much as possible to the photographed person or persons and the accuracy on pressing the shutter release button of the camera to capture the most meaningful instants, albeit the Kodachrome 64 immense potential on reproducing the colour images in the pages of the best illustrated magazines of the time, without almost visible grain, at double page size, covers or even selective reframings with a minimum loss of quality, was something very important which would entail a revolution in the publishing market and would reach stratospheric levels with reportages made with Kodachrome 64 like Butterflies, When Nature Imitates Art (Antonio Manzanares) and Old Guatemala (Covadonga de Noriega and Juan Antonio Fernández) in the number 91, Year XVI, March 1990 of Periplo Magazine (Incafo Publishing Group).
On the other hand, Susan Meiselas underexposed K64 film at ISO 80 to attain richly saturated chromatic nuances and a bit more moderate contrasts than at the ISO 64 nominal sensitivity to get maximum levels of realism (because both the biotopes and the living beings inhabiting them are not so contrasty or with so strong blues, so vivid reds and so exuberant greens as the ones rendered by subsequent E-6 slide colour films which would appear in early nineties like the Fujichrome Velvia 50 — whose real nominal sensitivity was ISO 32 — .
Muchachos (name with which members of FSLN were colloquially known) waiting for a Guardia Nacional counterattack. Matagalpa (capital of the Department bearing the same name, in the northwest of the country). 1978
Husband and wife from Belgium watching one of the pictures of Susan Meiselas´s exhibition Nicaragua on the first floor of Rafael Botí Art Center in Córdoba (Spain), together with the film Images from a Revolution (made by Susan Meiselas, Richard P. Rogers and Alfred Guzzetti in 1989, ten years after making her famous photographic reportage), launched into market in 1991 and which was also a part of the display.
The presence of public was very abundant throughout every and eacxh of the days of this historical showing, not only Spanish attendees but also lovers of photography from many other countries.
The popular forces begin the final offensive in Masaya. June 8, 1979.
This is one of the most famous pictures made by Susan Meiselas in Nicaragua and an iconic image in which there´s a young man belonging to the FSLN wielding a 22 caliber bolt rifle in the heat of combats, pointing at a National Guard position.
The photographer makes a masterful front shot from a very close distance, managing to go unnoticed, without being detected by the chief subject of the action.
Ten years later. A frame of the documentary film Images from a Revolution (1991), in which Susan Meiselas returns in 1989 to the locations where she made her photographs of the reportage Nicaragua between June 1978 and July 1979, with a Leica M camera different to the one she used then.
At this stage of the movie, the photographer asks for help to know the whereabouts of the man he captured in Masaya on June 8, 1979 grabbing a 22 caliber rifle in his left hand and taking part in the fight.
Susan Meiselas is taking in her hand the book Nicaragua, published in 1981 by Pantheon and including an assortment of 71 pictures made during his year of stay in that Centroamerican country covering the fight of FSLN against the Somozist National Guard in 1978 and 1979.
She starts engaging in dialogue with a teenage boy
whom she shows the picture of the man she photographed ten years before.
She asks him if he knows him
and the man happens to be his uncle Augusto,
whom he identifies, stating that now he´s older.
The boys call Augusto, who recognizes Susan Meiselas after ten years.
The former combatant of the FSLN says that though being older, he goes on being the same person.
And he appears with his wife.
After the end of the war he has created a family and has currently six offspring. And Susan Meiselas congratulates him for it. Instants of huge emotional intensity are about to take place.
The photographer is holding with her right hand a Leica M6 rangefinder camera with a 7 elements in 5 groups Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 pre aspheric, featuring a 10 blade diaphragm, designed by Walter Mandler in Leitz Midland, Ontario (Canadá) and coupled to a plastic 12524 rectangular shade.
Susan Meiselas´s heed is utmost, since this man, his woman and his four duaghters and two sons are very important for her.
She is not only a world-class photographer but an anthropologist who once and again is able to forge an outstanding rapport with the people she gets pictures of.
She does want to obtain a good image of the whole family who is posing happy for her. She knows that her arrival is quite an event for them and that August is elated.
The photographer holds in her left hand a Polaroid camera with which she often gets pictures she gioves away and a large folder with images on paper that she presses with her forearm against her left side to prevent it from falling, making a strenuous effort to get the best feasible balance, with both feet firmly seated on the ground — in a very similar position to Henri Cartier-Bresson in Havana, Cuba, in 1963, though much more bent forward, in more uncomfortable conditions — , holding the camera with only one hand while shooting with huge prowess abd getting advantage of the absence of swivelling mirror in the very small and light 24 x 36 mm format mirrorless with rangefinder camera minimizing the risk of trepidation, in symbiosis with the exceedingly reduced dimensions (length of 26.5 mm) and weight (160 g) of the aforementioned lens boasting a superb distortion correction, excellent image quality and a remarkable mechanic construction with a brass manual focsuing helicoid enabling to use it working flawless for many decades.
The photographer´s strong character and resolve are apparent in the position of the Leica M6 camera which is utterly parallel to the ground and firmly grasped with her right hand at the moment in which she gets the picture.
The former FSLN fighter posing for Susan Meiselas with all of his family in 1989, ten years after the picture she made him during the War in Nicaragua.
Graffiti on the wall of a house in the neighbourhood of Marimbó (Masaya) referring to the disappearance of Norman González, hijacked and assassinated by the National Guard of the Somozist dictatorship. 1978
Two attendees to the exhibition beside another of the photographs made by Susan Meiselas in which can be seen some FSLN guerrilla men hugging one another at the Central Square in Managua, renamed Revolution Square, on July 20, 1979.
Soldiers of the National Guard prisoners of war in Sébaco (town of the Department of Matagalpa, located in the northwest of the country, at a distance of 103 km from Managua). 1979
A visitor of the Susan Meiselas´s exhibition Nicaragua walks towards another room with more pictures, after beholding the image made by the American photojournalist in 1979 near the Central Square of managua, renamed as " Revolution Square " and in which you can see some FSLN guerrilla men and women (one of them armed with a revolver) travelling inside a bus.
Members of the FSLN in San Isidro (a village belonging to the Department of Matagalpa, at a distance of 117 km from Managua) one hour following its capture. 1979.
One of the many visitors of Susan Meiselas´s exhibition Nicaragua at the Rafael Botí Art Center in Córdoba gazes at the picture made by the American photographer in Jinotepe (southwest of Nicaragua, in the Department of Carazo, at a distance of 46 km from Managua, during the funeral procession for some killed student leaders.
The demonstrators take a large photograph of Arlen Siu, a guerrilla fighter of FSLN, assassinated by the Somozist National Guard in El Sauce (Department of León, 177 km from Managua and placed in the west of the country) in 1975.
FSLN guerrilla man next to a street of Masaya downtown, destroyed after three days of bombardment. 1978
Once more, the 35 mm Kodachrome 64 colour film bears out its yarstick of quality nature, with an image excelling at the unbeatable grea depth of blacks inherent to the black and white ADN of this legendary chemical emulsion and utterly different to the other colour slides manufactured hitherto.
A visitor of the exhibition watches and hears on screen the statement of a FSLN ex-combatant (interviewed by Susan Meiselas in 1989, during the shooting of the documentary film Images from a Revolution and who is the same guerrilla man appearing behind the woman wearing a hat in close up in the middle of the photograph made in 1979 to members of the FSLN in San Isidro, a village of the Department of Matagalpa, at a distance of 117 km from Managua, an hour after its capture) expresses his disappointment and recognizes that after the 1978-1979 War in Nicaragua, there were moments in which he didn´t feel well being a Sandinist, because the social and economical goals of the revolution weren´t mostly fulfilled with the elapse of time and vast majority of Nicaraguans went on living in a similar way as they had done before the popular insurrection and ousting of the dictator Anastasio Somoza regime.
Student demonstration thwarted by the National Guard using tear gas. Managua, June 1978.
Text and Photos: José Manuel Serrano Esparza