Major collection of photos from the Cuban Revolution on display in Princeton

David Sellers’ Hopewell home has all the signs of a collector: a Nakashima dining table and chairs, kilims, stacks of quilts, Mission chairs and antique wooden chests, a wooden horse and Buddhas, and books. But none of these are “collections,” he said.

“A collection is something you become interested in and passionate about and assemble in a way that allows for comparison. It requires a focus,” he said. “A collection is something you build carefully over many years, and define what you need to add to make it better.”

Sellers’ collection of photographs of the Cuban Revolution, for example, are “pieces to a puzzle you can never complete.” The photographs are on view at the Bernstein Gallery, Woodrow Wilson School, through January 28, 2016.

The photographs were made by known and un-known photographers, mostly Cubans, including Alberto Korda, Castro’s personal photographer, best known for his iconic photo of Che Guevara. Subjects include Fulgencio Batista, the elected President of Cuba from 1940 to 1944 and dictator from 1952 to 1959, before being overthrown during the Cuban Revolution; Fidel Castro and his family; and Nikita Khrushchev and his family. This is the first time these photographs—80 silver gelatin prints made during the 1950s and 1960s, many bearing the stamps of the photographers and their studios—have been exhibited. Explanatory text tells the story of this important period in Cuban history.

Among the highlights of Sellers’ images of the Revolution: A 21-year-young Fidel Castro in a James Dean-style leather jacket, surrounded by a gang; Castro’s two sisters, Juanita and Emma, reading Bohemia magazine while awaiting their brother’s release from prison; then Vice President Richard Nixon visiting Havana to give Batista the Eisenhower administration’s blessing; images of Che looking everything from bedraggled rebel to a cigar-smoking hero who could be played by Johnny Depp; a crowd of attractive young women and children holding machine guns; Castro staring down a tiger at the Bronx Zoo. One walks away with a lasting impression of men and their beards.

“The story of our beards is very simple: it arose out of the difficult conditions we were living and fighting under as guerrillas,” Sellers quotes Castro. “We didn’t have any razor blades… everybody just let their beards and hair grow, and that turned into a kind of badge of identity. For the campesinos and everybody else, for the press, for the reporters we were “los barbudos”—the bearded ones. It had its positive side: in order for a spy to infiltrate us, he had to start preparing months ahead of time—he’d have had to have six-months growth of beard, you see… Later, with the triumph of the Revolution, we kept our beards to preserve the symbolism.”

Sellers, a Philadelphia native raised in Levittown, Pennsylvania, studied political science and political philosophy at Rider University, then earned a master’s degree in public administration, with a focus on financial management and budgeting, at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. This led to a 25-plus-year career in finance for states, counties and municipalities.

Because of his interest in political theory, he began reading books on the Cuban Revolution in the late ’90s. Looking at photos online, he found some for sale and bought them, which got him interested in buying even more.

“Historic photos can tell a story,” he said. “I started researching and found the Cuban Revolution to be a complicated story. I set out to find photos that had artistic merit—good composition, technical and aesthetic aspects—and also that said something about the period from the late 1940s to the mid 1960s. It’s hard to know when a revolution starts and ends.”

Many were purchased online and through dealers in the U.S. and Canada. All were printed by the photographer or the photographer’s studio, and many have the stamp of the photographer or studio. Many are small, and were not printed to be art—this was photojournalism, done for magazines, newspapers and books. When he’s not exhibiting the photos, Sellers preserves them in archival sleeves. Although not all are in the exhibit, he has 340 in the collection—all have been digitized both to catalog and preserve them.

The categories into which they have been catalogued are Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Batista, leading commandants, victors, vanquished, and women as militia or who played key roles.

“By digitizing, I can move them around (into different categories—this kind of organization) is essential to putting together an exhibit as narrative,” said Sellers. “One photo relates more to another, and if successful, the viewer walks away with an understanding of the events.”

Sellers, whose many talents does not include speaking Spanish, used Google Translate to tease the story out of the writing on the back of the photographs.

“Using the right search terms one can find an enormous amount of information online,” he said. This research supplemented the clues on the back and face of the photographs.

“What interests me are the personal images of important people that say something about the Cuban Revolution,” says Sellers. “It’s nice to have a collection, but I want to share this. Since I put it together, there’s a lot more focus on Cuba, and the collection has become more timely. We were stuck in a post Cold War embargo, but now Cuba is moving into the future. No single collection can fairly represent a profound event such as the Cuban Revolution.”

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The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.

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