© Lisl Steiner
September 23, 1960. Five days have elapsed since the arrival of Fidel Castro in New York as chief of the Cuban delegation that will be present during the XV Period of Sessions of the United Nations General Assembly.
From the very moment of his landing on the Idlewild (currently John Fitzgerald Kennedy) airport at 16:34 h in the afternoon of September 18, 1960, the excitement brought about by the presence of the Cuban Revolution leader in New York has been huge, and besides, some contexts of high tension have happened when the Cuban delegation lodged at the Shelburne Hotel — located at 37 street and Lexington Avenue — have been made get away after being within it for one day.
Following some hours of unsuccessful searching for a new hotel and on realizing that the owners of different hotels of downtown New York refused to put them up, Fidel Castro stated that if things kept going on that way, the Cuban delegation would pitch tents in the gardens facing the United Nations building to sleep inside them at night.
The piece of news spread like wildfire all over the city, until the Afroamerican owner of Hotel Theresa, placed on 125th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem, offered free accommodation to the whole Cuban delegation made up by roughly 40 people, and which reached that hotel at 23:30 h in the night of September 20, 1960, after being received by Dag Hammarskjold, General Secretary of the United Nations.
A few days later, during the night of September 23, 1960, Fidel Castro and Nikita Kruschev have just gone down into the street by the Georgian mansion located in Park Avenue 680 — one of the four ones belonging to the Pyne-Davison Row building placed between East 68th and East 69th Streets— , which has been the headquarters of the Soviet United Nations delegation since 1947 and is likewise now the lodging venue of the Soviet delegation headed by Nikita Kruschev throughout his visit to New York to also attend to the XV Period of Sessions of the United Nations.
The Soviet premier Nikita Kruschev has invited Fidel Castro to have dinner inside this mansion at Park Avenue 680 and now both of them are on the street, surrounded by Soviet secret agents of Kruschev´s security service and some members of the Cuban delegation who simultaneously perform the task of protecting Fidel Castro, also being abundant the presence of journalists, photographers and a large audience of gathering thrilled people.
Fidel Castro rustles up a speech addressed to all the attendees, which significantly raises the emotional intensity of the moment.
The photographer Lisl Steiner, who works as a freelance for Life, Time, O Cruzeiro and Keystone Press Agency is very near, with her 24 x 36 mm format Leica rangefinder camera coupled to a 50 mm lens and loaded with Kodak Tri-X 400 black and white film.
It´s not easy to get pictures in this environment, since as well as the noticeable excitement created, stress is maximum, because the Soviet secret agents of the security service watch closely to prevent anybody from approaching the Soviet premier Nikita Kruschev or the Soviet foreign affairs minister Andrei Gromiko who is standing just after him.
On the other hand, it is even more difficult to approach Fidel Castro, who is standing beside Raúl Roa ( Cuban Minister of Foreign Relations) and is being protected from close up by two high rank men of the Cuban delegation, who have been guerrilla fighters in the war against the dictator Batista for many years, feature abundant combat experience on the front lines and simultaneously perform tasks of Fidel´s bodyguards: major Juan Almeyda and captain Antonio Núñez Jiménez, who have positioned one on each side of Fidel Castro and have got the mission of neutralizing any attempt of aggression or assassination, for it is feared that a possible attempt against the life of the Cuban revolution leader can occur.
Both of them are men of the highest confidence for Fidel.
Juan Almeyda is one of the topmost guerrilla fighting commanders of the Cuban army, took part along with Fidel in the assault on Moncada Headquarters in 1953 and directed with Ernesto Che Guevara the defense of the 81 expediotionary guerrilla fighters under the command of Fidel Castro who were encircled in the Alegría de Pío engagement of 1956, subsequently participating in a number of combats in Sierra Maestra against Batista´s forces, being named by Fidel Chief of the III Eastern Front and the Santiago de Cuba Column.
On his turn, Antonio Núñez Jiménez, who is 37 years old at the moment,is a prestigious Cuba scientist — founder of the Cuban Speleological Society in 1940, a University of La Habana Ph.D in 1951 and member of the National Speleological Society of United States since 1956, turned into a revolutionary guerrilla fighter in the warfare against Batista. He´s fought under the command of Ernesto Che Guevara during the campaign of liberation of central Cuba in 1958, has been Ernesto Che Guevara´s assistant captain in the fortress of La Cabaña throughout 1959, is Director of the National Institute of Agrarian Reform since 1959 and has been the Director of the Camilo Cienfuegos Artillery School for a few months.
© Lisl Steiner
Lisl Steiner has managed to climb up to a bit elevated position, striving after photographing Fidel Castro, on whose left side are Raúl Roa and Antonio Núñez Jiménez, while Nikita Kruschev and Andrei Gromyko are on his right, and Juan Almeyda is located slightly behind, on the right of the leader of the Cuban revolution.
Bearing in mind the circumstances, it is a remarkable photograph, because in addition, the powerful supporting lamp of a 16 mm movie camera handled by an operator located very near Fidel incides strongly on the countenance of the Cuban leader and particularly on Nikita Kruschev and Andrei Gromyko, albeit it renders in shadow the right side of the faces of Antonio Núñez Jiménez, Raúl Roa and Kiril Trofimovich Mazurov (First Secretary of the Byelorussian Communist Party, who is wearing a black tuxedo and tie along with a striped white shirt and is placed behind Núñez Jiménez and Roa and is paying attention to Kruschev and Gromyko), which adds impact to this exceedingly representative image in which the photographer has masterfully captured the very special atmosphere of the moment during those historical instants, as well as choosing a medium diaphragm — probably f/5.6 — and a slow shutter speed that has enabled her to get plenty of depth of field and tremulous depiction of Fidel Castro´s left hand in motion while he is speaking.
The sharpness, contrast and very beautiful image aesthetics delivered by the non aspherical Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 are really impressive for the time.
Anyway, in this kind of photojournalistic pictures the key factors are not the technical ones, but the photographer´s experience, to be at the right moment in the right place, to approach as much as possible to the subject and the timing accuracy on pressing the shutter release button of the camera, fundamental ingredients to create a good image that have often been explained by this acclaimed photographer who besides proving her prowess and mettle, has attained a further accomplishment: none of the sixteen persons appearing in this first-rate graphic document of the Twentieth Century history is looking at the camera.
A PICTURE FOR HISTORY
The picture of Fidel Castro made by Lisl Steiner is both a great photograph and a very important historical image taken in the middle of much more stressful and difficult conditions that it could seem at first glance, because the photographer had to fight not only to approach as much as possible to the subject, but also to keep out of the frame two cinema camera operators (16 mm and 35 mm respectively) who were exceedingly near Fidel, filming him, and another photographer likewise very near the Cuban leader and who was using a large format 4 x 5 Speed Graphic camera coupled to a Graflex III cell flash emitting a powerful burst of light.
Some frames shot by the 16 mm movie camera provide a glimpse of the conditions under which Lisl Steiner had to do the picture and the great security measures around Fidel Castro and Nikita Kruschev.
Text and Indicated Photos: José Manuel Serrano Esparza