These Stunning Color Photos From 1950s Cuba Show a Society on the Verge of Transformation

Cuba 1954. Photo by Heinrich Heidersberger

Much ado has been made about Havana’s 1950s golden age, when the cosmopolitan Caribbean capital was a center of fashion and leisure, and the city’s sumptuous glamor was renowned the world over. We’ve seen it immortalized in the romantic haze of films like The Godfather II or Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, while Miami’s embittered exile community constantly invokes this lost grandeur to curse the island’s fate under communist rule. But, as in any capitalist society, this superficial gloss masked insidious power dynamics drawn along lines of race, class, and even region; all of which eventually – some might say inevitably – boiled over into the prolonged revolutionary convulsions that would ultimately transform Cuban society.

Perhaps nothing epitomized the idyllic glamor life of pre-revolutionary Cuba like the MS Atlantic – a luxurious cruise ship that sailed regularly from New York to Havana bearing hundreds of American tourists. Like any modern cruise ship, the MS Atlantic offered all sorts of party tricks for its well-heeled clients, among which was a nightly slide show that showcased the work of the ship’s official photographer, and offered slides for sale as mementos. What passengers may not have known, though, was that on three of these trips the official photographer was one Heinrich Heidersberger – considered to be one of the greatest German architectural photographers of his generation.

Heidersberger, who shot almost exclusively on black and white film stock, learned of the position through a friend and took the opportunity to experiment with the new color slide film while soaking in the visual delights of la Perla del Caribe. The result is a series of handsome snapshots that admittedly lack the formal brilliance of Heidersberger’s architectural photography, but still manage to find interesting plays of color and light in everyday street scenes. It’s ostensibly the stuff of yet another nostalgic time capsule, but read through the lens of the brewing social discontent that would explode in outright revolution only four years later, the images take on the feeling of an ominous portent.

The stark contrasts of leisure and thankless work, threadbare clothes and pristine high fashion, together with the clearly racialized nature of social roles ultimately paints a portrait of a deeply divided society impregnated with glaring contractions. Check out some some of Heidersberger’s images below.

H/T Spiegel Online