Wednesday, January 13, 2021



 © jmse

By José Manuel Serrano Esparza

July 16, 1979. Forty-two years ago.

Susan Meiselas, a Magnum photographer, is in the city of Estelí (west of Nicaragua), covering the war between the National Guard of dictator Anastasio Somoza and the insurgent Sandinist Guerrilla.

A group of Sandinist fighters is attacking the headquarters of a Somozist National Guard regiment located in it.

Five of them are now beside a defensive Somozist barricade (made up by piled up big sacks of sugar and a four-wheeled T17E1 armoured car with 37 mm gun) which has just being assaulted by the guerrilla men, who are protecting themselves behind the sacks while being under enemy fire.

Suddenly, 20 years old Pablo Araúz, one of the guerrilla fighters, known by his comrades with the nickname " Baretta ", lits a cocktail Molotov made with a bottle of Pepsi-Cola full of gasoline and grabs it strongly with his right hand to throw it against the nearby Somozist soldiers of the National Guard shooting at them from behind the outer wall of the headquarters, while he holds a 7.62 x 51 mm caliber FN FAL assault rifle in his left hand.

© jmse
Susan Meiselas is crouched, very near him, at a distance of around three meters, with two photographic cameras :

© jmse
a Leica M4 coupled to

© jmse
an 8 elements in 6 groups Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 SAWOM 11308 lens and loaded with Kodachrome 64 colour film

© jmse
and a  Leica M2 attached to

© jmse
an also 8 elements in 6 groups Elmarit-M 28 mm f/2.8 Second Version 11802 lens loaded with Kodak Tri-X 400 black and white film.

Stress is maximum and the photographer presses the shutter release button of her Leica M4 with Kodachrome 64 colour film a split second before " The Molotov Man " throws the Pepsi-Cola bottle full of gasoline against the soldiers of Anastasio Somoza´s National Guard shooting at them.

© Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos

She has just created one of the most influential pictures ever made, with a number of significant elements turning it into an everlasting iconic photograph:

a) The focus is not perfect, because the photojournalist has had to react very quickly to get the picture.

That lack of utterly sharp focus bears the classical Leica hallmark and doesn´t mind at all in this kind of photojournalistic images in which the important thing is the defining instant captured and to be at the core of the action, as near as possible.

b) Pablo Araúz´s countenance appears convulse, fraught with rage, with the black beret worn by guerrilla fighters of FSLN (Sandinist Front of National Liberation).

c) His body is powerfully slanted to the left, to gain momentum and throw the Molotov cocktail as far as possible with full strength.

d) Both his right hand and the Pepsi-Cola bottle appear blurred because of the wisely chosen slow shutter speed attaining motion feeling and adding tons of drama to the picture, in synergy with his necklace featuring a cross flying tremulous and likewise depicted blurred over his chest.

© jmse
Moreover, the superb 140 megapixel Kodachrome 64 colour slide film provides outstanding realism to the image (depicting reality more faithfully than the highly saturated in colours and exceedingly contrasty Fuji Velvia 50), with its contained colours and relatively high contrast, its very deep blacks visible on the middle area of Pablo Araúz´s assault rifle, in the lower zone of his beret, and in the hair of the guerrilla fighter wearing beret on far right of the image.

e) The surrounding ground is full of  hundreds of automatic assault rifles, bolt rifles and sub machine guns bullet shells of different caliber strewn on it, clearly indicating that a lot of previous shooting exchange has taken place until the guerrilla fighters have been able to assault the defensive National Guard position.

f) The top area of the big sugar sack just over the head of the FSLN member wearing glasses and holding a bolt rifle, has been torn out by the impact of bullets shot by the guerrilla fighters to capture the enemy defensive position. 

g) The Sandinist fighter wearing glasses sitting on the floor and covering himself behind the sugar sacks has his mouth open and his facial expression reveals to be stricken with tension while he watches Pablo Araúz, who is about to throw the Molotov cocktail.

© Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos

h) The previously knocked out four-wheeled T17E1 armoured car with 37 mm gun, placed just beyond the sugar sacks, adds drama to the scene, since its gun appears in the image aiming at Pablo Araúz´s head.

k) Both Pablo Araúz´s automatic assault rifle and the bolt rifle used by the guerrrilla fighter wearing glasses are with their barrels upwards. It conveys in the image a meaningful and straightforward message: People are in arms to overthrow Anastasio Somoza´s  dictatorship.

l) A lonely telephone cable crosses the image from right to left with a diagonal descending trajectory until reaching a rather old wooden phone post. A very wide percentage of the Nicaraguan population hasn´t got telephone and extreme poverty is widespread across the whole country, which has been ruled by the Somoza family since 1934 in the midst of rampant corruption.

m) The depth of field of the image, probably taken at f/8, enables even to glipmse two further guerrilla men on the left background, advancing towards the wall of the National Guard regiment headquarters.

n ) Even stones have been thrown during the previous clash, as the granite big one visible on the lower left corner of the image, which does convey among other things an atmosphere of hatred pervading everything.

p) The FSLN fighter on the right appears thoughtful, utterly aware that he can be killed at any moment during the definitive attack against the National Guard regiment headquarters.

© jmse

Susan Meiselas has been capturing ordinary people immersed in the turbulent tide of history for almost fifty years, becoming a chronicler of their lives, often through long-term projects in which she has managed to achieve a praiseworthy rapport with the subjects of her photographic essays.

In this regard, her famous reportages on Nicaraguan Revolution (1978 and 1979), El Salvador (between 1979 and 1983), The Genocide of Kurdish People (a picture essay made between 1991 and 1997, with images of the plight experienced by them, particularly in northern Irak, when they had been attacked in 1988, three years before Meiselas´s first trip to Kurdistan, by Saddam Hussein´s regime using aircraft dropping bombs and lethal gas, killing roughly 95,000 Kurdish men, women and children, so Susan Meiselas looked for visual evidence of the massacres, destroyed villages, refugees living in the ruins, relatives searching for the bodies of their beloved ones, the uncovering of mass graves, and so forth), The U.S/México Border (1989), The Encounters with the Dani (1988, a picture essay on a remote tribe of West Papua, whose isolated people, having an almost classic Neolithic culture and dwelling in the high mountains of the Grand Valley of the Baliem, with very little or no contact with the rest of the world), and others, are highly representative of her way to understand photography and its most significant goals.

During her professional trajectory as a documentary photographer all over the world, Susan Meiselas has seen a lot of horror and gruesome situations suffered by people as a consequence of wars and conflicts. 
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Like in this picture taken on a hill in the outskirts of Managua called  " Cuesta del Plomo " (Plumb Slope) in 1979 and showing the lower half of a human body on the grass. This was an eerie place in which many executions of suspects were carried out by the National Guard. 
© Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos

Or in this one depicting a woman of Monimbó neighbourhood (Masaya, a city located at 27 km from Managua), attacked with bombs by Somozist aviation, taking home the body of her husband on a wheelbarrow to bury him in the back garden in 1979. Another outstanding image in which the observer can crisply behold 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. 
© Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos

With the photographer always plucking up courage to point at unacceptable facts, defending human rights and documenting the grim reality, striving upon approaching as much as possible to it, bringing about the focus and attention of viewers, who are unable to take their eyes off her pictures, greatly stemming from her uncommon visual instinct, her concern about human suffering created by the war and that she highlights in her images, and a fervent desire to bring out stories and new forms to tell them, overcoming obstacles, often against all odds. 
© jmse

Two children rescued from the rubble of a humble house in Managua (Nicaragua) destroyed by a 1,000 pound bomb dropped by an aircraft of Somozist aviation. Both of them would die in a few minutes. 
© Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos

A mother flees with her baby from the bombing of the city of Estelí (in the west of Nicaragua) by National Guard aircraft. Susan Meiselas has masterfully captured with her Leica M rangefinder camera attached to a 35 mm wideangle lens the trudge across the road of this woman, who has to simultaneously take with strenuous effort both her little son (holding him in the air with her right hand and forearm) and a very large backpack with the personal belongings she has been able to gather. 
Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos 

But aside from her world-famous reportage on the Nicaraguan Revolution (made with Leica M2, Leica M4 and Olympus OM-2), Susan Meiselas did at the beginning of her career one of her best and most meaningful long-term picture essays, in which Leica philosophy of getting pictures played a key role:

An amazing picture made by Susan Meiselas in the middle of a stripper show, being very near the stage. The photographer has achieved the dream of every good documentary and photojournalist photographer : to become invisible during the photographic act, to such an extent that neither of the 17 men has detected her presence while shooting with her mirrorless Leica M2 rangefinder camera coupled to a Leitz Canada Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 First Version and loaded with Kodak Tri-X 400 black and white film rated at iso 1600 to overcome the very low luminic levels of the place. Needless to say that the almost inaudible noise of the camera shutter, fruit of twenty-four years of evolution between 1934 (year in which Dr. Ludwig Leitz and Willi Stein presented a patent for a self-capping horizontal focal plane shutter with the non rotating shutter speed dial of the future Leica M cameras) and 1958 (year in which the first Leica M2 cameras were launched into market) has been of invaluable help, because this image would have virtually been impossible to take with a reflex camera, whose shutter noise is much louder and whose swivelling mirror wouldn´t have enabled the very slow shutter speed used by the photographer to get this picture shooting handheld without flash and keeping enough depth of field to depict spectators beyond the woman´s legs and shoes. 
© Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos

" Carnival Strippers ", between 1972 and 1975, throughout three consecutive summers, photographing striptease performing women in some town carnivals of New England, Pennsylvania and South Carolina, getting pictures of both their public shows and their private lives.

This black and white reportage was made with a Hasselblad 2 1/4 x 2 1 /4 (6 x 6 cm) medium format camera and Carl Zeiss lenses (for the posing portraits of the women) and with a 24 x 36 mm format Leica M2 rangefinder camera coupled to an 8 elements in 6 groups Leitz Canada Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 First Version SAWOM 11308 lens, which was used to make photographs of the girls doing their shows and often interacting with the paying customers.

© Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos

Sometimes even the managers appear counting the money earned exploiting the girls.

                                                    © Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos

In a kind of environment like this,

© Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos

with a high percentage of the male audience drunk,

© Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos

women under stress dancing with little or no clothes on them for many hours in exhausting working turns

© Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos

© Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos

to earn their livings,

© Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos

and greedy bosses steadily pressuring them to manage to arouse the paying customers anyway to overcrowd the space to earn as much money as possible with tickets, getting pictures can be really difficult and above all dangerous, in the midst of a strained ambience in which photographs must be taken with available light, because flash could result in a violent reaction by attendees.

© Leica Camera A.G     
And it was to document these crammed striptease shows when Susan Meiselas used a Leica M2 rangefinder camera, because irrespective of the model, a Leica M camera was then and keeps on being today the most optimized photographic tool to unobtrusively do the work shooting handheld with available luminic conditions, being at a very short distance from the heart of the action, thanks to its exceedingly small size and low weight for its 24 x 36 mm format, its remarkable shooting stability on lacking a swivelling mirror and boasting a practically vibration free horizontal travelling shutter, the whispering almost inaudible noise produced on pressing the shutter release button and enhancing discretion,

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the amazingly sharp and bright 0.72x magnification viewfinder

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coupled to a mechanical-optical masterpiece rangefinder made up by more than 150 high-precision parts, which results in a top-notch quality of observation even under the dimmest light conditions, the exceedingly short lag of 17 milliseconds between the moment in which the shutter release button is pressed and the beginning of the exposure (a remarkable achievement in comparison to usual shutter lags in the range of 80-100 milliseconds inherent to professional full frame digital reflex cameras) and its specific and very wide frame-line for 35 mm focal length ( non existent in the Leica M3) filling almost the entire image in the viewfinder.  

© Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos

A master shot belonging to her essay " Carnival Strippers " and made by Susan Meiselas with her Leica M2 coupled to an 8 elements in 6 groups Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 Version 1 SAWOM 11308 lens from a very near distance. This is a much more difficult picture to get than it could seem at first blush, because of a raft of key factors:

a) The man in the background (an attendee to the strip-tease show being performed by the woman whose legs, shoes, lower area of her T-shirt and left hand leaned on her hip are visible in the image) can see the photographer, so a violent reaction could happen.

b) The photographer manages to get unnoticed, something amazing not only since it is an almost utterly frontal shot with respect to the man, but particularly because a vertical framing has been chosen to get the picture, so the presence of the rangefinder M2 camera is more apparent, making discretion more difficult than with it in a horizontal position.

c) The photographer has masterfully selected a highly defining instant in which though the man has got his head oriented towards the woman, he isn´t looking at her at the moment.

He is engrossed in his thoughts, with both of his arms crossed. Here, Susan Meiselas proves once more her tremendous psychological and humane insight, selecting a highly meaningful moment but simultaneously confirming that her images go far beyond the specific time in which she created them, placing each one of her photographs in its story context, revealing an even higher interest for the subject than for its depection, and making observers react through generations, as well as asking questions like what has taken the main character of this picture to often visit this type of shows.

d) The photograph bears the Leica hallmark aesthetics of image. Focus isn´t perfect,  since the photographer has had to shoot very quickly to capture the fleeting instant that she has turned into everlasting, and top priority has been to get the picture.

But that lack of technical perfection doesn´t matter at all here, because the important thing was to capture that unique instant, and in addition, the Kodak Tri-X 400 film great acutance has been able to keep excellent sharpness of contours of both persons appearing in the image, enhanced by the synergy with the developer optimized for enhancing Mackie lines and border effect, so albeit the picture was made shooting handheld without flash at a very slow shutter speed (as proved by the left shoe of the woman, appearing a bit blurred in spite of being a gentle movement) and a wide diaphragm, everything is discernible from foreground to bakground, with a commendable preservation of textures, and the added bonus of an outstanding correction of the coma apparent in the bulbs on top left of the image (where there isn´t any trace of off-axis point sources, even in the once located on the very upper left corner of the picture) and an impressive correction of the geometric distortion, sensationally implemented by the optical wizard Walter Mandler (designer of the Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 Version 1 in Midland, Ontario, Canada) and specially apparent in the utterly faithful depiction of the lines on the wooden stage on which the woman is doing her show.   

© Susan Meiselas / Magnum Photos

Another eloquent picture taken by Susan Meiselas inside the narrow dressing room of the strippers. It´s a shot made from a very short distance, with the Leica M2 and the Summicron-M 35 mm lens, clearly depicting the boredom and tiredness often ruling this kind of work, as well as showing the frequent bad working conditions in which these women have to earn their livings.

© jmse

But the most important thing regarding this milestone " Carnival Stripper " reportage made forty-five years ago is that Susan Meiselas was able to build relationships by dint of making many visits and taking an interest for the life and personal circumstances of these women. And it was thanks to their trust how the photographer had access to their shows and dressing rooms to get the pictures, subsequently showing them the contact sheets and some prints of her images, in such a way that the girls could see everything she was shooting, so a mutual interaction and dialogue was set up, making possible to tell the story through photography.

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