Photography changes the course of international events

Sandra S. Phillips

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Sandra S. Phillips [ BIO ]

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Sandra S. Phillips

Sandra S. Phillips, senior curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, has organized numerous exhibitions including retrospectives of work by Sebastiao Salgado, Helen Levitt, John Gutmann, Dorothea Lange, William Klein, Diane Arbus, Robert Adams, and Daido Moriyama, and group exhibitions such as Police Pictures: The Photograph as Evidence and Crossing the Frontier: Photography and the Developing West, 1849 to the Present.

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Sandra S. Phillips, senior curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, revisits how reconnaissance photographs triggered The Cuban Missile crisis of 1962.

The picture is strangely beautiful; it is clearly an aerial view of what appears to be some curious and unassuming scratches in the ground below. There is a torsion between the fields and roadways that we easily recognize and the photograph looks like a wonderful drawing, like a giant child’s game, or some magic sign. In fact, the meaning and impact of this picture—made form an American spy plane flying over Cuba on August 29, 1962—is more complex. This photograph triggered the beginning of an international dispute between the American government and the Russians during the Cold War in the 1960s, and had the potential to spark a nuclear exchange.

A few months after this photograph was made, it and others taken later at the same site, were presented at a meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House by Arthur C. Lundahl. Lundahl—who worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and founded the National Photographic Interpretation Center in the 1950s—described the first photograph as showing “the ground just scarcely…scratched,” early stages of what subsequent photographs would reveal to be an SA-2 surface-to-air missile (SAM) site under construction at La Coloma. The second photograph illustrated here shows the site completed and, as Lundahl’s report described it, “showing the characteristic Star of David pattern.”

This second picture is truly amazing—where the first is gentle and even poetic, the second is aggressive; the photograph has the kind of energy we see in an Abstract Expressionist painting, and it seems wholly abstract, except to the initiated. We notice that there has been extensive activity on this site—the ground has been bared and there are radiating lines like stars coming from the six points and the center. Incidentally, the second photograph was one of the very first color aerial surveillance pictures (although the black-and-white version reproduced here is a variant).

The United States reconnaissance planes that had been circling Cuba since August, had not been focusing on the interior. But on Sunday, October 14, a U-2 plane flew over the island at 7:37 a.m. and, although the pilot told colleagues when he got back that he had been on a “milk run,” by 1:00 the next day Lundahl and his associates (who were called “photointerpreters”) knew that the newest photographs were evidence of something very different and disturbing. The vague scratches seen in the earlier image now clearly showed launch sites for powerful antiballistic missiles that—supplied by the Soviets and pointed toward the United States—were an act of deliberate provocation and endangerment to the country.

What quickly became known as The Cuban Missile Crisis was provoked by the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion that was tacitly supported by the CIA and carried out by Cuban dissidents, who fled the country after Fidel Castro rose to power and imposed a Communist regime in the late 1950s. In an effort to support Castro’s revolutionary government and counter America’s lead in developing missiles, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev persuaded the Cuban government, in May of 1962, to accept the Soviet missiles on its territory.

On the very day that John F. Kennedy was informed by Lundahl of what the surveillance photographs revealed and as possible actions were being discussed, Kennedy met with the Soviet Ambassador Anatol Dobrynin and Foreign Minister Gromyko who assured the American president that there were no Soviet offensive weapons in Cuba. (Interestingly, a photograph of the three of them talking amiably at the White House documents the meeting.) A greater moment of drama came on October 26, when Adlai Stevenson, the U. S. Ambassador to the United Nations, presented the American government’s case against Russia at a Security Council meeting, and famously offered to wait “till hell freezes over,” for an answer from Soviet Ambassador Zorin about his government’s true intentions. Here again, photography played an important role; earlier on, Stevenson had been convinced by faked photographs made by the CIA that the Bay of Pigs was not supported by the CIA, but by displaced Cubans.

The Cuban Missile Crisis exponentially escalated Cold War fears in a time of great national paranoia that, as it turns out, would only increase with Kennedy’s assassination a year later. Since then, the appeal of factual and impersonal data extracted from photographs shot from planes and satellites and presented as incontrovertible evidence continue to play a central role in the United States’ international relationships. Certainly some of the power of Secretary of Defense Colin Powell’s famous speech before the United Nations in 2002—during which he presented photographs he claimed documented sites where Saddam Hussein’s forces were manufacturing weapons of mass destruction—was based on the integrity of Stevenson’s earlier presentation to that same body. But even that moment of supposedly supreme clarity was marred by the photography’s own ambiguous nature, and by the history of conflicting claims that surrounded the CIA use of photographic evidence.

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U-2 photograph of SA-2 surface-to-air missile (SAM) site under construction at La Coloma
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  • U-2 photograph of SA-2 surface-to-air missile (SAM) site under construction at La Coloma, 1962
Completed SA-2 missile site showing characteristic Star of David pattern
  • Completed SA-2 missile site showing characteristic Star of David pattern

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