Alberto Korda with his iconic photo
The Cuban Revolution provided some of the most iconic images of the 20th century, none more so than that of Che Guevara, whose image would grace the bedroom wall of many a rebellious teenager and would be revolutionary. The image of Che that we associate with the man, and that has become a universal symbol of resistance, is drawn from a photo taken by Alberto Korda, who was Castro’s official photographer, called Guerrillero Heroico (Heroic Guerrilla Fighter). While Korda had a long and distinguished career as a photographer, this image has come to be one that has defined him. The photo was taken at a demonstration staged by Castro in the aftermath of a suspicious explosion which had destroyed a French freighter in Havana, bearing arms for the Revolution. Korda spotted Che, who was then Minister of Industry, in the crowd, and impressed by his figure, took the photo. What might look the product of a photo shoot – and really, it couldn’t have been staged better if it were – was in fact the product of a decisive moment, a photo taken on the hoof. As Korda would recall, “He unexpectedly entered my viewfinder and I shot the photo horizontally. I immediately realised that the image of him was almost a portrait, with the clear sky behind him.”
There were two original images – one contained some palm tree leaves and another a man in profile. With a little cropping, Korda obtained his timeless image, one that could enter the realm of myth.
The photo wasn’t actually published at the time, Korda’s editor preferring to run photos of Sartre and de Beauvoir, who had turned up for the demo. It wasn’t until 1967 -when the radical Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli approached Korda for an image to publicise his publication of Che’s Bolivian Diaries, – that the photo would be publically distributed, and in the immediate aftermath of the revolutionary’s death at the hands of the CIA, go – in contemporary parlance – viral.
As a Communist and supporter of the revolution, Korda claimed no payment or royalties for the photo, which aided the image’s widespread dissemination, if not Korda’s bank balance. As Korda would later rationalise, this “helped it become the ultimate symbol of Marxist revolution and anti-imperialist struggle.”
The image would also go on to be exploited commercially, gracing everything from T-shirts to tote bags, as the ultimate symbol of radical chic, as well as being appropriated by fashion and advertising.
Korda, no doubt, wouldn’t have approved of these uses; maybe he should have claimed his royalties after all.
Below – Che by Gerard Malanga. Andy Warhol’s assistant, Malanga, tried to pass this off as an original Warhol, when he was short of funds. When Andy found out about the fraud, he “authenticated” the work – provided he got the money.