The portrait of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, Heroic Guerrilla, is the most reproduced image in the history of photography. Taken in 1960, at the highpoint of the Cuban revolution, it can be seen on posters and T-shirts and souvenirs all over the world.
Guevara was born in Argentina in 1928. Turning to radical Marxist politics when he saw the widespread inequality in Latin America, he joined Fidel Castro’s movement to overthrow the Cuban government. He then continued his own campaign in the Congo and later Bolivia, where he was captured and killed in 1967 as a result of a covert CIA operation.
Although there is debate about the true nature of Che’s activities, he remains the most charismatic revolutionary leader of modern times. Korda’s famous photograph first deified Che and then turned him into an icon of radical chic. Its story – a complex mesh of conflicting narratives – has given Heroic Guerrilla a life of its own, an enduring fascination independent from Che himself.
Bolivian Diary, Ernesto Che Guevara, Cuba, 1968 © Instituto del Libro La Habana
This exhibition was organised by UCR/ California Museum of Photography.
It was made possible with additional support from Centro de la imagen, Mexico City, the Anglo Mexican Foundation and Zonezero.com
Born 1928 Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez, Havana, Cuba. From 1946–50 he studied commerce at the Candler College, Havana, Cuba and went on to the Havana Business Academy. In 1956 he founded the Studio Korda on Calle 21 Vedado in Havana, having begun working full-time as a photographer. From 1959–62 he was a newspaper photographer for the Cuban daily paper Revoluciَn, and personal photographer to Fidel Castro, whom he accompanied throughout the early years of the revolution. On 5 March 1960 Korda took the famous photograph of Che Guevara, Guerrillero Heroico. In 1961 Korda became a founding member of the Uniَn de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba (UNEA). From 1968–80 he was photographer for the Department of Marine Research with the Science Academy of Cuba.
During his life time Korda had over fifty solo exhibitions in Cuba and throughout the world, in countries as diverse as Norway, France, Germany, Spain, Mexico, the USA, Chile and Argentina. Korda’s work has also appeared in numerous collective exhibitions throughout the world including Shifting Tides: Cuban Photography after the Revolution, shown in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Illinois. His famous image of Che, Guerrillero Heroico, is the subject of a book and this exhibition, touring internationally. During his lifetime Alberto Korda won numerous awards and was the subject of many documentaries. The most recent film made about his life, Kordavision (2005), directed by Hector Cruz Sandoval, has been shown at film festivals across the US and Europe and is currently under consideration for nomination in the documentary category for the 2006 Oscars.
Korda died in Paris at the age of 72 on 25 May 2001. He was buried in Havana on 29 May 2001.
Korda in his Home, Marcos Lopez, Cuba, 1996 © Marcos Lopez
On 5 March 1960, President Fidel Castro called a funeral and mass demonstration to honour more than 100 Cubans killed in a suspicious harbour explosion. At the time, Che was Minister of Industry in the new government, and Korda was Castro’s official photographer.
During Castro’s speech, for a few seconds – no longer – Che Guevara came into view. Korda snapped just two frames of him before he disappeared from sight.
His photograph enshrines Che as a mythic hero. Taken from below, the revolutionary leader with searching eyes and resolute expression becomes larger than life. A perspective that dominates the imagery of social realism, it bears an irresistible aura of authority, independence and defiance.
The image, though published in Cuba in 1961, only became widely known after Che’s death.
Heroic Guerrilla, Alberto Korda, Cuba, 1960 © Korda Estate and Diana Diaz
Korda’s image of Che rapidly became a defining symbol of agitation propaganda – agitprop – graphics.
With its uncanny ability to convey complex ideas in a way that is easily understood, it was taken up by a broad spectrum of political and social movements. Emblazoned on posters, banners and signs, it declared outrage, allegiance, honour and sacrifice.
In contrast to the increasingly slick visual language of commercial advertising, the protest poster provided an alternative means of communication, with Che in the role of unofficial spokesperson for countless issues.
From left to right: Smash Capital Now, UK, 1970. Courtesy of Center for the Study of Political Graphics, Los Angeles; Che Si, Roman Cieslewicz, Poland/ France, 1967-8
Heroic Guerrilla appears in both private and public spaces, on bedroom walls and street corners. It is an image that speaks to people of many different backgrounds, but has a particular resonance in Latin America.
Che never saw himself specifically as Argentine or Cuban, but Latin American. His intention was to ignite political change throughout the continent by awakening the solidarity of the indigenous peoples.
Particularly in the 1970s, many of the posters that feature the Korda image conflate Guevara and the maps of Central and South America. With the topography of Latin America depicted as a single mass, without national boundaries, Che represents the dream of union and liberation.
Jornada del Guerrillero Heroico (Day of the Heroic Guerrilla), Luis Balaguer for Continental Latin American Student Organisation Cuba, about 1971. Courtesy of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, Los Angeles
One of the most ubiquitous incarnations of Korda’s Che can be found on T-shirts and other clothing.
The combination of his youthful face, unkempt good looks, leather jacket and military beret have made Guevara a potent embodiment of guerrilla chic.
To wear Che’s image today can be a declaration of radical defiance or a vague statement of cool, depending on the place and context.
From left to right: Opening at the Saatchi Gallery, London, Martin Parr, UK, 2003 © Magnum Photos/ Martin Parr; Kevin Williams, New York City, Steve Pyke, USA, 2005 © Steve Pyke; Fernando Ruben Brodsky, My Brother, was Kidnapped on August 14th 1979 and is still Lost, Marcelo Brodsky Argentina, 2003 © Marcelo Brodsky
Many of the aesthetic treatments of Korda’s image derive from the Pop idiom of the 1960s, which promoted the banal and the populist to the status of art.
The counter-culture values present in Korda’s Che have become a symbolic distillation of Pop’s egalitarian, in-your-face presentations. The image has moved into the realm of caricature and parody, while also standing for issues as diverse as world debt, anti-Americanism, Latin-American identity, and the rights of gays and indigenous peoples.
From left to right: ThatChe, Tony Allen and Ofar Quarson for anyoldicon.com; American Investment in Cuba, Patrick Thomas, Spain, 2002 © Patrick Thomas; Walls ice cream wrapper and additional Walls/ Magnum material, Australia, 2003 © Unilever Corporation; Pinball Jerry, Barry Lewis, UK, 2005 © Barry Lewis
Half-jokingly, yet also reverentially, the guerrilla rebel who gave his life for his beliefs is frequently compared with Christ and his suffering. That one took up violence as a means of ending oppression, while the other espoused unconditional love and tolerance is part of the visually and ideologically arresting paradox of this pairing. Often the layering of the two identities is done knowingly with humour and irony.
Meek. Mild. As If, Chas Bayfield and Trevor Webb for Churches Advertising Network (CAN) UK, 1999 © CAN
Che defined a revolutionary as someone who will fight against injustice, wherever he or she may find it. Following his death, the Korda image, with its bearded face and comandante’s beret, became an icon of the cultural and militant Left in both Latin America and Europe.
Today, however diluted or adapted, it still evokes counter-cultural ideals and multi-faceted interpretation. It remains a beacon of revolution, both contemporary and nostalgic.
Che , Ken Sprague, UK, 1970s © Ken Sprague Estate