September 17, 1928 – March 25, 2001
"Forget the camera, forget the lens, forget all of that. With any four-dollar camera, you can capture the best picture.”
- Alberto Korda
For a period of twelve years Alberto Diaz Gutierrez, who adopted the surname "Korda" early in his career after the Hungarian filmmakers Zoltan and Alexander Korda, stood with his camera at the very center of Cuba's political crossroads. When he and a partner opened their first commercial studio in 1956 in order to take up advertising and fashion photography Batista was still running the country. Castro's predecessor, it is often forgotten, operated a corrupt and oppressive regime. The influence of American money and culture played a major role in Havana, and the ambitious young photographer looked to claim his piece of the pie by catering to its appetites.
On first impression it is nearly as shocking to consider that this rising promoter of consumption and sensuality should suddenly be recast as one of the primary documentarians of a socialist revolution.The upshot: for nearly ten years Korda served as something of a court photographer to Castro and his inner circle. Looking at examples of Korda's studio work reveals a strong interest in the glamor of personality and pose. Few pre-Revolution negatives have survived, and those only as second-generation shots taken by the artist from the rare original print. There is a flair to his compositions that elevate them a bit beyond run-of-the-mill commercial pictures.
Korda continued to serve as Castro's photographer until 1968, though their personal friendship has survived to the present. Beyond the scope of this exhibition, there is a body of underwater photography and more recent fashion and portrait work that remains to be considered.
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**The editioning of prints and photography was not widely practiced or expected of photographers before the 1960's, especially in Cuba. Therefore many vintage Cuban photographs have uncertain/unknown edition numbers (open editions). However due to the thin fragile negative paper and humid climates in Cuba, negatives were rarely capable of preservation after around 50 prints. The negative paper themselves often became far too fragile to use further. In addition, without a photography studio or dark room, and in the turmoil of the Cuban Revolution photographers such as Korda, printed their work in bathtubs and sinks. The printing paper available to Cubans was limited until the 1990s. Therefore differences in paper, pigment and photographs are all relative to and indicative of the given political & social status of the Cuban government at the time the photograph was printed.
MORE ABOUT ALBERTO KORDA
- Cuba Si!, the Dick Institute, Kilmarnock, May-June 16th, 2001, and at Wingfield Arts, Eye, Suffolk, from July 7th-September 30th, 2001
- Korda and the Revolutionary Image, at the Jordan Schitzer Museum of Art, University of Oregon; Eugene, Oregon, August-January 2014
- Korda, Museum of Latin American Art; Long Beach, CA, June 6, 2015-September 6, 2015
- Alberto Korda: A Revolutionary Shot, Noire Gallery; Torino, Italy, June 8-29th, 2013
- Alberto Korda, North Dakota Museum of Art; Grand Forks, North Dakota, March 18th – May 27th, 2001
- Korda Moda Exhibit of Cuban Fashion Photography by Alberto Korda, Krause Center for Innovation; Los Altos Hills, CA, October 2nd-December 6th, 2013
- Che Guevara: Images of Revolution, Museum de Moderne Rupertinum, Salzburg, Austria, November 24th, 2012 - February 3rd, 2013
- Alberto Korda: Feminine Photography, La Fabrica, Madrid, Spain, September 2015
- Narrative of a Portrait: Korda’s Che, Mexico City, Mexico, March 23rd, 2006
- Cuba in Revolution, International Center of Photography, New York City, March 2, 2015
- COEX, Seoul, Korea, 2011
- Roy Boyd Gallery, Chicago, 2000
- Galeria Servando Cabrera, Havana, 1986
- Galleria H. Diagragma Canon, Milan, Italy, 1985
- Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Havana, 1962
- Helsinki, Finland, 1962
- Museum of Art, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, 2002
- C. Grimaldis Gallery, Baltimore, Maryland, 2000
- Centro de Desarrollo de las Artes Visuales, Havana, 1999
- Westbeth Gallery, New York, 1983
- Centro de Arte Internacional, Havana, 1980
- Consejo Mexicano de Fotografia, Mexico City, 1980
- Expo’67, Pabellón Cubano, Montreal, 1967
- Museo Nacioinal de Bellas Artes, Havana, 1962
Korda was awarded the Cuban "Palma de Plata" in 1959; named Best Photoreporter of the year, Revolución Journal, Havana, 1960–1963; awarded the 5th International Award of Submarine Photografie "Maurizio Sana”, Italy; awarded National Culture Distinction, Ministry of Culture, Cuba; 1994.
1928 Born in El Cerro neighborhood of Havana, September 14
Studied accounting and stenography in school
1953 Opened his own photography business, Studios Korda, in Havana, which became the premier fashion photography studio in Cuba
1959 Korda’s success in fashion photography came to an end, when, as he recounted, “Nearing 30, I was heading toward a frivolous life when an exceptional event transformed my life: the Cuban Revolution.” With the arrival of Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Korda the fashion photographer became the Revolution’s photographer and Castro’s friend.
Began working as a photographer for the Cuban newspaper Revolution
Worked as Fidel Castro’s official photographer for 10 years throughout the Revolution
Sent to Venezuela to cover Fidel Castro’s first official visit abroad and also traveled with Castro to the US to document iconographic images, such as Fidel at the Lincoln Memorial
1960 It was while on an assignment for Revolución in 1960 that Korda took the famous photo of Che, (Guerrillero Heroico) at a protest rally after a Belgian freighter carrying arms to Cuba was blown up by counter-revolutionaries while being unloaded in Havana harbour, killing more than 100 dock workers.
1968-1978 Korda concentrated on underwater photography, culminating in a major exhibition in Japan in 1978
1980s Korda lived in semi-retirement in Havana, though he accompanied Castro on a recent visit to Venezuela and Mexico
1999 Appeared in the pre-title sequence of Wim Wenders’s documentary, Buena Vista Social Club, rifling through photos from the heroic days
2000 Sued Smirnoff in London on ideological grounds for using the famous Che Guevara image, Guerrilero Heroico, in an advertisement; “To use the image of Che Guevara to sell vodka is a slur on his name and memory,” he told the Guardian newspaper at the time. Che was never a drinker, for one thing, and Korda himself liked rum, Havana Club 3 años being his favorite.
May 25, 2001 Died of a heart attack while visiting Paris for one of his exhibitions
POSTER BOY: ALBERTO KORDA
His face has become an iconic image, used both as a symbol of protest and a fashion accessory.
Richard Gott traces the story of Korda's photo of Che Guevara
The famous photograph of Che Guevara snapped by Alberto Korda in 1960 has circulated throughout the globe in the past half century, endlessly reproduced in increasingly exotic forms, each created with different intentions and evoking varied responses. Jesus Christ, Madonna, Princess Diana have all had their picture adapted and inserted under Che's familiar red star beret, and framed by the same shaggy locks, in a subversive format pioneered by irreverent manipulators of the Mona Lisa. Che the icon has overtaken Che the revolutionary practitioner and theorist, and inevitably this transition is now the subject of books, exhibitions and doctoral theses.
While several books have dealt with the photographic and artistic portrayal of Guevara over the years, a new exhibition, originally shown at the California Museum of Photography and coming to the V&A this week, concentrates specifically on the history and legacy of the Korda portrait, often known as the Guerrillero Heróico, the startling image with eyes gazing fiercely into some distant horizon, traditionally displayed in students' rooms.
The original photograph was taken at a dramatic and dangerous moment at the start of the Cuban revolution's second year. Seeking to arm itself against a US invasion everyone knew would come, the new revolutionary regime had ordered a boatload of weapons and ammunition (mostly rifles and grenades) from Belgium, an imperial arms-manufacturing country that was trying, at the time, to disentangle itself from its African colony, the Belgian Congo. Several tons of this vital cargo, carried by a French ship, La Coubre, exploded in Havana harbour in March 1960 as it was moored ready to unload. The crew and 75 Cuban dockers were killed, and more than 200 were injured. Extensive damage was caused to the installations of the port.
For Cubans with a sense of history, the tragic explosion recalled the destruction of the US battleship Maine in the same harbour in 1898, an event that killed 258 sailors and sparked off the US invasion of Cuba that same year. Did this fresh disaster presage another American attack? And was it sabotage or (as the Maine was subsequently revealed to be) an accident?
No one knew, but, at the funeral ceremony for the dockers held the next day, Fidel Castro claimed immediately that it was the work of the Americans. Crowded on to the improvised platform beside him were Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and behind, in a zippered jacket arriving late, was Che Guevara, the man who had invited them to Cuba. Alberto Korda, a photographer then working for the newspaper Revolución, snapped away at the celebrities, recalling the event years later to Jorge Castañeda, one of Che's biographers. "Che was not visible; he was standing behind the rostrum. But for a moment there was an empty space in the front row, and in the background the figure of Che appeared. 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."
Korda took two shots, the first with Guevara framed alone between an anonymous silhouette and the frond of a palm tree, and the second with someone's head appearing above his shoulder. The first picture, with the intruding material edited out, became the original famous portrait. Neither photograph attracted the attention of the picture desk of Korda's newspaper. Other shots were available of the Cuban and foreign dignitaries at the funeral parade, as well as of Castro speaking, and these were the ones used in the paper. Korda's photo of Che was first printed a year later in an advertisement for a lecture that Guevara was about to give in April 1961. It appeared twice, because the lecture was postponed as a result of the Bay of Pigs invasion by US-backed Cuban exiles that had been expected at the time the photograph had been taken.
The picture then disappeared for several years, like Guevara himself. He left Cuba in 1965 to help organise guerrilla operations elsewhere, first in Africa in the Congo, and later in Latin America. Not until August 1967, when he was known to be fighting in Bolivia, engaged in his final guerrilla war, after Havana had published his last revolutionary message - "Create Two, Three, Many Vietnams" - was the Korda photograph first printed abroad. This was to accompany an article written by French journalist Jean Lartéguy about the guerrilla movements in Latin America, which appeared in Paris Match
Two months later, in October, Guevara was captured in the hilly scrub of eastern Bolivia and shot on the orders of the Bolivian high command. Castro addressed a huge memorial rally at the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana, facing an immense blown-up photograph of the Guerrillero Heróico that had been placed over five storeys of the building housing the Ministry of the Interior. (A more permanent metal silhouette remains there today.) The vital connection between the recently martyred Che and Korda's mournful, elegiac and evocative photograph had been established.
The image soon caught on abroad. Korda clearly liked the picture and had it pinned up in his studio, and he would sometimes give a copy to favoured guests. One of these was Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, the radical Italian publisher who made frequent visits to Cuba in the early years of the revolution and had once planned to ghost Castro's biography (and who blew himself up in an ill-advised sabotage operation outside Milan in 1972).
After Che's diary of his Bolivian expedition had miraculously surfaced in Havana in 1968, Castro gave Feltrinelli the Italian rights and the book was published in Italy with the Korda photo on the cover. Feltrinelli also arranged for the printing of hundreds of posters, using the photograph to advertise the book, and these were soon taken up by Italian students demonstrating during the hot summer of 1968. The image, evoking the memory of Guevara's recent death, spread throughout the demonstrations in Europe that year as a symbol of student struggle and international protest. The iconic career of Korda's photo had begun.
The Russian revolution had pioneered the creation and use of political posters as an important propaganda tool, and the Cuban revolution had done the same, adopting the commercial techniques of Madison Avenue for their own ideological purposes to brilliant effect. The enthusiasm of radical newspapers for the photo-mechanical transfer, which enabled simple photographs to be transformed in the darkroom into a half-tone image that was easily and cheaply printed, gave the Korda portrait its trendy, mass-produced quality. It exploded on to the international scene at a very specific moment, when the new wave of Pop Art, which created posters associated with the music business, was sweeping through the western world. The Beatles, Bob Dylan and other rock bands commissioned pop artists to design their record sleeves. The red star in Che's beret was up there with "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds", and Andy Warhol's silk-screen images of Marilyn Monroe and Mao Zedong were soon adapted to include him.
I have written many times, in this paper and elsewhere, of meeting Che Guevara and being struck by his magnetic physical attraction, comparable to the aura of a rock star. Almost everyone had the same impression, and journalists were particularly susceptible. I thought he was beautiful. Marilyn Zeitlin from the US remembered him as "absolutely gorgeous". Julia Costenlos from Argentina recalled how he was "blessed with a unique appeal ... an incalculable enchantment that came completely naturally". Others, those perhaps who knew him better, recognised that he could be cold and harsh, preoccupied and uncaring, driven by an internal flame that had little time for the sensitivities of others. He was, after all, an exponent and practitioner of revolutionary violence.
Most of those who sport the Che Guevara logo today forget that he was the Osama bin Laden of his time. He believed the US to be the principal menace in the world, and he thought it was the duty of revolutionaries to encompass its destruction. He was living, of course, during the Vietnam war, and the last article he wrote, "Create Two, Three, Many Vietnams", published in 1967, was a call for fresh struggle to be launched around the world to take the pressure off the Vietnamese. "Our every action is a battle cry against imperialism," he wrote, "and a battle hymn for the people's unity against the great enemy of mankind: the United States of America." He called for the struggle to be taken "into every corner the enemy happens to carry it: - to his home and his centres of entertainment." He called for his own death to be celebrated with "the staccato singing of the machine gun", and several of his disciples took him at his word. The Tupamaros, a guerrilla movement in Uruguay, kidnapped and shot a US torture instructor and blew up a nightclub.
Securely insulated from politics, Guevara's image is now largely perceived as a fashion accessory, the logo on the celebrity T-shirt or the handbag. In a pioneering article in the first issue of Another Magazine, Mark Sanders teased out the origins of Korda's aesthetic, having interviewed him shortly before his death in 2001. Korda, whose real name was Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez, was born in Havana in 1928 and worked as a young man as a fashion photographer. He photographed the beau monde of the Batista era before the revolution, and models queued up outside his studio to have their picture taken. He aimed to be the Richard Avedon of Cuba. Taken by surprise by the guerrilla victory of 1959, he worked subsequently with Raúl Corrales, Castro's official photographer, to capture the excitement of the revolution. In his image of Che, something survives of his earlier experience with beautiful women. With the extraordinarily long hair and wispy beard, it is a strikingly androgynous portrait, and in the 1970s it inevitably appeared on a poster as "Che Gay".
Judging by the accompanying book, edited by Trisha Ziff, the exhibition will leave much to be desired. The book is a superficial and sloppy piece of historical reporting that relies considerably for its best sections on the expertise of David Kunzle, a brilliant exponent of poster art at UCLA. Kunzle has written a much better book, Che Guevara: Icon, Myth and Message, the text for an earlier exhibition at the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, in 1998. Yet such is the enduring public appetite for anything remotely connected with Guevara, in all his many representations, this latest show will surely be hugely popular, if only for the graphics.
· Che Guevara: Revolutionary and Icon is on show at the V&A, London SW7, from Wednesday until August 28. Tickets: 0870 906 3883, www.vam.ac.uk. Richard Gott's Cuba: A New History, is published by Yale University Press, £9.99
Ebullient Cuban photographer whose portrait of Che Guevara became an icon for a generation of protest
Michael Chanan; Sunday 27 May 2001 21.03 EDT
The Cuban photographer Alberto Korda, who has died of a heart attack aged 72 while visiting Paris for an exhibition of his work, will be best remembered for his portrait of Ernesto "Che" Guevara - one of the most famous photographs of the 20th century, and one of the few that truly deserve to be called iconic.
Born in Havana, the son of a railway worker, the young Alberto had a variety of jobs before he started working as a photographer's assistant. He was a runner for a betting shop and a door-to-door encyclopaedia salesman. He took up photography with frankly macho motives: "My main aim was to meet women," he once confessed. "I wanted to be near beautiful women." He succeeded by marrying Cuba's most beautiful model of the day, Niurka, though his three marriages ended in divorce.
Naturally charming and ebullient, the diminutive and wiry Alberto soon established himself as a successful fashion photographer, changing his surname from Díaz Gutiérrez to that of the British film-maker Alexander Korda because it sounded like "Kodak" to his Cuban ear. He soon had his own studio in Havana, and an expensive playboy lifestyle.
Like so many of his compatriots, his life was transformed by the Cuban revolution of 1959. On an assignment in the countryside soon after the guerrillas defeated the dictator Batista, he encountered such poverty that he was converted to the revolutionary cause. He began to follow the new Cuban leaders around, offering his photos to the newspaper Revolución, whose offices were close to his studios.
He spent 10 years as Fidel Castro's official photographer, using his skills to humanise the revolutionary leader's image in off-duty scenes - sharing moments with Ernest Hemingway and Jean-Paul Sartre, or confronting a caged tiger at the New York Zoo.
It was while on an assignment for Revolución in 1960 that Korda took the famous photo of Che, at a protest rally after a Belgian freighter carrying arms to Cuba was blown up by counter-revolutionaries while being unloaded in Havana harbour, killing more than 100 dock workers.
As he later recalled, it was a damp, cold day. Using a 90mm lens, he was panning his Leica across the figures on the dais when Che's face jumped into the viewfinder. The look in Che's eyes startled Korda so much that he instinctively lurched backwards, and immediately pressed the button: "There appears to be a mystery in those eyes, but in reality it is just blind rage at the deaths of the day before, and the grief for their families."
Ironically, Korda's picture was relegated to an inside page of Revolución, giving pride of place to Fidel. The original remained on the wall of his studio until 1967, when he gave two 10" x 8" prints of it as a gift to the leftwing Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli (the man who first published Dr Zhivago in the West, and who was blown up by a car-bomb in 1972).
A few weeks later, Che was captured and killed in Bolivia - and became an instant martyr. When Castro addressed a memorial rally in Havana's Plaza de la Revolución, Korda's photo was used as a mural on the building facing the podium; it is still there. Feltrinelli instantly spotted the value of the image, using one print for the cover of Che's diaries, and giving the other to the makers of the posters which were soon being carried through the streets of Europe in the protest marches of 1968.
This image of Che, noble and defiant, with tilted beret and flowing locks, rapidly spread to T-shirts and album covers, and was soon taken up by advertisers targeting youth, until it rivalled the Mona Lisa as perhaps the most replicated image ever. But Korda received no royalties; Feltrinelli had used the photo without permission, and even failed to credit him as the photographer.
In any case, Korda had no remedy until Cuba rejoined the international copyright convention in 1997. Finally, angered when the image appeared in a Smirnoff advert in Britain - Che never drank - he asked the Cuba Solidarity Campaign to help him sue Smirnoff's advertising agency, Lowe Lintas, and the picture library, Rex Features, for infringement. By happy coincidence, he received the news of an out-of-court settlement on his birthday last year, during a visit to London for the Cuba, Si! exhibition of Cuban photography at the National Theatre. He immediately handed over an undisclosed sum to buy much-needed medicine for Cuban children.
A lifelong smoker and rum drinker, Korda told marvellous anecdotes of the ascetic revolutionaries. "Once, I had to take pictures of Che cutting cane with the workers," he said. "He made me work for a week cutting cane before he'd let me take a shot. He was hard that way."
From 1968-78, Korda concentrated on underwater photography, until a Japanese exhibition in 1978 stimulated international interest in his work. From the early 1980s, he lived in modest semi-retirement, though he accompanied Castro on a recent visit to Venezuela and Mexico.
In 1999, he appeared in the pre-title sequence of Wim Wenders's documentary, Buena Vista Social Club, rifling through photos from the heroic early days - here is Che, for example, playing golf with Castro ("Who won?" "Fidel, because Che let him") - which ends with an image of a demonstration outside the US embassy that Korda called "David and Goliath". For some reason, Wenders fails to credit him.
Speaking in Havana late last year, Korda, who leaves two sons and two daughters, said: "Life may not have granted me a great fortune in money, but it has given me the even greater fortune of becoming a figure in the history of photography."
The Cuba Si! exhibition, which includes some of Korda's work, is at the Dick Institute, Kilmarnock, until June 16, and at Wingfield Arts, Eye, Suffolk, from July 7 until September 30.
Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez (Korda), photographer, born September 17 1928; died May 25 2001