HAVANA – Friday marks the 50th year since Cuban photographer Korda took the close-up shot of Argentine-born revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara with his guerrilla’s beret and disheveled hair, one of the most reproduced, venerated and commercialized pictures of the 20th century.
On March 4, 1960, Che and other leaders of the Cuban revolution attended the funeral of almost 100 victims of the previous day’s attack against the French steamship La Couple, which had a shipment of arms aboard.
The Cuban press recalled Friday that it was a cool, overcast day and that Alberto Diaz (1928-2001), better known as Korda, did not realize at first the importance of the photo taken with his Leica camera, which, years later, was seen around the world on book jackets, political posters, building facades and designer T-shirts.
On that day Fidel Castro delivered for the first time his no less famous slogan “Patria o Muerte” (Homeland or Death) as he stood on a platform giving a fiery speech to thousands of people attending the funeral-demonstration, with Che in the background.
Near the Argentine guerrilla were Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, whom Korda pursued with a roll of film that was about finished and a 90mm lens.
Korda said later that Guevara had such an intense gaze that he was taken aback for a moment, but not enough to keep him from snapping two quick shots, one vertical, the other horizontal, before Che again disappeared behind the dignitaries in the front row.
The photo “was not planned, it was intuitive,” Korda, then working for the newspaper Revolucion, said.
He said that afterwards he completed the work in the laboratory to make the rebel’s gaze stand out, cropping from the left side of the horizontal shot the profile of another person, and from the right side the inevitable tropical palm tree.
The result was the famed portrait that Korda some time later dubbed “Heroic Guerrilla,” which was reproduced in thousands of versions in honor of Che, who fought in several Latin American and African countries before dying in a Bolivian highland hamlet a scant seven years later.
The photo was not appreciated at first and did not even appear in the article published the next day in Revolucion about the La Coubre sabotage and the mass funeral.
Korda enlarged it and hung it in his studio together with a portrait of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and family photos.
His newspaper published it for the first time five months later to illustrate a news story about Guevara’s presence at a government ceremony, but it went unnoticed.
It only became known and began to be distributed exponentially after Che’s death in the Bolivian mountains, when Fidel Castro sought a picture of him for a poster measuring 1 meter by 70 centimeters (39” x 28”), that was presented in Italy in 1967.
Korda earned not a penny for his most widely distributed portrait, though the Italian businessman who reprinted that first poster sold a million copies in just a few months – without identifying the photographer.
But the last straw in the commercialization of Che’s photo was its use in an ad campaign for Smirnoff Vodka, which led the photographer to file suit against the makers in the year 2000.
Korda, who died a year later, won the suit against Smirnoff and compensation of $60,000. EFE