Alberto Korda's famous photograph of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara entitled: Guerrillero Heroico (translates to: "Heroic Guerrilla"), was taken on March 5, 1960, in Havana, Cuba, at a memorial service for victims of the La Coubre explosion. The photo was not published internationally until seven years later. At the moment of capture, Korda has stated that he was drawn to Guevara's facial expression at the time, which was one of "absolute implacability "anger", and "pain. Years later Korda would reminisce that in his view, the photo encapsulated Che's "character, firmness, stoicism, and resoluteness. Guevara was 31 at the time the photo was taken.
Showing the image's ubiquitous nature and wide appeal, the Maryland Institute College of Art called this picture "the most famous photograph in the world and a symbol of the 20th century. Various versions of it have been painted, printed, digitized, embroidered, tattooed, silk-screened, sculpted or sketched on nearly every surface imaginable; leading the V&A Museum to proclaim it "the most reproduced image in the history of photography." Jonathan Green director of the UCR/California Museum of Photography has postulated that "Korda’s image has worked its way into languages around the world. It has become an alpha-numeric symbol, a hieroglyph, an instant symbol. It mysteriously reappears whenever there’s a conflict. There isn’t anything else in history that serves in this way.
On March 5, 1960, President Fidel Castro called a memorial service and mass demonstration at Havana's Colón Cemetery, to honor more than 100 Cubans killed in the suspicious La Coubre explosion the day before. At the time, Guevara (who personally treated victims of the blast) was Minister of Industry in the new government, and Korda was Castro’s official photographer. After a funeral march along the seafront boulevard known as Malecón, Fidel Castro gave a eulogy for the fallen at a stage on 23rd street. During Castro’s speech before thousands of onlookers, at 11:20 am for a few seconds, Guevara came into view. Korda from a distance of about 25-30 feet, snapped just two frames of him before he disappeared from sight. Later Korda told Jorge Castaneda, one of Guevara's biographers:
Korda would also remark many years later in 2000, about the moment he captured the iconic image:
During the rally, Korda took pictures of Cuban dignitaries and famous French existentialist philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, both admirers of Guevara at the time. Included in the film roll were shots of all the speakers and two pictures of Che’s brief appearance. The first photo had Guevara framed alone between an anonymous silhouette and a palm tree; the second with someone's head appearing above his shoulder. The first picture, with the intruding material cropped out, became Guevara's most famous portrait. The editor of Revolución where Korda worked, decided to only use his shots of Castro, Sartre, and Beauvoir, while sending the Che shot back to Korda. Believing the image was powerful, Korda made a version for himself, stating:
Many visitors passed through the studio and saw the image, but it is unknown how many prints Korda made or gave to visitors from different countries during the years of 1961-1966, prints which could have also formed the basis for early dissemination of the image.
This belief was displayed for the first time in 2000, when in response to Smirnoff using Che's picture in a vodka commercial, Korda sued advertising agency Lowe Lintas and Rex Features, the company that supplied the photograph. Lintas and Rex claimed that the image was "obviously in the public domain." The final result was an out of court settlement for (US) 50,000 to Korda, which he donated to the Cuban healthcare system.
However, he was not against its propagation altogether, telling reporters:
Passed out to the occasional friend and published in a few small Cuban publications, Che’s image remained relatively unknown for 7 years. The photograph was then acquired by wealthy Italian publisher and intellectual Giangiacomo Feltrinelli in 1967. Feltrinelli had just returned from Bolivia where he had hoped his fame would help in negotiating the release of French journalist and professor Regis Debray. Debray had been arrested in Bolivia in connection with guerrilla operations led by Che Guevara. As Guevara's eventual capture or death appeared to be imminent with the CIA closing in on his whereabouts, Feltrinelli acquired the rights to publish Che's captured Bolivian Diary. At this time Feltrinelli asked Cuban officials where to obtain Guevara images and was directed to Korda’s studio where he presented a letter of introduction from the government. The document asked for Korda’s assistance in finding a good portrait of Che. Korda knew right away that his favorite image of Che was perfect and pointed to the 1960 shot of Che hanging on the wall, "This is my best Che picture". Feltrinelli agreed and ordered 2 prints. When he returned the next day to pick them up Korda told him that because he was a friend of the revolution he didn’t have to pay.
Upon his return to Italy, Feltrinelli disseminated thousands of copies of the poster to raise awareness of Che's precarious situation and impending demise. Later in 1968 after his October 9 1967 execution, Che's Bolivian Diary with Korda's photo on the cover was released worldwide. Feltrinelli also posters to promote the book, which sold over 1 million copies. By this time, Korda's image had officially entered the public consciousness.
In 1967, Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick was also Korda's image as a basis for creating his own stylized posters.
To create the image Fitzpatrick made a paper negative on a piece of equipment called a grant. They were then printed in one color black and one color red, and he handpainted the star in yellow. Fitzpatrick "wanted the image to breed like rabbits" and hand printed thousands of images to give away to anyone for free in London, in addition to getting friends to pass them out while encouraging others to make their own versions. He printed about a hundred copies at a time to fulfill the demand of political groups in Ireland, France, and Holland who began requesting the image. A batch was also sent to Spain, where they were seized by Franco's police.
Because of the high demand, Fitzpatrick formed a poster company called Two Bear Feet and produced a variety of posters in 1967 using the Korda image. All of them were created without copyright, because Fitzpatrick wanted them to be reproduced. One of these posters would be published in the satirical magazine Private Eye. The most well known was printed on silver foil and was exhibited in an exhibition in London called "Viva Che" at the Arts Laboratory, curated by Peter Meyer. This show was originally to be held at the Lisson Gallery in 1968 and illustrates how fast the image moved from protest into the realm of the fine art. Because of Fitzpatrick's desire for "there to be a bit of me in there", he raised Che’s eyes more and added his initial, a reversed "F" on the shoulder. However, it was not until the 40th anniversary of Che's death, that Fitzpatrick admitted to this fact stating "I’m a bit mischievous, so I never told anyone.” At this same time Fitzpatrick expressed that "I love the picture and wherever I am in the world, if I see it, I take a photo of it. I always have a chuckle when I see that little "F". I know that it’s mine.
Korda's photo was first published on April 16 1961, in the daily Cuban newspaper Revolución, advertising a noon conference during which the main speaker was "Dr. Ernesto 'Che' Guevara." The conference was disrupted however, when 1,300 CIA-supported counter-revolutionaries stormed the beaches of Cuba, in what became known as the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. The image was thus republished a second time advertising the newly convened conference on April 28 1961. Because of this fact, it seems very likely that in the context of both of these publications, that Che could have seen the photograph that would later contribute to his iconic status.
The very first time Cubans on a large scale became familiar with the photograph, despite its earlier reproduction in Revolución, was on hearing the news of Che's murder. Upon the news of Che's execution, it was enlarged and draped on a banner down the five-story building of the Ministry of the Interior in the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana. This building where Che himself had formerly worked, served as a backdrop to Fidel's eulogy on October 18 1967, publicly acknowledging the death of Che Guevara before a crowd of over a million mourners. José Gómez Fresquet, renowned Cuban poster maker and graphic artist, recalls how on hearing the news of Guevara’s death, he immediately worked all night producing the poster to be used at the rally honoring him the next day. Korda had given Fresquet a copy of the portrait as a basis for the poster, which he created on red paper. This was the first privately produced Guerrillero Heroico to be created in Cuba. Since then the building has seen many versions of the image, and today a permanent steel outline, derived from the photograph adorns the building.
However the fascination was not solely an American phenomenon, for instance British journalist Richard Gott who met with Che Guevara several times expressed a similar view, by stating how he was "struck by his magnetic physical attraction, comparable to the aura of a rock star." In Gott's opinion "almost everyone had the same impression, and journalists were particularly susceptible." Argentinian journalist Julia Costenlos, recalls that in her view he was "blessed with a unique appeal, an incalculable enchantment that came completely naturally. Indian Ambassador K Gajendra Singh, posted in 1965 as a young diplomat in Algiers, recalls his own similar personal encounter with meeting Guevara; describing him as "indisputably the dazzling star of the show" and compared shaking his hand at an economic seminar to "getting an autograph of a celebrity." According to Singh, Che's "charismatic presence in green olive fatigues and black beret" at the time embodied "the very best of the Hollywood and Bollywood stars all rolled into one"
According to the V&A Museum, "the 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 V&A Museum goes on to state that Korda’s famous photograph first deified Che and turned him into an icon of radical chic. Its story, a complex mesh of conflicting narratives, gave Guerrillero Heroico a life of its own, an enduring fascination independent of Che himself. The Italian magazine Skime evokes even more praise, decreeing it "absolutely the most famous of history" while proclaiming that it "captures beauty and youth, courage and generosity, aesthetic and moral virtues of a person who possessed all the characteristics necessary to be converted into a symbol of an epoch like ours, lacking in historic legends and mythic incarnations. Journalist Richard Gott has also remarked that "the red star in Che's beret was up there with Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds."
Fitzpatrick's graphic was later used in a 1968 painting attributed to Andy Warhol and sold to a gallery in Rome. The painting used the same graphic processes used on the acclaimed Marilyn Monroe pieces. However this painting was a forgery, created by Gerard Malanga who was in need of money. When Warhol heard of the fraud, he shrewdly authenticated the fake, providing that all the money from sales went to him.
Trisha Ziff, the curator of a 2004 touring exhibition on the iconography of Che agrees stating "Che Guevara has become a brand. And the brand's logo is the image, which represents change. It has become the icon of the outside thinker, at whatever level, whether it is anti-war, pro-green or anti-globalisation. Its presence, everywhere from Belfast to Soweto, or from walls in the Palestinian territories to Parisian boutiques, makes it an image that is out of control. It has become a corporation, an empire, at this point.
Alberto Korda's photo has received wide distribution and modification, appearing on countless numbers of t-shirts, posters, consumer products, protest banners, personal tattoos, and in many other formats. It has morphed into an iconic countercultural symbol for a new generation of youth. The image is now worn on the chests of a diverse group of individuals, from those who truly support the ideals that Che Guevara lived for, to those expressing a more generalized anti-authoritarian stance, and to those who may not even know who he actually is.
The stylized image of Che Guevara, adapted from Korda's photograph, is most commonly accompanied by several different symbols which add context to its inherent suggested meaning. The most common of these are the red star, hammer and sickle, Cuban flag, and the saying in Spanish "Hasta la Victoria Siempre" (Translations: "Until Victory Always" & "Until the Everlasting Victory"). The multi meaning phrase became the sign off for Che Guevara's numerous letters and speeches as a revolutionary, and represent the commitment to both never give up on the eventual triumph of a Marxist World revolution, and the belief that this victory once it occurs, will be eternal. As a result, "Hasta la Victoria Siempre" has become a de-facto slogan or catchphrase, used as a motto by those who continue to support and/or admire Che Guevara's life and/or ideals.
In 2007, legal analyst Sarah Levy addressed the potential legal status of the famous image in Cuba and the United States. It is her ultimate contention that in Cuba "despite the claims of ownership from Korda's heirs, the State would now hold any rights associated with the photograph. However, regarding the United States, she postulates that "Under the relatively low requirements articulated by U.S. courts, Korda's Guevara image should obtain copyright protection. She ends her article by declaring that "The outcome of future litigation hinges upon the duration of protection available within a jurisdiction. In regards to the more commonly disseminated sylized version of the photo, lawyers say it will be an uphill struggle to deter non-photographic use of such a widely reproduced image, other than in countries like Italy where laws protect image rights.
Ariana Hernández-Reguant also addressed the legality in 2004, with a less promising view towards Korda's heirs being able to establish ownership over the image in Copyrighting Che: Art and Authorship under Cuban Late Socialism. She notes how in reference to the case of (Korda v. Lintas & Rex), "There was never any official ruling on whether the depiction constituted a violation of copyright." The author goes on to state that: "Korda took the picture while working for a state-run newspaper, his actual property rights would be questionable under both Cuban and international law.
Guevara's heirs also believe they have legal justification to prevent the image's "exploitation." Guevara's Cuban widow Aleida March, who will lead the effort from the Che Guevara Studies Center, stated in 2005 that "We have a plan to deal with the misuse. We can't attack everyone with lances like Don Quixote, but we can try to maintain the ethics of Guevara's legacy. In reference to this pronouncement, Guevara's daughter Aleida Guevara told Reuters, "It will be costly and difficult because each country has different laws, but a limit has to be drawn. However, the family has not yet mounted court challenges.