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Published:March 28th, 2009 12:17 EST
Alberto Korda`s Photo of Che Guevara Has Become An Icon of Pop Art!

Alberto Korda`s Photo of Che Guevara Has Become An Icon of Pop Art!

By John G. Kays


I am looking forward to the movie Che by Steven Soderbergh (I have seen it now), but I know it will take its time in coming to Austin. In the mean time I have been studying up on Che Guevara and am noticing a curious thing about how he is portrayed in Pop Art. Most of the interpretations of him, by way of graphic art, come from one photograph taken by Alberto Korda on March 5th, 1960. Different versions of this same image abound, with the colors, texture, or lay-out only varying slightly from one item of art or another . This Korda photograph is essentially Che Guevara as Pop Art proliferated throughout many different mediums. Why? Probably because people prefer its simplicity and the easy access of identification that can be obtained with the Communist Revolutionary/Saint that we call Che, so much revered by so many. This is my theory anyway.

My own acrylic of the Korda photo.


The iconic photo was taken at a memorial service for the La Coubre ship explosion in the harbor of Havana. Alberto Korda went back to his darkroom and developed it and knew immediately that it was the ultimate Che image, and he was certainly correct. An Italian publisher, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli got the rights to the photo in 1967, on a hunch that Guevara would die soon, and then produced a poster that sold 2,000,000 copies in a half year. I have seen news footage of the students holding the posters up high during the Paris Protests of May 1968. You can see them clearly carrying these posters along with ones of Ho Chi Minh in El Che: Investigating a Legend. Korda just wanted to remain true to the anti-capitalist spirit of Ernesto Guevara, remain true to Che`s sincerity, his heartfelt commitment to Socialism; for had Korda retained the rights to his photo he would have been wealthy beyond belief!


When I look at the Korda image of Che I think of the graphic artist Shepard Fairey`s image of Barack Obama which is everywhere I look. I have seen it used on political placards, stickers, and even on the cover of Time Magazine. His previous stickers of Andre the Giant (Obey) are all over town, on street signs, light posts, and on the walls of buildings. I LOVE to see Andre`s mug and also it might not hurt that I once saw The Giant wrestling live at The Sportatorium in Dallas many, many years ago. How do you account for the popularity of Fairey`s clever little graphics? The simplicity and humor may be the reason. Similarly, Che has the beret and shaggy hair-he seems to personify revolutionary virility and defiance. Students on the left in the late 1960s attached themselves to this image and used it on protest placards. They found strength in the Korda image and as a result it became timeless. 


What is stunning to me is the fact that many people in Latin American countries have this image preciously mounted on their walls, simulating a religious icon, say a Christ icon or possibly it is a mirror of Milagros that could bring a body good luck. In my Che Handbook I have seen this image as a mural on a brickwall in Belfast, and I`ve seen it printed on a wine bottle, a cigarette pack, and even on a carrying bag. There`s a striking statue by Delarra in the Che Guevarra Revolution Square in Santa Clara, Cuba. Luis Martínez Pedro`s Che`s America is Warholesque with multiple single-colored prints of the Korda photo juxtaposed on one poster. There are many other examples as well.  


I was curious about this proliferation of Che paraphernalia, so yesterday (January 17th) I visited a local retail import shop myself, Tesoros Trading Company on South Congress Avenue, here in Austin. They have souvenirs and novelties from around the world, but they specialize in items from Latin American countries. I marveled at two kinds of Tee-shirts, Che postcards, gigantic mousepads, refrigerator magnets, and pricey original posters from Cuba, commemorating the Revolution. Only Frida Kahlo merchandise was more ubiquitous. This stuff sells like hotcakes! Believe it or not, exclusively, all of the Che ephemera in the shop used the famous Alberto Korda photograph, no exceptions.


This may seem somewhat childish, but I tried my own hand at some Che pop art. First I printed out a Photostat of the Korda photo on Kodak photo paper, then I painted it with acrylics such as yellow ochre, antique brown, cadmium yellow, raw sienna, and lots of burnt umber. Oh, I used some orange, tan, and red also. I let it dry, sprayed it with Krylon Crystal Clear, scanned it, and then tweaked it slightly on Adobe Photoshop Elements 2.0, then saved it on My Documents, and now here it is! The colors glow and are alive! Icons are simple and are worshipped, not analyzed. My acrylic is almost plausible as actual art! 


Still with the demise of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the present near collapse of Communist Cuba (don`t forget Castro`s close demise) the question remains: why do so many people persevere in worshiping this simple graphic? Does it provide hope for poor people? Yes. Do people still idealize this earlier Communist era, though it is now in shambles? Yes. Maybe people just like the simplicity of it. Maybe people like to worship political martyrs too, like JFK, MLK, and CHE. I know I do. I have a portrait of JFK on my wall and pay homage daily to the American Saint. I do not know why really? We all worship someone. People watch The Motorcycle Diaries religiously and vicariously experience Che`s travels through South America. I have seen it five times and have loved it every time. The Korda shot is a NOSTALGIC TALISMAN that people grab on to, like the "Hope` poster of Obama by Shepard Fairey. The cult of Che will never die out! I`m not a Communist people, but I can not stop staring at this Che icon!