Robert W. Butler looks at the world’s most famous photograph—Alberto Korda’s iconic photo of Che Guevara. Here are some excerpts.
The world’s most famous photograph? An iconic and ubiquitous portrait of Che Guevara – quite likely the most influential image of the 20th century.
You know the one, the tight close-up of the revolutionary wearing a dark beret with a single star, his face framed by a tangled mane of hair and beard. Che’s eyes stare off into the future with a nearly indescribable mix of sadness, defiance and soulful contemplation.
“Chevolution,” Trisha Ziff and LuisLopez’s riveting documentary, tells the tale of Guevara and this seminal photograph, which has adorned so many posters, T-shirts, album covers, books, novelty watches and other commercial items that today it’s as familiar as Mickey Mouse or Charlie Chaplin.
The photo was taken in 1960 by Alberto Korda, a former fashion photographer. Che – a prime player in the Cuban revolution that overthrew the right-wing Batista regime – was among the dignitaries at a mass funeral for Cuban dock workers killed in an anti-communist terrorist bombing. Korda snapped a couple of shots of the brooding Che, then filed them away.
The photos resurfaced in 1967, just before Che was killed by government troops in Bolivia, where he had hoped to foment a Cuban-style uprising.
By this time Che already was a legend, the romantic epitome of worldwide rebellion. In the wake of his death/martyrdom, Korda’s photo went viral … or the version of viral at the time.
Rebellious young people found in it a sense of empowerment, a crystallization of the perennial idealism of youth. Reproduced in posters and lapel pins and fliers, the Che photo was carried by protesters in France, Ireland, the United States, all around the globe.
But there was a problem. Che believed in violent revolution. He ordered the executions of rich Cubans and members of the Batista regime. His image has been used to sell ideas and products that he never would have approved of.
“Everybody can inject their own fantasies into those eyes,” one talking head says.
Perhaps the commercialization of Che was inevitable. A late convert to communism, Korda didn’t copyright his photo of Che. That was for greedy capitalists. Anyone could use it. And they did.
Some, like Andy Warhol’s silkscreen variations, are genuinely artful. Some are simply crass.
In recent years, Korda’s heirs have reasserted control of the photo, carefully licensing its use and demanding payment. So no more Che-print bikinis.
Ziff and Lopez’s film offers the perfect blend of enthusiasm and historic perspective. You don’t have to admire Che’s politics to appreciate this story.