With the United States lifting travel restrictions on visiting Cuba, who isn’t fantasizing about a trip to the off-limits tropical time warp? Of course you don’t have to travel far to see the (often illegally reproduced likeness) of the country’s infamous revolutionary leader. But here’s the full story behind the famous image.
On March 5, 1960 Cuban photographer Alberto Korda took what would become one of the most iconic images of the second half of the 20th century. A personal friend of Field Castro, Korda had been anointed as his official photographer for the Cuban Revolution (1953–1959), a drastic change from his previous shooting banquets, baptisms, and weddings. According to Korda, “Nearing 30, I was heading toward a frivolous life when an exceptional event transformed my life: The Cuban Revolution.”
The day before the aforementioned iconic photo was taken, the freighter “La Coubre” exploded while 76 tons of Belgian munitions was being unloaded in Havana harbor. It was during a memorial service the following day–attended by French existentialist philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, as well as Castro—that Kordo snapped the photo, now known as “Guerrillero Heroico” (“Heroic Guerrilla Fighter”). It was of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, of course, an Argentine Marxist revolutionary, physician, author, guerrilla leader, diplomat, and military theorist, as well as a leader of the Cuban Revolution. But the editor of Revolución passed it up in favor of Korda’s shots of Castro, Sartre, and Beauvoir. Believing in the power of the image, Korda cropped, upped the contrast, rotated the photo slightly, and made copies to give out as gifts.
The image remained relatively unknown until 1968, a year after the leader’s execution, when Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli used it on the cover of Guevara’s Bolivian Diary. That same year, the image began popping up everywhere. Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick used Korda’s image for a stylized, psychedelic-influenced poster. Gerald Malanga, American poet, photographer, filmmaker, curator, and archivist, sold an Andy Warhol forgery based on Fitzpatrick’s poster (below).
In February, American publisher Barney Rosset commissioned designer and illustrator Paul Davis to create the cover of Evergreen No. 51, featuring speeches and letters by Castro and Guevara. The theme for the issue was “The Spirit of Che,” but Davis also based his painting on Korda’s photograph, marking the first time the image was seen in the United States. Davis’ painting became as iconic in American as Korda’s had become in Europe. As a result, the Evergreen publisher’s offices were firebombed by anti-Castro Cuban émigrés.
When I visited France in 2002, Che’s visage was everywhere: as graffiti, as a car-seat cover pattern (alongside icons like Dali, Dean, Gandhi, Einstein, and Marley), even as a little girl’s T-shirt, with his beret and locks intact but his face replaced by a teddy bear’s.
In the AIGA Design Archives, art Director John Gall pays tribute to both iconic versions, first using Davis’ painting in 1997 for the cover of Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, by Jon Lee Anderson (while he was the art director of Grove/Atlantic), then using Korda’s image in 2009 for Che’s Afterlife, by Michael Casey (while he was art director at Vintage).