Guerrilla Photographer

Che's image endures-and so does the unsung Cuban who captured it

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Born Alberto Diaz Gutierrez, he adopted Korda as both his surname and the name of his Havana studio because it sounded like Kodak, he said in a recent interview. Naming oneself, however obliquely, after a U.S. corporation isn't the best way to make inroads with Marxist revolutionaries, but Korda became known through his photography, not his political beliefs. Though he photographed 12 years of life in revolutionary Cuba, he is invariably linked with his image of the scowling yet beatific Guevara.

Korda took the photo in 1960, during a mass memorial service led by Fidel Castro after La Coubre, a French freighter loaded with weapons purchased from Belgium, exploded in Havana Harbor, killing 136 crew members and bystanders. During Castro's two-hour oratory, Che stepped up to the railing to look out over the crowd for only a few seconds, just long enough for Korda to click off two frames. Korda's editor at the newspaper RevoluciĆ³n ignored the picture, so Korda hung it on his studio wall, where it remained for seven years, until just before Che's death in Bolivia. Italian publisher Giacomo Feltrinelli, carrying a letter of introduction from the Cuban government, saw it there and asked for a couple of prints. Korda complied, refusing payment since the visitor was presented as "a friend of the revolution."

Following Che's death, Feltrinelli turned the photo into a poster, and the image began to spread. Even today, it adorns dormitory walls, T-shirts, key chains, and other items around the world.

Korda took other pictures of Che and Castro in the '50s and '60s, including a 1959 shot of the pair playing golf. Cuba was once famous for its golf courses-before Castro had all but one of the "bastions of capitalist decadence" bulldozed. Castro didn't hate the game itself, however, and this photo captures them at the Country Club of Havana just before its course was dismantled. According to Korda, the highly competitive Castro won the game, though the two spent much of the match discussing Cuban politics.

Inspired by her longtime fascination with Cuba, American photographer Milly Moorhead keeps her Southside Gallery in Oxford, Mississippi, stocked with signed prints of revolutionary-era Cuban photographs, including Korda's, and has received death threats because of them. Moorhead periodically visits Korda, taking a supply of photographic paper and developing chemicals with her, because they are scarce in Cuba. She visits with Korda's family in his home while he develops new prints from his fragile negatives and later signs the remarkable images in his unmistakable scrawl.

Gary Bridgman lives, writes, and drives a limousine in Oxford, Mississippi. To contact Southside Gallery, call 662/234-9090. From Gadfly (Jan./Feb. 2000). Subscriptions: $19.95/yr. (6 issues) from Box 7926, Charlottesville, VA 22906.