“Shot from below against a light background, the portrait has a raised, Godlike quality. The angle of the shot is particularly crucial, as profiles have little impact and full frontals tend to flatten the features. The direction and intensity of the subject’s gaze is also key. Che is looking past the camera, out to his vision. His line of vision has been much tinkered with by various artists, but it retains its passion even on a table mat or a screensaver.”– Alison Jackson, photographer and film-maker.
It’s March 5th, 1960, President Fidel Castro has called a memorial service and mass demonstration at Havana’s Colón Cemetery, to honour more than 100 Cubans killed in the suspicious La Coubre explosion the day before.
In attendance is photographer Alberto Korda. Armed with his Leica M2 with 90 mm lens and loaded with Kodak Plus-X pan film, Korda busies himself taking pictures of Cuban dignitaries and famous French existentialist philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.
At 11:20 am, a major figure of the Cuban Revolution, Ernesto “Che” Guevara surprises everyone by attending the service and, for just a few fleeting seconds, Korda snaps two frames from a distance of about 25–30 feet before the guerrilla leader disappears into the crowd. The first shot has Guevara framed with an anonymous silhouette and a palm tree; the second has someone’s head appearing above his shoulder. But it’s the first picture that is destined to be Guevara’s most famous portrait and the most reproduced image in the history of photography.
Weeks and months later, Korda’s shot is passed out to friends and published by a few small Cuban publications. Then in 1967, Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick uses Korda’s image as a basis for creating his own stylised posters.
To create the image that pop artist Sir Peter Blake would later refer to as “one of the great icons of the 20th century”, Fitzpatrick made a paper negative on a piece of equipment called a grant enlarger. Printed in black, red, and yellow, Fitzpatrick “wanted the image to breed like rabbits” and gave away thousands of posters, often hundreds of copies at a time.
Because of Fitzpatrick’s desire for the photo to reflect something of himself, he raised Che’s eyes more and added his initial, an “F” on the shoulder. 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 time Fitzpatrick said 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.”
The image today remains as popular as ever. In his book ‘Che’s Afterlife: The legacy of an Image’, author Michael Casey believes it still taps into a deep well of emotion; “The randomness of the creation of the Korda image, the magic of a chance encounter, partly explains its power. This moment of beauty was as fleeting as any, yet in capturing it the photographer made it immortal. And immortality, we are told, is the stuff of art.”
Next week – the story behind the symbol for peace.