There’s a good chance Alberto Korda was responsible for the photos you’ve seen from the early, heady days of the Cuban Revolution – flag-waving campesinos, rifle-wielding barbudos, but also (and especially) Fidel and Che in their off-hours, fishing, enjoying a smoke, playing a legendary round of golf in battle fatigues at what was formerly a country club for Havana’s elite. The world’s most famous Cuban photographer snapped an estimated 55,000 Revolution-themed photos – quite an achievement in those pre-digital days, and in a place where photographic equipment and supplies weren’t always readily available. But his real achievement, the one for which he will always be remembered, was his messianic Che Guevara image, which Korda entitled Guerrillero Heroico.
"It’s incredible," the photographer recalls in Simply Korda, a new documentary that premiered in March in Havana to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Korda’s iconic Che photo. "That has become the most reproduced image in the history of photography. And it was snapped on the spur of the moment, a coincidence."
That coincidence happened on March 5, 1960. The previous day a French boat, La Coubre, exploded in Havana’s port loaded with munitions destined for the nascent Cuban Revolution. At least 75 people were killed. Che, who had personally provided medical treatment to victims of the blast, was among the crowd at the funeral march along Calle 23, and Korda snapped just two shots of him with his Leica M2.
Fifty years later Korda’s Guerrillero Heroico image has become the shot seen round the world, and Cuban director Roberto Chile brings the man and his work into sharp focus. Simply Korda, like the same director’s 2002 Fidel documentary, is an evocative portrait that dispenses with sugarcoating in favour of facts. The film is based on an interview that took place four months prior to Korda’s death and has never before been shown. "I’ve dedicated my photography to what I love,” Korda tells Chile matter-of-factly. “I’m not any kind of genius. And one of my first interests and loves in my life was the beauty of women, right?"
So the documentary gives us a young, pre-revolutionary Korda snapping studio pictures of models holding bows and arrows and pussycats. He’s even in some of these advertising photos himself, with his yachtsman’s cap and debonair pencil moustache. He announces, "I was the creator of fashion photography in Cuba because, until this very day, I love the female figure.” Then we see a series of sexy, swimsuit shots.
So how did Korda make the transition when the Revolution came to town? Seamlessly, it turns out. "The Cuban Revolution was victorious, it was run by men, and it was even more beautiful than the beauty of women! So," Korda says with the grand arm gestures of a man still amazed by the turn of history, "I devoted myself to [The Revolution.]" And beards and berets blossomed on magazine pages and in university dorm rooms.
Korda became a fervant supporter of the Revolution. It gave him a chance to remove the "frivolity" from his art, and it reawakened concerns that had appeared when he snapped his earliest pictures. "I remember my first camera very well," Korda says. "Someone gave my father a little 35mm camera for a gift. I took it and carried it in my briefcase wherever I went." During his rounds as a typewriter salesman in Havana, he started taking pictures "of things that troubled my heart" – particularly poverty-stricken children making toys out of whatever they could find in the street. "I realized I had to dedicate my work to this Revolution that promised to erase these inequalities."
Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez (he preferred to be called simply Korda, as the new documentary’s title suggests) was born in the El Cerro neighbourhood of Havana in 1928. His father was a telegraph operator for the railroads. His mother did the housework "like all Cuban women at that time.” Korda was their only child. He studied accounting and stenography, and when he left school he went to work for Sabatés SA, the Cuban arm of Procter and Gamble. Korda handled the company’s advertising. Then he went to work selling cash registers and typewriters for Remington Rand, another North American conglomerate.
In 1954 he opened his own photography business, Studios Korda, in a small office in the Metropolitana building, headquarters of the Godoy & Zayan bank. Two years later Studios Korda was moved to a building in front of the Hotel Capri. The Capri’s casino was one of Havana’s flashiest nightspots in those days, operated by notorious gangster Santo Trafficante and attracting North American celebrities like movie gangster George Raft, who was also one of the Capri’s investors. Korda remembers all the shiny new Cadillacs and Mercedes convertibles filling the street in front of the Capri. He also remembers the woman who used to beg or sell lottery tickets with her two small children on the sidewalk. "There were always those kinds of huge contradictions," Korda says in the film. "I understand the world couldn’t continue like that. Then the Comandante arrived and put a stop to all that."
He volunteered his services for the Havana daily Revolución. In 1959, when Fidel announced plans to make his first official visit abroad (to Venezuela), the newspaper’s editor sent Korda to cover the historic event. Later the same year Korda tagged along to the United States and created more iconographic images (Fidel at the Lincoln Memorial). Fidel liked the photos he saw in the paper and Korda spent the next nine years following him wherever he went. The two men remained close until Korda’s death in 2001 (he died of a heart attack while in Paris for one of his exhibitions).
Another little-known Korda fact: his photography continued to evolve beyond the portraits for which he’s known. His underwater photography, for example, was the subject of a major exhibition in Japan in 1978.
"Let me say that I was never called ’offfical photographer’," Korda says emphatically. "I was never paid a salary by Fidel." And he wasn’t paid very often by anyone else, either. He was mostly content to let anyone use his images however they wanted. In 2000, however, he sued Smirnoff in London – on ideological grounds – for using the Che image in an advertisement. "To use the image of Che Guevara to sell vodka is a slur on his name and memory," he told the Guardian newspaper at the time. (Che was never a drinker, for one thing, and Korda himself liked rum, Havana Club 3 años being his favourite.) Korda donated his out-of-court settlement (said to be US $50,000) for Cuban healthcare, saying, "If Che were still alive, he would have done the same.”
One of the most touching moments in the film is when Korda recalls travelling 600 kilometers from Havana to find Che in a field cutting sugar cane. "He asked me where I was born," Korda recalls. "I told him, ’Havana’. Then he asked if I had cut sugar cane before. When I said no, he told one of his bodyguards to “get the photographer a machete, because he’s going to take part in the people’s sugar-cane harvest’. And I had to spend the next week cutting cane before I could take any pictures. He was something — that’s why I always kept a bit of distance from him."