His eyes did not gaze into the photographer’s eyes but his statuesque expression extraordinarily shows authority and tension. This portrait of a man with a beret is like the male Mona Lisa in black and white film – enigmatic in every way.
No one in the world, perhaps, will say that he or she hasn’t seen this man’s face. It is literally everywhere – apparel, commodities, graffiti, propaganda. It is even present in today’s rallies and riots. It has always been associated with rebellion and revolution. Nowadays, it is also oftentimes linked to the arts and popular culture.
This defining photograph of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara was taken by none other than Fidel Castro’s personal photographer, Alberto Korda. Korda used to be a fashion photographer before the Cuban Revolution. He was a master of black and white photography. In this particular photo, he used a Leica M2 camera and a Kodak Plus-X pan film.
Castro was giving an oration at a mass funeral for the ones who died in a harbor explosion in Havana. Che, who was then 31 years young, came into the scene and scanned the crowd and then Korda shot 2 frames of him. Below is the contact sheet from which this iconic picture was derived:
The final image, which is now so popular, was cropped – the unknown silhouette of a man and the palm tree were removed – by Korda himself and he hung the photo to his wall for many years. It was publicly released as a poster after Che’s death and it became the ultimate symbol of the Marxist revolution.
Che’s polarizing portrait is godlike that even when it is stylized, posterized, or Warholized, its graphic quality stays the same. However, Korda claimed that “… this photograph is not the product of knowledge or technique. It was really coincidence, pure luck.” In spite of its fame, Korda never claimed any payment for it. He was not averse to its propagation but he was against the exploitation of Che’s image for any purpose that degrades the hero’s reputation.
Which other photographs do you think are influential? Post a hyperlink to the image in the comments – if you know it, please include the photographer’s name and the year the photo was taken.
Our intention with the Influential Photographs columns is not to glorify or demean the subject of the photo. Our intention with this column is to highlight the most influential analogue photographs of history. The photographs we feature are considered icons, for their composition, subject matter, or avant-garde artistic value.