'Che' Guevara's Iconic Image Endures
Saturday, September 23, 2006; 3:37 PM
CHICAGO -- There's something about that man in the photo, the Cuban revolutionary with the serious eyes, scruffy beard and dark beret. Ernesto "Che" Guevara is adored. He is loathed. Dead for nearly 40 years, he is everywhere _ as much a cultural icon as James Dean or Marilyn Monroe, perhaps even more so among a new generation of admirers who've helped turn a devout Marxist into a capitalist commodity.
Of all the pop culture images that surround us, it is Guevara's face _ immortalized in the photograph taken by Alberto "Korda" Diaz Gutierrez _ that often stares at us, from T-shirts and posters, refrigerator magnets and tattoos.
Part political statement and part fashion statement, the image sometimes overshadows the man, as one T-shirt wryly acknowledges. Below the photo, a caption on the shirt reads: "I have no idea who this is."
Panayiotis Lambropoulos, a young Greek immigrant who lives in Chicago, is someone who actually took the time to learn more about Guevara. He saw his first Che shirts a few years ago, and thought everyone who wore one must be a subversive rabble-rouser. Then the young investment analyst ended up buying one for himself.
Fascinated with Guevara, he began reading whatever he could about the man who helped lead the Cuban revolution and promoted armed uprisings in Africa and Latin America until he was slain in Bolivia.
"In a way," Lambropoulos said, "I've wanted to earn my T-shirt."
The photo's journey from Cuba to that shirt has been a lengthy one.
Taken in Havana on March 5, 1960, the shot captured Guevara _ eyes gazing off in the distance _ attending a memorial service for dozens who died in an attack on an arms freighter. Cuba blamed the incident on U.S.-backed counterrevolutionaries.
Korda, a fashion photographer turned photojournalist, was on assignment for the Cuban newspaper Revolucion. The photo was used publicly in Cuba from time to time, eventually becoming a symbol of national pride and the basis for a drawing of Guevara on Cuban currency. But the outside world didn't see it until several years after it was taken, when Korda gave copies to Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. Feltrinelli made posters with the photo and, after Guevara's death in 1967, used it as a cover for some of the revolutionary's published diaries.
As the photo's distribution widened, so did its fame, with several artists doing their own variations, including a famous black and red version by Ireland's Jim Fitzpatrick.
Jack Kenny, a photographer from Ann Arbor, Mich., met Korda in the late 1990s while gathering images for a book on Cuba and saw a copy of the famous original hanging on Korda's living room wall.
"He was very proud of it. But when he took it, I don't think he realized what he had," Kenny says. Korda died in 2001 and received little compensation for his photo until later in life.