Che Guevara mural in Havana from Library of Congress Archives
by Myya McGregory
“Chevolution” is a documentary on Che Guevara and the journey of his iconic image. The film makes the case that Che was not only an important figure in the history of Cuba and revolution but also in the history of photography and art.
Che was an Argentine doctor who left his middle class life to join the fight against poverty and corruption being waged by guerilla regiments across South and Central America. Scholars say he was strongly motivated by the rampant poverty he witnessed in his travels. With his interest in Marxism it was no surprise that Che would end up joining Fidel Castro’s “Movimiento 26 de Julio” to take down the long reigning Batista regime in Cuba.
Che was a very well liked figure. He was charismatic, skilled in combat, intelligent, he led by example, and he was the type of activist that Cuba needed at the time.
While aiding in a Bolivian rebellion against Rene Barrientos Ortuño in 1967, Che was killed by a group of CIA trained guerilla fighters.
Che’s life was profoundly influential in Latin American politics, and his legacy in the arts also continues to intrigue.
A lover of photography himself, Che insisted on documenting every step of the revolution. When he attended a mass memorial for victims of a terrorist attack at the Plaza de Revolución, Alberto Korda, fashion photographer extraordinaire, snapped the iconic image that would travel around the world inciting revolution in ways that Che could have only imagined.
At the time the Leica M2 was one of the best cameras on the market. Made by a German optics company, the Leica M2 used regular 35 mm film, groundbreaking parallax compensation, and focal-plane shutter.
Leica M2 from Flickr by Shane Lin
Using celluloid film (which had been around for almost a century at that point) and homemade developing solution, Korda and the other photographers traveling with Che would develop, enlarge, and print their own images.
Che came along in a time when photography was becoming more public. Nitrate based celluloid film was no longer commercailly available by the early 1950s because it was highly flammable and toxic. In fact the Northeast Document Conservation Center points out that because cellulose nitrate was so unstable, many of the images taken on this film have deteriorated drastically. It is more likely that Korda took his iconic photo using 35mm acetate based celluloid film. Cellulose acetate was considerably less toxic that cellulose nitrate however its decomposition was equally as autocatalytic and just as caustic (it would produce vinegar as a byproduct in decomposition). Luckily for Korda, copying negatives of photos was a relatively simple process and creating an interpositive could lessen the risk of diluting the image quality along the way. It seems that Che lived at just the right time in photographic history.
How would history would have changed if Che arrived in different place along the photographic history timeline? What about other leaders and cultural/historical icons?