Che Guevara: Life after Death Part 2

by Myya McGregory

What makes an icon?

In the last post we talked about the documentary film, Chevolution, directed by Trisha Ziff and Luis Lopez and how Alberto  Korda’s photo of Che Guevara, the “Guerrillero Heroico” (the Heroic Guerrilla), transformed Guevara from a simple historical figure to a photographic and visual icon.

Ernesto Che Guevara by A Rostgaard 1969 from IISG’s flicker

Painting and street art are often treated as fiction, and photography as fact. Yet a photograph can be just as constructed as a painting. Korda’s Guerrillero Heroico was not popular by simple coincidence. His photo became famous because of the expression in Guevara’s eyes, his stance, and the strong angle of his head overlooking the crowd. In that one image, Korda captured, with light and angle, what many wanted to see in Guevara. Chevolution doesn’t dwell on this point but the idea is very present. The directors highlight this by contrasting the Guerrillero Heroico with the images of Guevara on his deathbed, which, though more widely disseminated at the time, have not gained the long-lasting fame of the more vivified Korda photograph.

As art has evolved, Guevara’s image evolved with it. The Guerrillero Heroico takes on a slightly different meaning each time it is modified. Each artist adds a new interpretation. Some make Guevara appear more ambiguous, some highlight the eyes, some blur the background, some make him more ethereal softly blurring the outlines, some make him radiant (see left), some even villanize him. Irish artist, Jim Fitzpatrick who created what is likely the most popular rendition of the Guerrillero Heroico tells BBC news he, “deliberately designed it to breed like rabbits.”  His high-contrast image darkens the eyebrows and intensifies Guevara’s gaze. The red background intensifies the black shading and the remaining white makes the entire image pop. It is a more stark and gallant interpretation of Guevara, born of the artist’s admiration.

The Guerrillero Heroico has become a symbol for both those who despise and those who love Guevara.

Street artist, Shepard Fairey (you might remember him from Exit Through the Gift Shop or the Obama “Change” poster) makes a brief cameo in  Chevolution. He talks about Guevara in comparison to his own project, the OBEY Giant. Many have seen the stickers, screen prints, and the walls tagged with Andre the Giant and the simple order to “obey.” This image paired with the single word “obey,” was turned into a social statement about propaganda.

If “obey” was written in a different font would we perceive it the same way? What if Andre the Giant was not the face of the command? What if it was Mr. Rogers?

A simple alteration can affect how we perceive an image. Whenever we view any image, especially an image of another person, we impose a specular dominance over it. We bring our biases, our questions, and our needs. If given the proper image, we can fill in its blanks with our desires. We can construct an icon.

In Chevolution, the directors argue that even though Guevara’s image can be found everywhere, some people still don’t know who he was. Who Che Guevara was has evolved into what he is now.

How is Che Guevara’s image being altered right now? Will it ever fade? What is the next icon that will have a seemingly endless afterlife?

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Che Guevara: Life after Death Part 1

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?