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.
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?