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Che: Evolution of an Image

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Reproduced more than any other photograph ever, according to the Victoria and Albert Museum, it is the world’s most famous photo, according to the Maryland College of Art. Yet the average person today is more likely to know the iconic image of Che Guevara's stern face through a t-shirt than an art history class. The image, derived from a photograph of Che Guevara, is now called “Guillermo Heroico (Guerrilla Hero Fighter)”. Today Che is familiar around the world as a symbol of rebellion, due in large part to the mass production of this one inspiring image. But where did it come from?

• The original photo was snapped by Cuban State Photographer Alberto Korda on March 5, 1960 at a funeral. Che was 31 years old.

• “Gueirillo Heroico” was created when Korda cropped the photo into a square and removed the background. Nobody was interested in the photograph at the time, so Korda blew it up into a poster for his own wall.

• The cropped image was acquired by wealthy Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli in 1967. He disseminated the image via posters and the cover of Che’s Bolivian Diary that he printed. The inspiring image began to circle through Europe, providing a rallying point for Italians in Milan in October 1967 when they received new of Guevara’s death in Bolivia, and was later used on the cover of Paris’s Match magazine.

• Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick took this popularized image to create his stylized posters in 1968. They proved so popular he created a company that made multiple versions, including the one below with its striking red background. Lithography allowed for the easy creation of multiples.

• Korda's photo became famous in Cuba upon the news of Guevara's death, when it was enlarged and draped on a red banner down the five-story building of the Ministry of the Interior in the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana. Since then a permanent steel structure of Che's head has replaced it.

• NYC subway billboards featured a painted version of Che by Paul Davis when he appeared on the cover of the February 1968 Evergreen Review.

• Famously, Gerard Malanga sold a fake Warhol-version of Che in 1968, done in the artist’s famous lithographed grid style. Warhol said he would authenticate it if he received the profits.

From the 60s onward, the image became used not only for posters but also mass produced on tshirts and keyrings with less and less of an interest taken in Che Guevara’s ideals or life. The simple black and white image was easy to replicate with the popular lithography and silkscreen techniques popular in the era. Interestingly the owner of the image, photographer Alberto Korda, has never sought profits, preferring instead to support Che’s ideals through the dissemination of his image. The only time he fought its use was when the vodka brand Smirnoff used it in a 2000 campaign, and then Korda explained that he opposed the campaign because alcohol was not in keeping with the ideals of Guevara. The irony of what the image originally represented, revolution from Capitalist systems,  and the extreme degree that it has been commercialized, is striking, as is the lack of meaning the image now has. For every person who wears the t shirt because they are inspired by the revolutionary leader, how many know don't even know his story?

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