The melodrama surrounding one of the world's most famous photographs does not a pretty picture make. "Heroic Guerrilla," the 1960 shot that portrays a 32-year-old, beret-topped, long-haired Ernesto "Che" Guevara gazing sternly into the distance, has served the Cuban Revolution's image-makers like no other. It has helped to keep a fierce, dashing, and above all youthful countenance on the Western Hemisphere's great socialist experiment. It is the face of young Che that tends to appear on billboards and banners throughout the island, not the creased and sagging faces of his now elderly comrades. Likewise it is the Guevara photo that has maintained a larger-than-life presence abroad, via T-shirts, posters, coffee mugs, and CDs.
But appearances deceive. This year the Argentine leftist would have turned 74 years old, had he eluded the Cuban CIA agents and Bolivian soldiers who executed him in 1967. The man who took the immortalizing photo, Alberto Korda, died of a heart attack last May while in France. He was 72. His death set in motion a less-than-revolutionary struggle over the ownership of his photographic corpus (as well as his apartment and one of his three old cars).
Korda's 44-year-old son, Fidel Alberto Diaz, flew from his home in Norway to Paris to accompany his father's body back to Cuba. At the burial four days later he was joined by the rest of Korda's five children and two of his three ex-wives. They broke down into three familial groups. There was 25-year-old Alejandra, a gallery owner who had flown in from Miami; 27-year-old Dante, a freelance videographer residing in Havana; and their mother Monica Guffanti, an Argentine actress who lived with Korda from 1962 to 1984. There was Fidel Alberto, his 42-year-old sister Norka, and their mother Norka Mendez, who was with Korda for seven years prior to his relationship with Guffanti. Finally there was his eldest child, 44-year-old Diana, an assistant at the National Ballet of Cuba. Her mother, Julia, was Korda's first wife (that marriage lasted about a year); she did not attend the funeral.
Such a hero was the fallen photographer that President and Commander-in-Chief Fidel Castro showed up at the burial. So did Vice President Carlos Lage, Minister of Culture Abel Prieto, and the director of Cuba's Union of Writers and Artists, Carlos Martí.
Guffanti reports that while at the cemetery, el Comandante en Jefe offered her the services of the latter two. "Fidel knows me from when I was married to Alberto," Guffanti explains. "He says, Monica, who is taking care of you all?' I say, Fidel, no one.' And he said, No, no. Whatever problem you have, go to Abel Prieto. Go to Carlos Martí.' And I said, Perfect, Fidel. I know them.' Because I work in culture. I know them and they know me."
Fidel Alberto, who followed his father into professional photography, also spoke to Castro at the funeral, particularly about preserving the hundreds of Korda's negatives archived at the Council of State, where the patriarch's office is located. "I did mention, very strongly, the urgent necessity of conserving my father's archive," the son recalls from Oslo. He told Castro he possessed the state-of-the-art Macintosh computers required to make high-quality digital copies of the negatives. He was willing to stay in Cuba as long as necessary to finish the work.
Alejandra, who notes she was standing next to her half-brother at the time, remembers it like this. "Fidel [Castro] tells him, Yes, yes, that's good.' And he points to an aide and says, Get in touch with this man so you can do that work, etc.'" She then provides some corroborating details. "Fidel was dressed very elegantly the day of the burial. And he told my mom, who was right next to me, That is very interesting. I know that there are very modern things now and those negatives need to be taken care of better.' I was right next to him, looking at his teeth," Alejandra added. "He has those fake teeth, and they move when he talks."
After the funeral the relatives gathered at Korda's modest ocean-view apartment on the ground floor of a mid-rise in Havana's Miramar section. The preservation plans were overshadowed by an unexpected development. Diana passed out copies of a will Korda had apparently signed more than a year earlier on February 5, 1999. "I reacted with disbelief," Fidel Alberto recounts. According to the text, Korda had named Diana the "only and universal heiress" to his "possessions, rights, and effects."
Fidel Alberto informed Diana his father had turned over control of his work to him several years earlier. "I have legal documents where my father, in the presence of witnesses, assigned, to me Fidel Alberto Diaz Mendez, all the rights to his lifework, which includes all original negatives and photos which were owned by Alberto Korda himself and also all photos and negatives that were nationalized by the Cuban authorities." It was uncertain how he had intended to exert those rights, given that most of the photos documenting the early years of the revolution were possessed by the Cuban government.
In addition, Korda's safe was empty. What happened, Fidel Alberto wanted to know, to the $250,000 his father had kept in there and another safe in Diana's house? His father had shown him the cash, saying most of it had come from sales of "Heroic Guerrilla." According to a Cuban court document filed by her lawyer, Diana gave her four half-siblings "a considerable amount of money that she was not obligated to give them." But Fidel Alberto, Dante, and Alejandra maintain Diana did no such thing.
To make matters worse, Fidel Alberto soon received a call from a Cuban immigration official reminding him he had to leave Cuba in a few days because his visa was expiring. He was unable to get an extension to stay and work on the preservation project he had discussed with President Castro. Alejandra returned to her Venetian Causeway condo. Dante, who lived in an apartment a block away from his father's Havana flat, soon filed a legal challenge against the will. "It is absurd and stupid to believe that my father would have left everything to Diana," he fumes.
Following Castro's suggestion at the funeral, Guffanti wrote to culture minister Prieto to inform him that she believed the will was fraudulent. But months passed and she never heard back.
The fate of Korda's photographs would be complicated by a nasty dispute over the rooftop bungalow Korda had built just above Monica's top-story apartment in Miramar. In Cuba it is against the law to possess more than one residence; housing officials maintained Korda constructed it illegally. Cuban authorities had charged Dante with assault after a confrontation with police trying to evict him and his family from that unit. Last month, at the urging of his mother and sister, Dante reluctantly left the island in order to avoid arrest.
Korda's death prompted one of his old, exiled Havana colleagues to lay out his thoughts on the photographer's somewhat overblown artistic legacy. In an article published in El Pais, the Madrid-based daily, writer Gabriel Cabrera Infante explains how "Heroic Guerrilla," like the revolution itself, started as one thing and turned into something else. What began as an obscure group photo became a cropped-down image used to glorify a rather grisly fiasco in Bolivia. "The guerrilla's failure as total triumph," Cabrera Infante put it.
Korda, too, wore different faces. Born Alberto Diaz Gutierrez in 1928, he attended the Havana Business Academy before dedicating himself to the camera. In 1953, as he prepared to open a studio across from the Hotel Capri, he adopted the last name of British film director Alexander Korda. He liked how the name resembled the word Kodak.
He often joked that one of his motives for getting into photography was to meet beautiful women. He spent his early career taking pictures for Cuba's fashion industry. But he also fancied himself an artist. He was a fan of Richard Avedon, who was then emerging as one of New York's most acclaimed portrait photographers.
Cabrera Infante recalls an afternoon in Havana when Korda showed him his work. "There was a little of everything, but most of all women, many women. Some dressed, some half dressed, and still others half nude." Cabrera Infante, who at the time wrote a film column in the Cuban magazine Carteles, resolved to begin publishing them. "The first pages of a silent eroticism in Carteles," he wrote, "were of a little sensual blonde woman." It was a naked Norka, Korda's second wife, whose body was partly hidden only by a large guitar. He titled it La BB Cubana (BB meant Brigitte Bardot). Pictures of other Havana models would follow in subsequent issues. "Those pages, those photos, were very popular among both sexes," Cabrera Infante notes. "I dedicated many pages to those women, girls really, in that year of grace 1958 and in much of historic 1959."
The revolution brought a different kind of photo op. Korda joined the staff of Lunes, the newspaper Revolución's weekly literary supplement, which Cabrera Infante edited. Korda and the writer covered Castro's April 1959 trip to the United Nations in New York. But just as high on Korda's agenda was a visit to Avedon's studio to show off his photos. "Korda returned discouraged and sad," Cabrera Infante relates. "Avedon had told him his photos were fine (almost as if to say for a Cuban') but that he had a lot to learn, above all with regard to technique and Miss Sansen, Korda said. (Korda meant mis-en-scene)." That marked "the end of Korda's trip to instantaneous glory," the writer observes, and the two continued along with Castro's entourage on a tour through Latin America. Korda became one of Castro's official photographers.
Korda was 31 years old in March 1960 when an assignment took him to a funeral for dozens of people killed when an explosion ripped through a Belgian steamship docked in Havana's harbor. (Cuban authorities blamed it on counterrevolutionaries.) Among the mourners were philosopher Jean Paul Sartre and writer Simone de Beauvoir. According to Cabrera Infante, Korda wasn't covering the funeral per se but rather "following Sartre around everywhere." One of the pictures he came back with was a group photo of the revolution's first tier, including Fidel Castro, then-president Oswaldo Dorticos, Guevara, and various others. But it was not among the photos published alongside testimonials in a special issue of Lunes three days later.
A couple of years afterwards, Cabrera Infante had wanted to publish another of Korda's photos more to his and the photographer's liking. This one featured a naked woman holding a Czech machine gun in front of her torso. "One couldn't see her head, which must have been beautiful, nor her militant pubis: it only showed, like the remains of a Greek goddess in sepia, her erect breasts." But the government had folded the Lunes supplement, and the writer had to settle for displaying the picture in his apartment until he hightailed it to Belgium in 1965. (The Castro government also closed down Revolución that year to make way for Granma, the Cuban Communist Party's daily organ.)
The funeral photo that included Guevara remained obscure until 1967. That year Italian book publishers Giangiacomo Feltrinelli and Valerio Riva visited Estudios Korda in search of images for a Fidel Castro autobiography that would never materialize. Among the photos they liked and received was the group shot from the 1960 funeral.
Then Guevara was killed in Bolivia. As news of his death spread, Feltrinelli and Riva cropped the photo down and reproduced it copiously as a closeup. Guevara was transformed into an international icon, and Korda's photo became, in Cabrera Infante's words, "the subversive poster of the Twentieth Century." Korda told an interviewer that a group of Italian students in Milan attached the slogan "Che vive!" to the image.
But the photographer's fortunes soon faded. In 1968 the Castro government nationalized Korda's studio. Officials took away his equipment and negatives, including his photos of revolutionary subject matter and those he shot of Norka. "He was accused of making pornographic photographs," says Dante. "He was able to save some of his work by giving negatives to [Castro's then-girlfriend] Celia Sanchez, who protected and admired the intellectuals of that epoch." Korda was briefly jailed for his lascivious labors, then assigned to take pictures for the oceanographic research department of Cuba's Academy of Sciences.
Over the years Sartre and de Beauvoir faded out of the official story behind "Heroic Guerrilla," as the revolutionary shibboleth seeped in. "Che was in the second row on the rostrum and wasn't visible," Korda told an interviewer not long before his death. "But then there was a moment in which he stepped out in front to assess the people's anger over that attack by Yankee imperialism, which caused a great number of victims. I was panning the personalities on the rostrum with my camera and I was surprised by his expression. I pressed the shutter. I only had time to take two shots and then Che returned to his place." Korda added that he didn't know why the original photo wasn't published.
Cabrera Infante accuses the photographer of "disseminating lies over lies" in his embellishments. "He dedicated himself to retrospective self-eulogy," the writer scolds, "and to telling all those Castro lies that were converted to collective disinformation."
Korda was never much concerned with reproductions of the Guevara photo, which he eventually dubbed "Heroic Guerrilla," as long as they were for posters, T-shirts, and other vessels of revolutionary spirit. But in August 2000, Korda and a London-based group called the Cuba Solidarity Campaign sued a British advertising agency (Lowe Lintas) and a photography agency for unauthorized use of "Heroic Guerrilla" in print advertisements for a pepper-flavored style of Smirnoff vodka. In the ad Guevara's visage appeared alongside a parodized hammer and sickle, in which a red chili pepper replaced the sickle. "To use the image of Che Guevara to sell vodka is a slur on his name and memory," Korda told Britain's The Guardian newspaper. "He never drank himself. He was not a drunk, and drink should not be associated with his immortal memory."
A month later the companies agreed to pay Korda $50,000 for damages. He announced that he donated the sum to Cuba's Ministry of Public Health for the purchase of medicine for children. A London court that oversaw the settlement also granted Korda copyright protection in Britain. In Havana the photographer defended the lawsuit on Cuba's Mesa Redonda television program shortly after the victory. "If Che were alive he would have done the same thing," he told a panel of commentators. "I have never charged a cent when they reproduce this photo on posters and T-shirts that promote solidarity and sympathy with the ideas of Che. But I can't permit the perversion of that image for unacceptable commercial aims."
His daughter Alejandra likens the settlement amount to "a piece of garbage." She says a liquor company as big as Smirnoff should have paid her father much more. She thinks that because the Cuba Solidarity Campaign was involved her father really had no choice but to donate the money to the government "and play the role of hero of the revolution one more time."
Piracy of "Heroic Guerrilla," however, was too widespread for Korda to control. He and a representative in France explored suing Switzerland-based Swatch for using the photo on a line of watches, according to Guffanti. But Korda didn't follow through on that legal action.
Guffanti and her daughter say Korda also had considered suing Sony for allowing the rock band Rage Against the Machine to use "Heroic Guerrilla" on a CD cover. But he dropped the idea because he knew the U.S. trade embargo would bar Sony from paying him. "He realized that he couldn't charge Sony a cent because he was Cuban," Alejandra says.
Last August Guffanti sent a letter to Castro notifying him that her son Dante had challenged the will. Taking the patriarch's suggestion at the funeral, she also sent copies to Prieto and Martí. Korda would never have knowingly signed a will that favored one of his children over the others, she argued. "[Korda] always lived modestly and helped his children and grandchildren equally," Guffanti wrote. "His preoccupation for his family while he was alive contradicts the document drafted in 1999, whose authenticity I doubt."
She referred to the Smirnoff lawsuit. "I ask you: If while living Korda said -- and he was proud of it -- that his work related to the Cuban Revolution belonged to the Cuban government, how is a document that would annul his own way of thinking and acting possible? ... Diana's pretensions do not concur with the message that Korda, while alive, transmitted with his words and even more so with his actions," she submitted, alleging that the heiress is seeking to profit from Korda's work. "My children have no personal interest in making money from the photographic work of their father. They want it to be considered public work for the benefit of our society. They only want their children, my grandchildren, to know who their grandfather was and that his work belongs to the world. As he himself desired."
A half-year later Guffanti is no less incredulous. "We lived together 22 years," she says of her relationship with Korda. "That's a considerable time to live with another person. So I knew him. I can't believe that he would have signed that will consciously."
Dante, now staying on Miami Beach with sister Alejandra, reasons that the only way his father would have named Diana sole heiress is if he were crazy or drunk; he adds that Korda was an alcoholic. "The will is really an insult to the family," he declares. His intention in challenging the document, he adds, is to bring to light "the promise that he made during his life to all of his children, saying that his inheritance was equally for all his children."
To help his half-brother Dante's legal argument, Fidel Alberto sent him a letter signed by his Oslo-based lawyer. "We hereby confirm," the letter states, "that Alberto Korda ... has assigned all his copyrights and rights ... to our client, including the world famous photo of Ernesto Guevara." Those rights include "all of the photos which have been nationalized by the Cuban authorities," the letter notes. "Thus today Fidel Korda has an exclusive right to pursue and demand payment for any infringement of rights [pertaining] to his father's photos."
Diana disagrees. "The will was completed two years before the death of Mr. Korda and he was precisely thinking about the future and about the destination of his possessions and rights," states a court brief filed by her lawyer. "There is no contradiction if the government places the work of Korda in the category of Cultural Heritage and it is also awarded to the heiress." Her lawyer also rejected Dante's claim to an old Russian-made Lada coupe registered in Korda's name and to Korda's apartment.
Diana herself declined to comment for this article. "Forgive me, but I don't want to make any kind of statement at this time," she said when telephoned at her home in Havana's upscale Vedado section. (An interview request left at Culture Minister Abel Prieto's office went unanswered.)
Alejandra is bitter about the situation. Last year in the Design District she opened Korda Collection, a furniture store-art gallery whose walls feature some of her father's early photographs of Norka and other models. She had hoped to one day mount an exhibition of her father's revolution photos. "I don't have rights to his photographs nor the right to say that I'm his daughter," she snaps, adding facetiously, "because I was an accidentally made daughter. But what do I care? I don't want anything there anymore. House, car, photos, copyright, negatives -- let them take it all.
"Ultimately I don't want to be a resident of Cuba anymore," she continues. "Now I want to be an American citizen. Because consider what happened. My father died, and I don't have rights to his work or even a piece of land next to his apartment."
Fidel Alberto Korda is more than eager to finish preserving his father's photographs, a laborious digitalization job he started with his father in Havana in 1996. Almost 98 percent of his father's archive of revolution-related photos taken from 1959 to 1968 have never been published. "There are thousands of negatives, unknown to the public," Fidel Alberto reveals.
The first phase of preservation culminated in an exhibition at the Henie Onstad Museum in Oslo in September 1999. Alongside the famous photographer and his son, Fidel Alberto's mother Norka Mendez and his sister Norka Diaz attended the opening. Fidel Alberto reports that 26,000 visitors attended the seven-week show.
After the Oslo exhibition, Korda pressed his son to speed up the digitalization work. "Because as he pointed out, everybody is getting old, and he did not feel very well," Fidel Alberto remembers. "We met very often and also talked on the phone from different places in the world, where he could talk openly with me. He wanted me to publish [the unpublished photos] with the same quality as in my exhibition and catalogue in Oslo and as soon as possible. He understood that this is a time-consuming and very expensive enterprise, which requires a high level of technical skill, new technology, and a knowledge and respect of his personal way of visualizing his pictures."
Korda, he said, also wanted his work protected from the uncertainties of a post-Castro government. "It was very important for my father to secure my rights over his works, internationally and in Cuba," Fidel Alberto insists. "The reason for this, he told me, is that there will be big changes in Cuba. There is a big risk that the archive could physically disappear, just like the huge archive of his work of my mother did." Fidel Alberto says his father's negatives are currently housed in the Archive of Historical Affairs of the Revolution, which is controlled by the Council of State.
Fidel Alberto notes that for several years, at his father's request, he has pursued financial support for the preservation project from photography firms such as Leica AG. He uses his own computers to do the work. "This is done by means of digitalizing the original negatives and then retouching every negative to perfection," he explains. Reproduction of negatives is important so that originals need not be handled and thus made to deteriorate in the making of prints.
Dante, however, believes that most of his father's unpublished photos of the revolution aren't worth much. "My father was a very lucky photographer, not a good photographer." He thinks a few have artistic value, such as "Quixote of the Lamppost" (a farmer perched on top of a lamppost above a large crowd); "Fidel in Washington" (Castro in fatigues looking up at the Lincoln Memorial); and "Heroic Guerrilla."
Dante believes the Castro regime still makes money off his father's work but can't state precisely how much. "It's a lot of money, though," he assures. "The Cuban government doesn't ask permission and it doesn't pay." Moreover no one is sure exactly to whom Korda may have sold reprint rights outside of Cuba. Despite the Smirnoff case, use of Korda's photographs already in the public domain is free, Dante observes. "The people who are using Korda's work are going to continue using it. They aren't ever going to pay our family for it."
Whether Diana can or wants to cash in on reproductions of her father's work remains to be seen. But last week she was confirmed as the sole heiress of her father's negatives, along with the Lada and the money for Korda's apartment. The judge presiding over the will dispute decided Dante's complaint lacked merit, thus precluding his lawyer from presenting evidence and witnesses. The ruling means the government must pay Diana monetary compensation for her father's apartment, which she cannot own under Cuban law because she already has a home.
From Norway, however, Fidel Alberto hints at challenging el comandante himself for control of the Korda corpus. "Has Mr. Castro ever claimed ownership of my father's artistic work, legally or publicly? Is he protecting it for the future?" he asks. "If this is the case, it is of course a legal matter and will be approached as such."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.