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ALBERTO KORDA

by Bill Lasarow

"El Quijote de la Farola (The
Don Quixote of the Lamppost)"
photograph, 1959.

 

 

 

"Guerrillero Heroico,"
photograph, 1960.

(Couturier Gallery, West Hollywood) For a period of twelve years Alberto Diaz Gutierrez, who adopted the surname "Korda" early in his career after the Hungarian filmmakers Zoltan and Alexander Korda, stood with his camera at the very center of Cuba's political crossroads. When he and a partner opened their first commercial studio in 1956 in order to take up advertising and fashion photography Batista was still running the country. Castro's predecessor, it is often forgotten, operated a corrupt and oppressive regime. The influence of American money and culture played a major role in Havana, and the ambitious young photographer looked to claim his piece of the pie by catering to its appetites.

Looking at examples of Korda's studio work reveals a strong interest in the glamor of personality and pose. Few pre-Revolution negatives have survived, and those only as second-generation shots taken by the artist from the rare original print. There is a flair to his compositions that elevate them a bit beyond run-of-the-mill commercial pictures. One Untitled head shot relegates the subject's face to the upper left corner and crops all but some wisps of the woman's hair. Her gaze is cast down past her left shoulder, which features a narrow dress strap at the lower right of the image. Besides engaging the eye, a simple society shot ends up seducing you into considering the model's individual inner life.

Another Untitled fashion shot comes across as a backwater version of American and European high-fashion photography. Posed in a flat field, the model grasps a palm frond in her right hand as though raking or tilling the soil. Her left arm snakes past the brim of a sunbonnet that, silhouetted as it is here at least, resembles nothing so much as an Asian peasant farmer's protective headgear. Contrast is pushed to eliminate all detail from her face, a profile of her nose and mouth floating specter-like near the center of the shadow of hat, neck and arm. The model's pose presses on to try to sell you on the sleeveless little bodysuit she sports, but the whole thing ends up being almost shockingly funny.

On first impression it is nearly as shocking to consider that this rising promoter of consumption and sensuality should suddenly be recast as one of the primary documentarians of a socialist revolution.
When Fidel Castro succeeded in overthrowing Basista in 1959 there was a broadly sympathetic reaction, even within the U.S. Castro and the other revolutionary leaders were for the most part in their late twenties and early thirties. Castro may have been conscious of the value of the appearance of youthful energy and dynamism in shaping the image of the new government, and he certainly was aware and admiring of the work of his contemporary. The upshot: for nearly ten years Korda served as something of a court photographer to Castro and his inner circle.

The logic that a commercially successful but politically non-affiliated individual would better convey his images to the world beyond the Revolution makes sense, but the heart of that individual would have had to be touched. That appears to be exactly the case. Korda was looking at the people Cuban society had left out. La Nina de la Muneca de Palo [1958] depicts the dirt-smudged face of a toddler holding a wood block with a rag that serves as her "doll." When he looked at the crowds gathering to support the arrival of Castro, El Quijote de la Farola (The Don Quixote of the Lamppost) [1959] resulted. This image not only amplifies the sea of humanity surrounding a single peasant seated, smoking, atop the streetlamp, but the figure's amazingly relaxed pose metaphorically convinces you that this Revolution had the people on its side.

Then there is the image of Guevara, Guerrillero Heroico [1960], taken at the funeral of victims of the sinking of a steamboat sabotaged in the port of Havana. This handsome, angry visage of avenging justice found its way to become a readily recognizable public icon during the social unrest of the late sixties after Guevara's death. Korda himself received little recognition at the time, and no royalties. More than thirty years later, though, his work draws attention to itself with this familiar hook serving as the calling card.

Korda continued to serve as Castro's photographer until 1968, though their personal friendship has survived to the present. Beyond the scope of this exhibition, there is a body of underwater photography and more recent fashion and portrait work that remains to be considered.

"Untitled,"
photograph, 1956

 

 

 

 

 

"Untitled,"
photograph, 1956.


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