Cuban photographer Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez, simply known as Korda, is most famous for his image of Ernesto “Che” Guevara. This image, entitled Heroic Guerrilla, is the most reproduced image in the world, printed on everything from posters and t-shirts to high couture clothing. Long before Korda’s image of Che graced the runways, Korda himself was “in fashion”. Prior to the revolution and shooting Heroic Guerrilla, Korda was a successful fashion photographer, defining the fashion photography aesthetic in Cuba. The iconic “Che” image that made Korda famous, has overshadowed his earlier fashion photography, making this important body of work largely unknown. This is the first exhibition dedicated to Korda’s fashion photography.
At the age of 18, while attending business school, Alberto wrote 3 poems to his then girlfriend Yolanda and photographed her using Kodachrome slide film. This signifies the beginning of the hopeless romantic’s lifelong pursuit of capturing women on film. “The beauty of women was the first expression of my photography,” Korda said. After graduating from school, he worked as a salesman, often carrying his dad’s camera with him in his briefcase. In 1954, after winning an advertising competition for insurance company Godoy Sayán, he was awarded office space in the Metropolitana building located in Old Havana, which he used to open his first photographic studio with partner Luis Peirce Byers. They named it Korda Studio and both photographers adopted the name Korda, even though Alberto is the person most associated with the name. They chose the name because they liked the similarities with the name of the photo giant Kodak, and because they enjoyed the films of brothers Alexander and Zoltan Korda.
Havana was a booming tropical playground in the 1950s, where the rich and famous would fly into for the weekend to enjoy its music, nightclubs, gambling, and illicit nighttime activities. The city exuded glamour, and its socialites were dressed in the latest Parisian couture for the lavish parties and debutante balls. Fashion was big business in Havana, and money was rolling in as fast as the airplanes could land at José Marti International Airport. French Designer Christian Dior was quick to capitalize on the money and celebrities pouring into Cuba, and opened his most luxurious international salon inside Havana’s fashionable department store El Encanto, located at Galiano and San Rafael streets. Hollywood stars like Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and Errol Flynn frequently shopped at this famous department store. ”‘El Encanto offered the latest fashions in the world,’ recalled Alberto Suárez, El Encanto’s in-house fashion designer known as Manet.” It was one of the places the rich and famous wanted to be seen while in Havana. Realizing that their photography studio needed to be located where the action was, they moved it to Vedado in 1956. With their new central location across from the Hotel Capri and about 100 yards from the Hotel Nacional, they renamed their business Studios Korda.
“I wanted to become a famous fashion photographer because that way I would be able to meet the most beautiful women in Cuba,” Korda said. Since most Cuban women were small, well-rounded, with large hips and busts, Korda’s first challenge was to find models whose physique resembled what he saw on the pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. “I had great difficulty finding a woman with classic lines…finally I met Norka,” he said, with whom he produced his most iconic fashion photographs. His three main models, Nidia Rios, Norka (Natalia Méndez), and Norma Martínez, all had European looking features, which lended themselves to the particular beauty aesthetic that Korda wanted to achieve. Korda quickly took command of the genre and became Cuba’s premier fashion photographer, often being referred to as the Cuban (Richard) Avedon. The two photographers even met briefly at Avedon’s NYC studio, where Korda showed him his photographs.
Fidel Castro seized power in January 1959. After he called for a “love of that which is ours, of our Patria, of our things,” Cuban became the dominant fashion motif. Cotton replaced dacron as the fabric of choice and American model wide skirted designs made way for simpler lines that emphasized the waist. Designer Melly López exhibited her new line of summer wear at a fashion show luncheon at the Club Parisién in the Hotel Nacional in May 1959. “The new styles, observed one reviewer, ‘all bore a ‘Made in Cuba’ stamp, all designed to be worn for the hot summer.” The changing political and social climate can be seen reflected in Korda’s photographs from this period. Korda infused the conventions of fashion photography already established by Cecil Beaton, Irving Penn, and Erwin Blumenfield with a Caribbean aesthetic, one that was distinctly Cuban.
On March 5, 1960, Korda was photographing the public funeral of the victims of the bombing of the Belgian ship La Coubre with his Leica M2 camera, 90mm lens and Kodak Plus-X Pan film, when he quickly shot two images of Ernesto “Che” Guevara (one horizontal and one vertical). “The Che image is a fashion photograph,” said former model Nidia Rios. Korda agreed that his images of the revolution share the same sense of beauty as his fashion photography. “A man who develops a work like mine is always dedicated to something he loves,” he said. “I did that from the very beginning. I have loved the beauty of women as much as the beauty of those men who led the Revolution. The beauty of those men is not only aesthetic but also moral. Loving, as I did, the work I made with men like Castro and Che Guevara, you can see the similarities between both types of photography.”
El Encanto was a symbol of the extravagance and decadence that Castro’s revolution was trying to eradicate. A fire burned down the famous department store on April 13, 1961, three days before Fidel Castro declared his revolution was Socialist, and four days before the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion. Glamour was no longer fashionable in Cuba, and many of the country’s wealthy elite and its fashion designers had already fled the country. The role of fashion in Cuba was quickly changing. High couture ceased to exist, and those models who remained in Cuba, found themselves struggling for work. Those who could find work, found it in the form of propaganda pieces highlighting the country’s artesian wares. The bourgeois settings that Korda had used previously in his fashion work, were replaced with simple everyday environments that supported the country’s new political paradigm.
With the triumph of the revolution, everything disappeared from the stores. Good fabrics were no longer available and people had to be innovative with their clothing. The Women’s Federation reinvigorated fashion when they created a place at La Rampa for an Experimental Workshop. There designer Fernando Ayuso began using low grade but readily available canvas fabrics with bright colors. “Fernando saved women in Cuba,” said former model Norma Martínez, “because the women could dress up in clothes. He made something women could buy and wear.” The look of the models, their movements, and the music used in fashion shows, all changed after the revolution. The post-revolution modeling movements were similar to that of 20th century ballet, and models learned exercises to help them control their bodies in the space, and to achieve the dramatic movements.
On March 14, 1968, Korda’s studio was nationalized, and all of his negatives were confiscated and removed to an undisclosed location. It is believed that only his negatives from the Cuban revolution have been preserved and the others, particularly those of elitist fashion, were tossed or destroyed.
This exhibition and accompanying catalog were done in 2013 in celebration of Korda’s 85th and Norka’s 75th birthdays, held respectively on September 14th and October 23, 2013.