KORDA: FASHIONABLE BEFORE CHE
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, 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 exclusively to Korda’s fashion photography.
At the age of 18, while attending business school, Alberto wrote three poems to his then girlfriend Yolanda and photographed her as 35mm Kodachrome slides.1 This marked the beginning of the hopeless romantic’s lifelong pursuit of capturing beautiful women on film. After graduating from school, he worked as a salesman, often carrying his father’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, although 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.
During the 1950s Havana was a popular destination for the jet set, who flew in for the weekend to enjoy its music, nightclubs, gambling, and prostitution. Havana was glamorous, and its socialites exhibited their wealth and status by wearing the latest Parisian couture to the extravagant events on the social calendar. 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.2 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,’ said Alberto Suárez, El Encanto’s in-house fashion designer known as Manet.”3 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, Alberto and Luis 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. In addition to doing advertisements, photographing sausage wrappers and packets of coffee, Alberto started experimenting with modeling poses with the help of his first wife Julia López Cruz.
Korda decided to pursue fashion photography, and called upon a friend who ran an American art school in Havana, to look for potential models. Korda went to the school and immediately noticed a tall, skinny girl named Nidia Rios in the crowd of students. The shy girl, who was not yet comfortable with her beauty, could not understand why he wanted to photograph her. “No not me,” she said. “I am not pretty.”4 For Korda, beauty was not enough. Anyone can be pretty. He saw something special in Nidia that he felt went beyond pretty. The school administrator told Nidia that Korda was a good photographer and that he could be trusted. In the end, she convinced Nidia to give it a try. He took his first test shots of her in the school, after classmates helped her dress and do her hair and make-up. For one photograph, Korda experimented with fishing line attached to both sides of the dress, so that when they were pulled apart, it would flare out the bottom of the dress. Although that experiment didn’t work out to his liking, he did like how Nidia appeared on film. They immediately began working together. With absolutely no prior modeling experience, Nidia learned on the job, while Korda fine-tuned his skills for this new genre of photography. Korda’s photographs of models were appearing in the “Cine Bellezas” section of Carteles magazine and Guillermo Cabrera Infante wrote the captions under the pseudonym G. Cain. In the issue devoted to Nidia, Infante writes, “This is Nydia Rio [sic], one of the most beautiful models of Cuba, one of the most beautiful women of Cuba, one of the most beautiful actresses of Cuba…”
Korda’s published photographs of Nidia made her recognizable on the street, and her platinum blonde hair and trademark mole or “beauty mark” became highly sought after branding features for advertisements. Korda worked on several popular campaigns with Nidia for companies such as Glorias Modas, Jantzen and Visant. Alluding to Nidia’s growing popularity, Korda inscribed the phrase, “To the blonde with the highest octane in the market,” onto a printed photograph of himself in the studio, which he gave to her.
Following a photo shoot, Korda and Nidia relaxed in a café across from a television studio. “It was there,” Nidia said, “that Korda first laid eyes on Norka.”5 By this time, Norka (Natalia Magaly Méndez Ramírez) was already modeling on television for Gaspar Pumarejo, the man who brought television to Cuba and started the first Cuban television channel.6 She was also modeling haute couture for Spanish designer Marbel, a job that she secured through Herman Puig, a friend of the design house who also worked in television. Later, according to Norka, Puig took her to meet Korda, whom she had not heard of before.7 When they first met, and she introduced herself as “Norka,” Korda reached out his hand and introduced himself as “Korda.” Thinking he was making fun of her name, she angrily turned and walked out when she then noticed the “Korda” name of the photographic studio. They both laughed at the misunderstanding and agreed to start working together. The following day, Korda took his first professional photos of her, in which she modeled fur. Most Cuban women were small, well-rounded, with large hips and busts, so Korda had a difficult time finding models with physiques that 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.8 A romantic relationship quickly ensued, and the two eventually married.
Norka contributed her ideas to the photo shoots, and the collaborative duo became a creative zeitgeist, taking Havana by storm. El Cruzeiro International magazine ran a feature article on the dynamic couple, entitled “The Ideal Encounter,” in which Korda and Norka were described as “two single artists with one single heart…representing the perfect combination of photography and elegance.”9 Norka was appearing in newspaper advertisements, fashion show press photographs, and on television channels. Her popularity even landed her a small role modeling poolside at the Fountainebleu Hotel in the film, “A Hole in the Head,” by Frank Capra and starring Frank Sinatra. Korda went with her to Miami to photograph the filming for a spread entitled, “Korda, Norka, Capra and Sinatra,” which was published in Carteles magazine in Havana, 1958. Korda and Norka also brought their fashion sensibilities to the music industry, creating record album cover art for such recordings as Felipe Dulzaides & Orchestra, Es Tu Nombre. Korda’s images of Norka were everywhere, making her the most famous model in Cuba. Because of this, she felt the need to constantly change her appearance, in order to avoid having all the advertisements look the same. She was like a chameleon, and took on different personas with each outfit. “She possessed an uncontrollable, expressive power,” Korda said, and she really felt the clothes she wore.10
In April 1958, Norma Martínez arrived in Havana. She was studying to be a teacher at the Normal School in Santiago de Cuba. She came to Havana to try to finish her studies. When her car pulled up to the boarding house where she was going to stay, Norma was mesmerized by Nidia Rios’s beauty, as she stood outside on the balcony. The two quickly grew fond of each other and Nidia introduced Norma to her circle of friends, which included such intellectuals as Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Octavio Cortázar, and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. Nidia also introduced Norma to her modeling friends, but Norma expressed no interest in becoming a model. Taken with Norma’s beauty, Infante told Norma that he knew a great photographer, and convinced her to go with him to meet Korda. When she arrived at Korda’s studio, there was a beautiful woman wearing a green headscarf, who was sitting and paging through a magazine. Norma recognized her as being Norka, and she quickly became nervous. Korda prompted Norma to walk across the room so he could examine her walk. He then instructed her how to pose her hands and feet, while he took some test shots of her. She returned to Santiago, and two months later Korda called her to tell her that she should come back to Havana because he had work for her. Korda had sent the photographs he took of her to an advertising agency and television studio, both of which wanted to hire her. Still unconvinced of her modeling abilities, she was reassured by Korda, who agreed to go with her to the fashion shows and teach her all of the appropriate movements.
Fidel Castro seized power in January 1959. Three months later Korda was selected along with photographer Raúl Corrales, to accompany Castro on his first official visit to the United States. During this trip, Korda managed to squeeze in some time to meet with fashion photographer Richard Avedon in his New York City studio, where he showed him his fashion photographs as well as the start of his Cuban Revolution imagery. At this time, the important designers who had their salons in Cuba hadn’t yet left the country. During this period, Nidia, Norka, and Norma, all had a lot of work in El Encanto and Fin de Siglo department stores, as well as doing advertisements for the important designers and stores like Bernabeu, Melly López, Pepe Fernández, René Sánchez, Rivero and Mojeno, Marffel, and Sanchez Mola, all of which Korda photographed.
American culture was so pervasive in Cuba that the country had lost its Cuban identity. Realizing that this influence had to stop in order for the revolution to succeed, Castro called for a “love of that which is ours, of our Patria, of our things.” 11 Following this proclamation, Cuban became the dominant fashion motif. Cotton replaced dacron as the fabric of choice, clothes bore a “Made in Cuba” label, and the designs had simpler lines to emphasize the waist.12 This was in contrast to the previously favored wide skirted designs of American models.13 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, who left Cuba by the end of 1960.14 Korda agreed that his images of the revolution share the same sense of beauty as his fashion photography. He said:
A man who develops a work like mine is always dedicated to something he loves. 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.15
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 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. The bourgeois settings that Korda had used previously in his fashion work, were replaced with simple everyday environments that reflected the political climate. High couture ceased to exist, and those models that remained in Cuba, struggled to find work in the absence of the fashion houses. Often the work that was available was in the form of propaganda pieces that supported the country’s new political paradigm.
In the early 1960s, Norka started to appear in the propaganda of the revolution. Korda photographed her in the most beautiful places in Cuba to promote tourism. Norka also contributed to the Revolución newspaper with an article entitled “Norka les habla,” in which she gave advice to women about fashion and related topics. The photographs that Korda shot of Norka to accompany the articles, often portrayed her showcasing artisan wares.16
With the triumph of the revolution, quality fabrics were no longer available in the stores, and people had to be innovative with their clothing. The Women’s Federation reinvigorated fashion in 1964–65 when they created a place at La Rampa for an Experimental Workshop of Fashion. It was housed in a building with a front of glass windows. A pizzeria stood between the workshop and the cinema. Fernando Ayuso, a Spanish designer who settled in Cuba in 1957–58, began creating clothes in Cuba in 1961.17 It was at the Experimental Workshop that he 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.”18 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 dramatic movements. Many of Korda’s photographs from the Experimental Workshop were published in Cuban magazines with captions translated into Russian, for consumption by readers in the USSR.19 The Experimental Workshop closed around 1967.
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 discarded or destroyed.
Ron Herman is an award winning educator and Chair of the Photography Department at Foothill College, located outside of San Francisco, California. He has photographed for Polo Ralph Lauren and Spiegel, and his work is included in such collections as the Fototeca de Cuba, Kinsey Institute and the Snite Museum of Art. Herman received his MFA from the University of Notre Dame, and has lectured on his work and digital imaging technologies at Cornell, Stanford, and Yale Universities. His research on Cuban photographers has taken him to Cuba numerous times. Herman became intrigued with the fashion photography of Alberto Korda and has interviewed Korda’s models, colleagues, family and friends. He is cataloging the fashion images that have survived since Korda’s studio was nationalized in 1968. As an independent curator Herman’s Cuban photography exhibitions include JOSÉ MANUEL FORS: Ciudad Fragmentada, KORDA MODA: Cuban Fashion Photography from the 1950–60s, and RAÚL CAÑIBANO: Storyteller.
1. Díaz López, Diana. Personal interview. 31 May 2013.
2. Chardy, Alfonso. “’Cuba of yesterday died’ with destruction of El Encanto store.” Miami Herald 24.12 (2008): n. pag. Web. 12 June. 2013.
4. Rios, Nidia. Personal interview. 28 May 2013.
5. ——— Personal interview. 8 June 2013.
6. Méndez, Norka. Personal interview. 1 June 2013.
8. Loviny, Christophe and Silvestri-Lévy, Alessandra, Cuba by Korda (New York: Ocean Press, 2006) 7.
9. Campoamor, Fernando G. “El Encuentro Ideal.” O Cruzeiro International 1 Oct. 1959: 34-37. Print.
10. Loviny and Silvestri-Lévy 14.
11. Perez Jr., Louis A., On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality, and Culture (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999) 482.
12. Perez Jr., 483.
13. (Perez Jr.).
14. Rios, Nidia. Personal interview. 28 May 2013.
15. Sanders, Mark, and Vives, Cristina, Korda: A Revolutionary Lens (Gottingen: Steidl, 2008) 429.
16. Méndez, Norka. Personal interview. 2 June 2013.
17. Marisy, Luisa. “Respuestas de Norma Martínez sobre temas de la entrevista.” Message to the author. 12 Sept. 2013. E-mail.
18. Martínez, Norma. Personal interview. 3 June 2013.
19. Almira, Reinaldo. “RE: Norma Norma Norma.” Message to the author. 11 Sept. 2013. E-mail.
Essay © 2013, Ron Herman
Translation to Spanish © 2014, Alejandra Chaverri