Korda, whose real name was Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez, was born on 14 September 1928 in Havana, Cuba. He got his first taste of photography when he took his father’s Kodak 35mm and began taking pictures of his girlfriend. Korda was the son of a railway worker, and took many jobs before beginning as a photographer’s assistant. “My main aim was to meet women”, he once confessed. He did succeed in his aim. His second wife, Natalia (Norka) Menendez, was a well known Cuban fashion model. He was a photographer for the Cuban newspaper Revolución in 1960 when he produced on March 5, 1960 the iconic image of Che Guevara, that became a worldwide symbol of revolution and rebellion.
He never received any royalties for the image, because Castro did not recognize the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works. In 2000, he sued Smirnoff over the use of the image in advertisement. Commenting on the illicit use of his photograph, the artist said, “As a supporter of the ideals for which Che Guevara died, I am not averse to its reproduction by those who wish to propagate his memory and the cause of social justice throughout the world, but I am categorically against the exploitation of Che’s image for the promotion of products such as alcohol, or for any purpose that denigrates the reputation of Che”.
His out-of-court settlement of US $50,000 was donated to the Cuban healthcare system. He said, “If Che were still alive, he would have done the same”. However, he told a BBC World Service reporter that he did approve of the 1999 Che Jesus adaptation of the image used by the Churches Advertising Network to promote church attendance in the UK. The truth is that Korda gave the picture for free to Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, an Italian publisher who had published Doctor Zhivago and went on to publish Castro’s diaries. Feltrinelli had the copyright for some time and benefited financially from the picture .
After the revolution, Korda became Fidel Castro’s personal photographer for 10 years, accompanying Castro on trips and in meetings with foreign personalities. During this time he also took pictures of demonstrations, sugar cane harvests and factory scenes. Other less-known Fidel Castro images by Korda include shots of Castro staring warily at a tiger in a New York zoo, playing golf and fishing with Che Guevara, skiing and hunting in Russia, and with Ernest Hemingway.
Korda’s work also includes pictures of Castro’s rebels riding into Havana after their triumph, and one known as The Quixote of the Lamp Post showing a Cuban wearing a straw hat and sitting on a lamp post against a sea of people during a rally. From 1968 to 1978 he concentrated on underwater photography until a Japanese exhibition in 1978 stimulated international interest in his work. He appeared briefly in the pre-title sequence of Wim Wenders’ film Buena Vista Social Club in 1999, although he was uncredited.
Korda suffered a fatal heart attack in Paris in 2001 while presenting an exhibition of his work. He is buried in the Colon Cemetery, Havana.