Cuba by Korda

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By Afrânio Catani*

Commentary on the book, organized by Cristhophe Loviny, with testimonials and photos by the portraitist of Che Guevara

“When the time comes, I will be willing to give my life for the liberation of any of the Latin American countries, without demanding anything in return” (Che, December – 1964)

Right at the beginning of Cuba by Korda, the beautiful book by Cristhophe Loviny (Cosac Naify), next to a very small girl, dirty and carrying a wooden log, reads the following: “I had chosen a frivolous life when, around the age of 30, an event exceptional changed my life: the Revolution. It was then that I took this photo, of a little girl hugging a piece of wood, replacing the doll I didn't have. I realized that it was worth dedicating a work to the revolution that proposed the suspension of such inequalities.” (Loviny, 2005, p.26).

The transcript corresponds to the testimony of Alberto Díaz (1928-2001), known worldwide as Alberto Korda, photographer who took, on March 05, 1960, the famous photo of Che Guevara (1928-1967), who traveled the world and projected him internationally.

In a kind of presentation, his college friend Jaime Sarusky tells that Korda started in photography as a lick, “a term applied to someone who, camera in hand, took pictures on the occasion of banquets, baptisms or weddings, to then return to his studio, develop them and return to sell them to those who wanted to keep a memory. The quality of the material was mediocre (…) the paper turned yellow in a few months and the faces faded.” (p. 05). Soon after, with a friend, Luis Pierce, he opened a studio called Korda, the surname of two Hungarian film directors, Alexander and Zoltan, whose films were being shown in Havana at the time.

After another short period of time, Alberto Korda (now assuming that name for good) starts to earn money photographing young women and moving towards what could be called fashion photography and advertising photography. He was a pioneer in this field in Cuba from the beginning of the 1950s. In 1953, at Korda Studios, they were already doing everything: sausage packages and coffee packages were photographed.

The photographer will explain that at that time “the models were small, chubby, with big hips and breasts. I had a lot of trouble finding one that had very pure lines, that was capable of impressing other women (…) I finally found Norka” (p. 12), whose real name is Natalia Méndez, who “was my favorite model, my muse and then my wife. Of Sioux indigenous origin, she possessed an uncontrollable expressive force… she was the most famous model in Cuba, and walked for Dior, in Paris” (p. 14).

I would like to make an aside: I met Norka in Havana, in the first half of the 1990s, taken by a couple of Cuban friends to her house. It was a terrible time, when the Russians were already withdrawing permanently from the country and there was a lot of need there. We found her at the door of the building where she lived with her daughter Diana Díaz, who today takes care of her late father's work. She was still a pretty woman returning from the supermarket with a bag containing little food, after a long wait in line.

Vitor and Maria looked at me and I quickly said that unfortunately we couldn't go up, as we had to meet the people from Brazil - Vitor winked at me for having invented this providential excuse, as we suspected that we had spared her a reasonable embarrassment: maybe she just had unaged rum to serve us. We spoke briefly about Korda's photos, her modeling activity and everyday struggles. She didn't strike me as vain or pedantic. Wearing simple clothes, she gallantly faced a daily life that had not been the same for some time. glamorous of the catwalks and flashes who consecrated her.

The Cuban Revolution, which culminated in the seizure of power on January 01, 1959, literally ran over Korda. The book follows a chronological order: it starts talking about Fidel Castro Ruz (1926-2016) and the adventure aboard the Granma, from the disastrous landing in 1956, and concludes with a photo of Che smoking a cigar stump, perhaps shortly before he engages in his fight as a guerrilla in Bolivia, which cost him his life, on October 09, 1967.

Korda's wonderful photos are interspersed with short texts by Christophe Loviny and Alessandra Silvestri-Levy. The first photo of Fidel appears only on page 29, dated 1962, in a report for the newspaper Revolution. There is a vast following of the commander in Sierra Maestra, where the guerrillas against Fulgencio Batista (1901-1973) started. Korda went ahead of the column of soldiers to take the pictures and comments that upon returning home to Havana, his daughter Diana was afraid to see him approach: “I was so dirty that she didn't recognize me” (p. 32). Fidel invited him to join the expedition and he agreed – he had to be a photographer who was also capable of writing an article, and Korda said that he literally learned to write so as not to miss the opportunity.

Korda's nervous camera registers Fidel from afar, in medium shots and just a few centimeters from his cigar; it shows him arriving in Havana at the beginning of January 1959, side by side with Camilo Cienfuegos, and also does not fail to record images of Célia Sánchez, who was, without a doubt, the most important woman in the life of the maximum leader of the Revolution Cuban, for 23 years, until cancer took her. He met her on February 16, 1957, being one of five daughters of a doctor in the Sierra Maestra region.

Although the citation is not small, I understand that it is worth transcribing what the authors highlight about Célia: it was she who organized the first contacts in the Sierra, before the rebels landed. “Raised as a boy, aged thirty-six, this woman, made of determination and intelligence, was looking for a task worthy of her. From then on, she would dedicate herself, to the limit of her strength, to the cause of Fidel Castro (…) Secretary and friend, mother and nurse, she prepared his food, transmitted his orders and organized his documents. Also trained in handling weapons (…) she became the first woman to fight among the guerrillas. Initially in charge of ensuring the link between Sierra and the rest of the island, she was forced, at the end of 1957, to remain on the mountain, as the Batista police were about to capture her. After the victory of the rebels, [she] would be the alter-ego of the 'maximum leader', the only one with powers to issue orders in his absence. The only one, for security reasons, to know where Fidel would sleep. She spent each night retrieving small pieces of paper from the pockets of her olive green military jacket: the ideas that the revolutionary scribbled down during the day, and that would have to be put into practice” (p.44).

Fidel travels to Caracas, meets Hemingway, goes on a boat trip with Che and his mother during a fishing tournament, watches the marches of the peasants to Havana, visits the United States before affirming the socialist character of the Cuban Revolution. But Korda declared that he had not become Fidel's official photographer: “he was his personal photographer. I never had a job or a salary. We were like two friends” (p. 74)

It reveals the exact occasion when he took the famous photo with Che, mentioned in previous lines. On March 05, 1960, on the occasion of offerings to the victims of the attack in the port of Havana against the French freighter La Coubre occurred the day before, leaving 81 dead and two hundred injured. The freighter was loaded with weapons bought by Cuba in Belgium and it was suspected that the attack had been attributed to the CIA. Korda managed to take this historic photo which, however, was not selected for the article published in Revolution.

Only in April 1961 did he publish it. Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who had just arrived in the country, participated in the ceremony and were photographed by Korda, just as he caught them wandering around the city and meeting with Che.

Cuba had 6,5 million inhabitants and the North Americans controlled, before the Revolution, 75% of commercial transactions and owned 90% of mines and telecommunications (p. 90). Trade relations with the Soviet Union are detailed, involving the purchase of sugar, the expropriation of foreign goods in the country from 1960 onwards and the bomb unleashed by Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) when he declared, on July 09, 1960: “The Soviet Union extends its hand to help the Cuban people and, if necessary, its military power will be able to sustain it with fire from its rifles“ (p. 96), the Cold War set in motion.

This was followed by the blockade imposed by Washington on October 18, 1960, the assassination attempts against Fidel, the official break, on January 03, 1961, by the United States, of diplomatic relations with Cuba, the crisis of missiles, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, the stay of 42 Soviet troops in the country at the height of the crisis…

Korda photographs the mercenaries' plane shot down by Cuban forces, the anti-aircraft batteries on the seafront, the Cuban soldiers and the women in uniform - many of them putting on makeup. Fidel was not happy with the way the Soviet Union acted in withdrawing the missiles from the country and, in order to unwind diplomatic relations, Khrushchev invited him for an official visit that will mark an era for its exceptionally long duration.

“Castro and his entourage, including Korda, would spend more than 40 days visiting the Soviet empire. From Europe to the Pacific and Central Asia to the secret naval bases of the Baltic, the reception was extraordinary” (p. 118). Korda captured everything he could from the departure, the arrival in Moscow, the warm welcome, Fidel slipping in the snow, riding a sleigh, parading in an open car through the main avenues of the Russian capital. One weekend at Nikita's country house, Fidel took pictures with a Polaroid. “Nikita asked where that magical device came from. With a big smile, Fidel replied: 'Boston, Massachusetts'…” (p. 132).

Fidel returned to the USSR the following year and there are photos and more photos: the two leaders walking in the snow with heavy clothes and hunting rifles and, the funniest thing, Fidel using skis for the first time in his life and, then, totally sprawled in the floor, which led Korda to write that the ability of Russians to drink alcohol was surprising, and from then on they had fun like children. “During the hunt, the big joke between Nikita and Leonid consisted of stuffing each other's pants with snow…” (p. 146).

The book also reserves four precious photos. The first two with Dolores Ibàrruri (1895-1989), the passionflower, leader of the Spanish Communist Party exiled in Moscow. She returned to Spain only in 1977, at the age of 82, resuming her position as deputy of Asturias (p. 150). The other two are dedicated to Che. The last one already commented on, shows him smiling, with a cigar stub on his lips. But I like the penultimate one better, as it reflects Ernesto's personality well.

Once again, I let Korda speak: “Che trying out the Alzadora, a new sugarcane cutting machine, whose operation he had conceived with a French engineer. When I found him, his face dirty with soot and dirt, a little swollen from the cortisone he was taking to treat himself at that time, he looked at me with a mixture of irony and surprise: 'Ah, there you are, Korda! Are you, after all, from the city or the countryside? - I? From Havana, commander... —And have you already cut sugarcane? - Never…'. Then he addressed one of the guards: 'Alfredo, look for a machete for the partner journalist'. Then, turning towards me again: 'As for the pictures, we'll see in a week…'” (p. 154). Our luck is that Korda ignored this and soon took the photo of the Argentine-Cuban!

*Afranio Catani is a retired professor at USP and visiting professor at UFF.

Reference

LOVINY Christophe (Ed.), Cuba by Korda (texts by Christophe Loviny and Alessandra Silvestri-Levy; translation by Newton Villaça Cassiolato). São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2004 (https://amzn.to/47FQaKA).

[The original edition, by Calmann-Levy/Jazz Éditions (Paris), is from 2002].

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