Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Korda: an eye for beauty and revolution

The cover of the show catalog, featuring Natalia "Norka" Mendez,
Korda's second wife and model, 1958. All photos are courtesy of the Alberto Korda Estate. 

One evening after work in early December, best-fashion-friend-forever Karen and I braved rush hour traffic to drive to Foothill College in Los Altos, which is about a forty-five minute drive south of San Francisco. Both of us are passionate about fashion and we were determined to see a fashion photography show, Korda Moda, that was closing soon. The photographer was someone we had not heard of before: Cuban photographer Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez, who called himself Korda.

We arrived at the gallery and there we learned a fascinating story of fashion, politics and Cuban history.

One of Korda's three main models, Nidia Rios, circa 1956

The exhibition was created by Ron Herman, chairman of Foothill College photography department. Viewing the thirty beautifully hung photos on display in the small campus gallery, we were suddenly in the glitzy and glamorous Cuba of the 1950's. At that time, Havana was a sexy jetsetting place with Hollywood stars such as Ava Gardner, Rita Heyworth, Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn and Lana Turner flying in to play at the swell hotels and shop at the elegant El Encanto department store, which carried the latest Parisian fashions including an exclusive Dior salon.

Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez and his business partner, Luis Peirce Byers, opened a photography studio in Old Havana in 1954. They named it Korda Studio because according to the show catalog, they liked that it sounded similar to Kodak and it was also a tribute to filmmakers they admired, Alexander and Zoltan Korda. Alberto became associated with the name and took it as his own. The studio gained success shooting commercial photography, including fashion. In 1956 they moved their studio nearer the center of all the excitement, across the street from the Hotel Capri. Korda met Norka and together as photographer and model, they became Cuba's most exciting creative fashion couple. But the main motivation for Korda was not capturing the chic clothes on film. It was as he said, "I wanted to become a famous fashion photographer because that way I would be able to meet the most beautiful women in Cuba." And because of the quality of his work, he became known as the Richard Avedon of Cuba.

Norka, photo for front page of "La Mujer" supplement of Diario de la Marina newspaper, June 1958

Norka, photo for front page of "La Mujer" supplement of Diario de la Marina newspaper, 1960

But with Fidel Castro's rise to power in the early 60's, Cuba was glitzy and fashionable no more and it was all about the revolution. Korda admired Castro and became part of the revolution, documenting him, his men and protests. On March 5, 1960, Korda shot what is considered the most reproduced image ever, the photo of Che Guevara. As all businesses were being nationalized, Korda's studio was taken over by the government and his photos were either hidden or destroyed.

 "Heroic Guerilla"

Ron Herman gathered all the photos in this show and created the catalog. For the last four years, he has conducted art and culture tours of Cuba while searching for the missing Korda fashion photos. He sourced the thirty in this show from Korda's family and former models. Herman continues to search for more. He is organizing another trip to Cuba March 23-April 5, details can be found here

With this quote from the Korda Moda catalog, Korda explains his creative motivation:
"A man who develops a work like mine is always dedicated to something he loves. I did that from the very beginninging. 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 esthetic 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." (Korda: A Revolutionary Lens)


  1. Hello
    just wanted to let you know that the second model picture, the one with the woman with the cigarette is not Nidia, it's Norka :) I know all the pictures my grandmother is in, that is one of them :)

    1. Thank you for letting me know! The correction is made. Your grandmother is certainly beautiful and glamorous in all the photographs.

    2. Thank you for correcting it :)
      Yes, she is. I have one of her pictures tattooed on my thigh and it is one of the prettiest pictures I have seen of her :)

  2. Oh! Wow! Fabulous blog.