The most famous photograph in the world—and certainly the most copied—is the late Alberto Korda's Guerrillero Heroico, his candid shot of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara. Taken as one of two shots when Guevara was at a state funeral for people killed in a CIA-sponsored terrorist bombing in Cuba, Korda snapped his camera, not realizing he'd captured a moment that would transcend that particular time in history.

In the 1940s, just a decade and a half earlier, 70 percent of the Cuban economy was controlled by foreign interests, primarily U.S. banks, oil refineries and fruit companies. A racially divided, poverty-riddled country, Cuba was a corrupt playground for the wealthy, an island Las Vegas dominated by prostitution and violent crime. In the pocket of the U.S., President (and eventual dictator) Fulgencio Batista cracked leftist heads, jailing those protesting for better living conditions, including a young law student named Fidel Castro.

Korda was a reasonably successful fashion photographer at the time, lured by the money and steady flow of beautiful women. Ambitious, he sought out vocational advice from photographer Richard Avedon during a visit to America, and Avedon was frank with him: Korda's fashion images were passé, but the handful of journalistic images in his portfolio? They were his future.

Taking photos for the state-run newspaper, Revolución, after Batista was overthrown, Korda grew close to Castro, unofficially becoming his photographer, even though he was never paid for his work and did it solely because he believed in the cause. As Castro and Guevara began agrarian reform, country-wide education and universal health care, Korda was documenting these difficult steps in a way that not only glorified the achievements of the two men, but that also humanized them. “Revolution is more beautiful than a woman's body” became Korda's refrain, and with his past in fashion and advertising, every image is framed perfectly and packed with subtext, feeling more like a man taking pictures of his friends than any form of egregious political manipulation.

The first shots in “Korda: Revolutionary Photographer,” in the Museum of Latin American Art's cozy Project Room, are of Castro and Guevara playing golf on Batista's private course. Che leans on a club, joy splashed across his face; in another, he's putting while surrounded by half a dozen observers, as if everyone plays a few rounds in combat boots and fatigues. A third has a bespectacled Castro after he has just teed off, a golf club resting on his left shoulder, hunched forward and waiting for the ball to land; behind him, three men of varying skin colors watch with anticipation. The closing shots in the show are of Castro in Russia, balancing on skis, with one image of him sprawled out in the snow, a tangle of arms, legs and poles, laughing at his own clumsiness.

Hanging next to the iconic Guerrillero Heroico (the second, more famous, but less compelling of the two prints: a close-up, with the palm-tree fronds and other man in the shot cropped out) is Miliciana, with its female soldier looking forward to the future, her aspirations ahead, machine gun in hand. It's an inspiring vision of gender equality previously missing from the country's history and still on the rise to this day. In contrast, the image of Castro relaxing in the dirt, enjoying a smoke while a child soldier with a rifle stands behind him picking his teeth, suggests a more disturbing future of permanent revolution.

The most powerful photo in the show is Castro famously standing at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., David y Goliath. A wreath hangs nearby, placed by him, and he peers up at the giant sculpture of the Great Emancipator. While the reasons Korda said he took it—and the name he gave the photo—were intended to represent the fall of Imperialism at the hands of the anti-imperialist Cuban, I suggest there's much more going on here. Castro holds his cap in hand, humbly, literally looking up to another historical figure that freed his people from slavery. Wreaths are placed to honor others, not to imply subjugation; Castro sees himself in Lincoln.

The Cuban embassy recently reopened in the U.S. for the first time in 54 years. Castro has been in ill health since 2006 and rapidly heading for the white light at the end of the tunnel, his brother Raul saying he will not continue as president of the country past 2018. A far more complex figure than generally understood, Castro may or may not be treated kindly by history, but it will be interesting to see how much of his revolution will survive. The country's defiant individuality will likely be heralded, its human rights restrictions lessened and, hopefully, erased, as more money and personal freedoms begin to gain momentum. Korda's photos of its halcyon days paint a rosy picture, but wouldn't it be refreshing if the only lasting bad memory people have of the country is a little prison called Guantanamo?

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