The power of an image

Jane’s post and the ensuing comments got me thinking about how certain images become attached to ideas, movements, people, philosophies and take on a kind of power that is sometimes as great as the power of words, greater than the idea, in fact. This is a topic that interests me both as an artist and as a graphic designer. Designers of logos, for example, hope for (pray for!) an image that will wield that power, but sometimes it just happens in an unplanned way.

I’ll bet you have seen this image:


You probably know that this is Che Guevara, an Argentine Marxist, and one of the guerilla leaders of the Cuban Revolution. I am fascinated, not so much with Che himself, but with this image. While very familiar here in the US, it is ubiquitous in Latin America. At one time I thought I might start taking photos of every instance I saw in some of my travels and took these two photos in Mexico.


That was as far as my photo efforts went, but I continue to see this image as graffiti, on T-shirts, on backpacks, book covers and more. (That’s a lampshade in the photo on the left.) It is particularly popular with teenagers in Latin America. And so, I wonder what this means. The image of Che is clearly a symbol of revolution, but do these teenagers really know who he was, or is this just such an appealing image, coupled with the slightly dangerous look, that makes it so appealing?


The image comes from a photo taken taken in 1960 by Albert Korda and the high contrast graphic image was created by Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick.


The appeal of the image is undeniable. Andy Warhol used the image for a serigraph and helped to further popularize it.


As graphic images go, I think this one is unusually riveting. The human face, they say, is the most compelling image there is and this one is graphic and expressive and beautiful in a clear, stark economy of line and form. I have thought about this and wonder if this image takes its power from its subject–the charismatic Che–or if the image lends its power to the legend and enduring interest in Che. I tend to believe it is the latter. I believe the power of that image is what keeps interest in the man alive.

6 Responses to “The power of an image”

  1. 1 vyala September 22, 2007 at 1:42 am

    I would like to remind you that this is also one of the most famous copyright infringements in history of art! Korda won the case! Late but he won.

    Read here:


  2. 2 terrygrant September 20, 2007 at 9:23 pm

    Thanks, June, for mentioning the cross-post about originality and the reference to the Warhol Che.

    I think Warhol’s work has always pushed the limits of originality from the standpoint of the source images he used–other people’s photos, commercial packaging (Campbell’s soup, Brillo box, etc.) and in the case of the Che image another artist’s version of yet another artist’s (the original photographer’s) work. All of this happened, as I understand, at a time when copyright issues were not as clearcut as they now are, or at least the copyright holders were not as inclined to sue as now. On the other hand, the way Warhol used the images seems, to me, quite original and I don’t actually see the fact that he often used a grid format as directly relatable to or derived from traditional quilts. The grid is too universal for quilting to claim it as its exclusive property IMO.

    I feel like in discussions of originality, we sometimes get too hung up on techniques and subject matter and lose sight of the originality of expression that is what really makes a work of art seem like something new and, well—-original, despite its being a hackneyed subject done using traditional techniques.

  3. 3 June September 20, 2007 at 8:22 pm

    A cross comment was posted on Clairan’s Re-post: a question of originality, that asked about the originality of Warhol’s silk screened image. It’s an interesting question, worth taking a look at. I’d like to hear what people think.

  4. 4 patbshaer September 19, 2007 at 3:11 pm

    If you haven’t seen the film, The Motorcycle Diaries, and find yourself wondering more about the man and his background, it is quite interesting. The movie is on DVD.

    What intrigued me was the topography of that region of the world. It easily opens another discussion on how the geogrpahy influences the politics and social attitudes of a region.

  5. 5 clairan September 19, 2007 at 3:11 pm

    June are you saying that 16 year olds power the consumer world and legends in general? We’re doomed!

  6. 6 June September 19, 2007 at 2:12 pm


    Handsome, dark, deep soulful eyes, a symbol of rebellion without too much responsibility attached — what more could a 16 year old want?

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