The Milagro of the Mexican Suitcase
By LIZ HAGER
Robert Capa’s “Mexican” Suitcase. photo © Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
Gerda Taro, Air Raid Victim in the Morgue, Valencia, 1937.
Randy Kennedy’s article today in the NY Times was a reminder that life is an unpredictable, yet often miraculous, affair.
Against all rightful odds, some 3,500 negatives, shot by war photographers Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour (Chim) and packed inside a flimsy cardboard boxes, survived a a cloak-and-dagger wartime journey. The suitcase of boxes passed through many hands in at least three countries and eventually landed in the possession of a Mexican general. Sometime in the mid-90s Mexico City filmmaker Benjamin Tarver happened to see exhibit of Spanish Civil War pictures and connected them to the contents of the suitcase he had inherited from his aunt (depending on which account is accurate, either the widow or a close friend of the General). Tarver then wrote to a Queens College (CUNY) professor, an expert on the Spanish Civil War, to ask whether the college could help him catalog and exhibit the prints. The professor in turn contacted the curators at the International Center of Photography. After some years of negotiation with Tarver, ICP was able to retrieve the suitcase, which arrived on its doorstep last year. Miraculously the negatives were in good shape.
Curators at ICP are already heralding the contents of the suitcase as the “holy grail” of Capa’s oeuvre. Almost all the film is of the Spanish Civil War, shot in the years between May 1936 and Spring 1939. It represents an unprecedented cache of Capa’s reporting of that war, thousands of photographs that were previously thought lost forever. The images will add immeasurably to our understanding of both the war and this photographer’s unique talent. Further, over time even known Capa negatives and records have been separated and dispersed over many locations (or lost altogether), so the pictures in the suitcase should help scholars to add more accurate dates and notations to photographs already out there.
More astounding, the suitcase has yielded new photographs of Chim battle scenes, a genre for which the photographer was not previously known.
Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and Soldier, Córdoba Front, Spain,” 1936.
The biggest miracle of the suitcase, however, might prove be the trove of shots credited to Gerda Taro. Why? Scholars have long known that Taro published her pictures under the Capa name, but it has been nearly impossible to determine true attribution of the body of collaborative work for which Capa has received most of the credit. Until recently, Taro was best-known in the public eye for her romance with Capa. The negatives in the suitcase could change that.
Capa’s enormous success as a war photographer (he went on to photograph WW2, the second Sino-Japanese War, the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflic and the French action in Indochina) overshadows the nature of the collaboration between Capa and Taro during the Spanish Civil War. It’s all too easy to forget Taro’s place in history: she was the first woman to report on war from the front lines and a pioneer in establishing the now standard-method of shooting war from within its ranks. Unlike previous photographers, Roger Fenton for example, who typically positioned themselves on the sidelines and reported on the preparations or aftermath of battle, Capa and Taro jumped right into the action. They were passionate about the Republican cause and lived, marched, and went into battle with the troops. At the time, Taro’s photos were published widely by the French leftist press; later some eventually made it into Life. Still more were undoubtedly published as “Caro”s.
Taro spared her viewers little. Along with shots of troops—in training, at rest, in action—were shots of the casualties of war, including civilians. As a body of work, they serve as a record of the action, the camaraderie, the boredom, and the brutality of war. Overall, they show us, as Susan Sontag observes ” This what war does. And that, that is what it does, too. War tears, rends. War rips open, eviscerates. War scorches. War dismembers. War ruins.” (Regarding the Pain of Others, p.8)
Taro, born Gerta Pohorylle, was raised Stuttgart and Leipzig. She met photographer André Friedmann (born Endre Ernő Friedmann), a Hungarian photographer, in 1935 on the French island of Sainte Marguerite. Sometime in the spring of 1936 collaboratively they invented the American-sounding (i.e. Frank Capra) photographer Robert Capa (also “shark” in Hungarian), endowing the character with ability and prior credentials. The Garbo-Gerda Taro was also born.
Alas, Taro’s career was all-too brief. In July 1937 she traveled with another photographer to a battle site located between Villanueva de la Cañada and Brunete, near Segovia. (The battle was immortalized by Ernest Hemingway in For Whom the Bell Tolls.) There, on the 25th, one day before her return to Paris, she found herself in the midst of a panicked retreat and jumped on the sideboard of a moving car to get away. It was hit by a Loyalist tank. Taro died early the next morning in a field hospital. She was just days shy of her 27th birthday.
One hopes the Mexican suitcase will shed new light on the scope and scale of Taro’s work. One wishes that it will widely re-establish her rightful legacy in the pantheon of war photographers.
Irme Schaber, Taro’s biographer (Schaber’s portion begins at 3:20)
Trish Ziff—“The Mexican Suitcase”
Randy Kennedy—“The Capa Cache”
Gerda Taro: The Blonde of Brunete
Taro photographs in the suitcase
NY Times Taro slideshow