2 Jun, 2008 @ 19:30
6 mins read

Priceless war photos may come home


The remarkable story of how some of the world’s most famous war photographs have only recently emerged after a tortuous journey from Spain, via France, to Mexico and finally the US. With the Olive Press’s help they could now be coming back to Spain

THEY wanted their photographs to record the truth about a vicious war which tore a country and its people apart. They hoped they would act as a warning, sadly not heeded, about the aspirations of the Nazis and their repugnant ideology.

Now incredibly, a find of long-lost work by Spanish civil war photographers Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David ‘Chim’ Seymour has turned up in three flimsy cardboard boxes in an attic in Mexico City.

Termed the Mexican Suitcase, the extraordinary cache, which somehow managed to survive the Second World War, includes never seen images of celebrated figures including poet Garcia Lorca, Ernest Hemingway and Republican heroine La Pasionaria.

But, the discovery of thousands of negatives has also sent shock waves through the photography world for other reasons. Not least because it is hoped that the negatives could settle definitively a question that has dogged Hungarian Capa’s legacy: whether his most famous picture — and one of the most famous war photographs of all time — was staged.

Known as ‘Falling Soldier,’ it shows a Republican militiaman reeling backward at what appears to be the instant a bullet strikes his chest or head. Taken near the town of Cerro Muriano, Cordoba, when the picture was first published in the French magazine Vu, it created a sensation and helped crystallize support for the Republican cause.

The photograph has been hotly debated ever since (see Olive Press issue 23), and as the negative has never been found it – or at least produced – we might never know if militiaman Federico Borrell Garcia died that day.

That is until now. As it is hotly rumoured that the Mexican suitcase, which somehow managed to leave Spain during the 1940s, might well include the reel of negatives.

What is certainly known is that the explosive Mexican find contained 3,500 negatives that Robert Capa, his girlfriend Taro, a German, and friend Chim took during the Spanish civil war between 1936 and 1938.

A number of them are of Capa himself and Taro, who actually died during the conflict in 1937 after a tank blew up near to where she was taking photographs.

Hidden for 50 years

Capa, who managed to flee to America in 1939, leaving behind the contents of his Paris darkroom, assumed that the work had been lost during the Nazi invasion of France.

Indeed, he went to his death in 1954 on an assignment in Vietnam still thinking so.

But around a decade ago rumours began to spread that the famous cache of Spanish photographs might well have survived.

And so they did taking a convoluted route from Paris to Marseille and then finally to Mexico City, where they remained hidden for around 50 years.

It was only at the end of last year that they were finally brought by hand to the International Centre for Photography (ICP) in Manhattan, New York, where they are currently being cleaned up and scanned in preparation for release, it is hoped, later this year.

They had been in the possession of a Mexican filmmaker Ben Tarver, who had inherited them from his aunt, who was the widow of General Francisco Aguilar Gonzalez the Mexican Ambassador to the Vichy Government in France in 1941.

After a decade of quiet negotiation Tarver agreed to hand over the negatives to the ICP, which was founded by Robert Capa’s brother, Cornell.

As one might imagine, it was anything but a straightforward deal, and it involved the Capa family spending years despatching investigators and laterly a British filmmaker Trisha Ziff, who lived in Mexico City to negotiate.

It was Londoner Ziff (whose debut movie Viva La Chevolution about Che Guevara comes out this year) who finally managed to get a breakthrough.

In December, after two small deliveries of negatives, she was finally handed the bulk of the work, carrying it by hand on a flight to New York herself.

“I wasn’t going to put it in a FedEx box,” she explained.

“When I got these boxes it almost felt like they were vibrating in my hands,” she added. “That was the most amazing part for me.”

Final destination now apparently reached, how though did the suitcases find their way to Mexico in the first place?

There appears to be two versions of events. Firstly, the more widely accepted version that Capa’s Paris darkroom assistant Cziki Weiss either handed the case to the Mexican Embassy in Paris or gave it to the embassy via someone in Marseille, before being arrested and sent to a detention camp in Algeria.

While it is known that Cziki finally arrived in Mexico in 1941, there is nothing on record showing that he attempted to contact the Mexican authorities to see if the case had made it out of France.

The second, more romantic version, finds Capa himself leaving Paris, and heading for Marseilles in order to escape to the United States with the suitcase in his possession. Fearing his arrest some say he handed the case to an ex-Republican soldier with instructions to take it to a Latin-American consulate in Marseilles.

The truth may be a construction of shreds from both of these narratives, or perhaps a further twist awaits and there are in fact two suitcases with another still to be discovered.

Either way the anticipation is rapidly building up with the ICP now said to be close to having archived and scanned most of the negatives, which were taken on nitrate film and therefore subject to autocatalytic decomposition, which is very difficult to control.

The scanning process is also fraught with problems as the process of decomposition often causes the film strips to break or crumble. The stress and tension of this can only be offest by the excitement of being the first to see the images of the famous conflict.

While different, it must be some of the same excitement that drew in the trio of young photographers to a battle far from their own countries.

They, after all, risked their lives to capture the spirit of a conflict that pitted a blood-thirsty professional army against a ragged band of people’s militias, made up of ordinary people and including thousands of foreign artists, poets and writers, who made up the International Brigades.

The trio were all displaced Europeans on a quest to fight Nazism and further the Republican cause. In the words of her lover Capa, Taro “spent one year at the Spanish front and stayed on”, while Chim specialised in portraying the child victims of the war.

Their photographs are some of the most evocative and compelling of the war doing much to help our understanding not only of the conflict itself but also of the human cost; the civilians, bewildered and frightened, the combatants, proud determined and dying. Histories are often written by the victors, these pictures help redress that balance, offering a black and white testimony to the heroism and suffering of the Republic.

It is perhaps no surprise that all three photographers died young, Taro in 1937 at the bloody battle of Brunete during the Republican retreat, Capa, during the French Indo-China war in 1954, when he stepped on a land mine, and Chim killed by Egyptian bullets while covering the Suez Crisis of 1956.

Who took what?

Their deaths left a void not only in the art of reportage but also in the understanding of the existing images. Confusion over who took which image will forever be a problem. In some cases the prints were made from copy negatives because the originals were lost and almost certainly these existing photographs could not be the sum total of the work of the three photojournalists.

We can further complicate this proposal if we consider that the original strip of film which included the celebrated Fallen Soldier image, was said to have been lost after a presentation of prints from the strip by ‘Fotografia Italiana’ in 1972.

Could it be that in this latest cache could be a dusty strip of perhaps five or six negatives which could prove irrefutably whether or not Capa staged his most famous image, just waiting to be discovered.

Fans of Capa will be praying that it doesn’t turn out to be faked, as it could reflect on his other work, the vast body of which approached genius. His photographs are anything, but perfect, and he didn’t want them to be.

Ultimately he wanted his photographs to record the truth about a vicious war which tore a country and its people apart. It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words, for Capa’s images that is a gross undervalue.

Capa Cache for Cordoba

IT is one of the most valuable caches of photographs ever found.

Now, the Olive Press is working with Cordoba town hall to bring the exciting group of never-seen Civil War photographs back to Spain.

The pictures by photographer Robert Capa have just turned up after being ‘lost’ for decades.

Featuring 3000 rare pictures – ‘the Mexican Suitcase’ discovery, as it is being termed – managed to escape the clutches of Hitler when he invaded France during the Second World War.

The photos – many taken in Andalucia during the civil war – were somehow sent from Capa’s dark room in Paris, via Marseille to Mexico.

It is even possible that the lost negatives to Capa’s famous photo Falling Soldier – taken near Cordoba – are among the find. Now, after decades of negotiation they have finally been sent to a museum in New York.

The Olive Press has approached the Cordoba town hall with news of the find and together hopes to set up an exhibition next year.

“The town hall is very interested,” said Inma ?? SURNAME, who works closely with the Culture Department. “Thanks to the Olive Press for getting in touch”.

“This is very exciting,” said Lindsay MacNeil, marketing director of language school International House, in Cordoba.

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