Category Archives: Capa and Taro
Kati Horna © Magnum Photos
We’re here for the Republic
On July the seventeenth 1936 the failed coup of Mola, Franco and Sanjurjo resulted in Civil War. The people were armed via unions such as the UGT (Unión General de Trabajadores) and CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo) halting the Nationalist advance west of Madrid and pushing them out of Barcelona. The Madrid lines held until the first international column of volunteers arrived on the tenth of November. It was a desperate attempt to stop the advancing Fascists in Madrid’s Casa de Campo.
Foreigners flooded to Spain some crossing the Pyrenees on foot before moving down to Barcelona. It was mostly ordinary workers with a smattering of intellectuals and adventurers who came. Not all came to fight with rifle and bomb, some came as journalists to report the truth. The new advances in photographic technology by Rolleiflex and Leica helped bring a new breed of newspaper correspondent, the photojournalist. The medium format Rolleiflex available to the public since 1929, was a twin lens reflex camera allowing portability and reliability. The 35mm Leica was even smaller. The superb quality of the lens allowed the small negative to be enlarged in the dark-room, making the tiny device a practical tool. The Leica, particularly the Leica III range introduced in 1933 became legend, its distinctive profile is still copied today by compact digital camera manufactures.
Well known photographers such as Spain’s Agustí Centelles, Poland’s David Seymour (Chim) and Hungary’s Robert Capa are well documented but not all photographers were men. The tragic Gerda Taro a German of Polish decent and Kati Horna from Hungary are arguably the best known female photojournalists.
Both Taro and Horna were close friends of Capa. Taro was his colleague, companion and lover during her brief photographic career. She died at the Battle of the Brunette in 1937 while still in her twenties. Capa taught her photography and naturally her style initially mimicked his, later however she developed an approach of her own. Taro spent an increasing amount of time away from Capa, their business activities requiring him in Paris. This allowed her to develop as an individual. Her developing style becomes obvious as one compares the images they made together. Capa dedicated the book Death in the Making to her. This reads: “For Gerda Taro, who spent one year at the Spanish front – and who stayed on.”
Kati Horna, born Kati Deutsch broke new ground in the photography of conflict. She documented the effect of war on the non-combatants. The suffering of the civilians caught up in a conflict which was not of their making. Much used today, however in the thirties it was a new and radical approach. Unlike Taro, Horna survived the war and finally settled in Mexico with her partner, the Spaniard José Horna. José had been imprisoned by the Nationalists in 1938 before Kati rescued him. They then made their way to Paris, the United States and finally Mexico City. Kati Horna died in 2000 leaving a horde of photographs from the Spanish Civil War. These have since been scanned and archived. Although she never gained the fame and notoriety enjoyed by some of her contemporaries, she was at least their equal in photographic ability.
The exploits of these photojournalists have been told and retold, to some extent cleansing their true characters. Making them squeaky-clean, they were in fact human-beings with all the faults associated with their dangerous but highly visible careers. Of the five photographers mentioned, three Taro, Capa and Chim died while covering conflicts around the world. Taro was killed at Brunette in 1937, Capa died in 1954 in French Indochina and Chim lost his life during the 1956 Suez War.
Using the camera in support of a cause for which one is sympathetic must test one’s powers of impartiality. The phrase ‘The camera doesn’t lie’ is one of the greatest misconceptions ever. The camera has always lied and it is becoming easier to ‘doctor’ an image. The pressures on these photojournalists to portray ‘action’ images or images which would show the Republic in a favourable light must have been tremendous. It is now known that Capa changed the provenance of his ‘Fallen Soldier’ image. It was taken at Espejo and not Cerro Muraino as he suggested. This is not proof that it was staged but as there was no reported fighting at Espejo when Capa was there, some doubt must be cast on its validity. Who took which picture is also in dispute, particularly between Capa, Chim and Taro as they worked together on occasions and I would imagine shared equipment. One picture attributed to Taro taken on board the warship Jaime I in Almería harbour, appears to show herself in the shot. There is never ending debate regarding authenticity and title.
Despite all of the controversy over one or two images the vast bulk of their work remains a testimony to their skill, compassion and bravery. The impact of these monotone images is not diminished by the absence of colour. Colour would only be a distraction.
Centelles’s images show the bitter street fighting, mourning mothers and wives as they weep uncontrollable over the corpses of their loved-ones. Perhaps his most poignant images are those of shuffling masses of refugees heading north across the Pyrenees and into internment in France. Frail women consoling frightened children in the hastily erected French camps. Uncertainty and fear all too evident on their young faces. David Seymour (Chim) specialised in photographing children. He photographed the orphaned and the injured. Images of children with missing limbs playing football on crutches, trying desperately to regain normality by performing a familiar task. One of his images simply shows two Republican militiamen gently carrying a heavy crucifix to safety. The impact of this photograph in the propaganda war was immense.
Capa reacted with people, if ever there was a person who possessed the ‘common touch’ it was he. His images are well known and moving. At Montblanch in October 1938 he captured the faces of the parading soldiers. The pride and resignation as they said goodbye to the International Brigades. One can see the fate of the Republic in the eyes of these men. Their gratitude to the departing columns and the belief in their now almost certainly lost cause. It is arguable a masterpiece of photojournalism. Taro, who fell somewhat under the shadow of Capa, made some moving images of the refugees.
from Málaga as they tried to find safety in Almería. Of the children once more, the innocents who suffered so badly. Left to her own devices she tended to be more openly political. She covered conferences and meetings, helping the propaganda machine of the Republic. Horna was overtly political and much involved with the anarchist cause. Her images depict those behind the lines. The agrarian struggle which was a major cause of the War, threshing grain and ploughing amidst the uncertainty of war. The backbreaking toil with antiquated and inefficient tools. Her work above all others echoed many of the causes which led to war.
We still have the same breed of photojournalists today. It is still an extremely dangerous and necessary job. We have seen a new wave of development in photography, long focus fast lenses, digital cameras and sophisticated editing software. These are simply tools however. We still need the courage, compassion and dedication of individuals to produce moving and thought provoking images
Cerro Muriano is a small unremarkable town in Andalucía a few miles to the north of Córdoba. It is home to a disused railway line and a now defunct Rio Tinto copper mine. However on the 5th of September 1936 it became famous throughout the world. It was the location for the most iconic image ever taken during the Spanish Civil War.
Together they went to Spain on assignment for Vu magazine. My own research located the couple in Cerro Muriano on the 5th of September, arriving with Franz Borkenau author of The Spanish Cockpit. They spent only a matter of hours in the village and never visited the Republican front line which was almost one and half kilometres away. When Valera’s Moors entered the pueblo from the north skirmishes broke out, prompting the trio to head towards Madrid at an accelerated rate. Photographs taken by Capa of Taro and Republican soldiers clearly show the mine structures, but the Fallen Soldier sequence shows none of these buildings. The militiamen in the photograph are not men under fire. Their body language is not that of men in fear of their lives. There was also the mystery of the missing negative strip showing the sequence of events. Apparently lost by Fotografia Italiana magazine after they printed the negatives from the strip. They showed the CNT militiamen purported to have fallen, alive and well in a later frame. Arguments then followed about the printing order of the negative sequence.
The controversy continued.
The Fallen Soldier image exposed as a fake by El Periódico in 2009
In July 2009 El Periódico blew the whole myth apart. Using the hill profile from the image they superimposed it over a hill profile from the town of Espejo. Espejo is some forty kilometres away from Cerro Muriano. I checked the profile and agree, although I will delay a definitive decision until after I have visited Espejo later this year. It is known that Capa was there on the 25th of September as were elements of the CNT militia. There were however no hostilities in the area at that time.
If he did fake the picture, why?
Adoption of the Capa persona meant the re-invention of the man, his Bohemian appearance was at odds with the image. His faithful leather jacket gave way to a well cut suit while carefully cropped hair completed the veneer. Capa and Taro headed for Spain, relative novices to photojournalism and certainly under pressure to supply quality images. They had to live up to their own hype. Under these conditions it is not too difficult to imagine the staging of one or two shots. I am certain he didn’t expect the image to gain such notoriety. Developing a life of its own it inspired generation after generation and became an icon of the very war itself.
Where does this leave the remainder of his work?
Gerda Taro is an integral part of the Capa legacy. Colleagues, partners and lovers. They both conspired to develop the Capa makeover and she acted as his agent. Taro learnt the art of photography and eventually supplied images under her own byline. Her images didn’t have the impact of Capa’s, but had their relationship matured her technique would undoubtedly have improved. Fatally injured during the Republican retreat from Brunete, her life tragically cut short. An out of control tank collided with the press car on the running-board of which Gerda was travelling. She died of her wounds the next day, the 26th of July. Capa was in Paris at the time setting up a darkroom. He never forgave himself for not being there. He never fully recovered from the trauma of her death, blaming himself for not being at Brunete. She died just days before her 26th birthday.
During the winter of 1936 and 1937 he photographed Madrid, the crucified city, as it suffered the remorseless bombing from Germany’s Condor Legion. The scene of a devastated room with a rubble strewn floor. A pitiful photograph of a young couple full of hope and just married hanging forlornly from a cracked and wrecked wall.
In May Capa was in the Basque town of Bilbao capturing images during an air raid. It was here that he took an iconic and evocative photograph. A Mother runs for the safety of an air-raid shelter, staring upwards towards the sinister silhouettes of danger. She clutches the hand of her young daughter. Her coat hastily buttoned, the buttons out of sequence with their respective buttonholes. Her eyes are following her Mother’s gaze. Confused; she doesn’t know why her Mother was acting so strangely. An unasked question on convoluted lips as they scurry towards Capa’s camera.
The picture which to me sums up Capa’s brilliance was taken at Montblanch near Barcelona on the 25th of October 1938. It was during a ceremony thanking the International Brigades for their intervention in the war before their withdrawal. The event was one of high emotion. Delores Ibárruri gave her now famous ‘You are legend’ speech, while Brigaders and republican soldiers looked on. The eyes of those present betrayed their feelings, gratitude, pride and resignation to their inevitable fate. A lone Republican soldier picked out from the crowd. Head involuntarily tilted as he makes the clench fist salute. The words of an anthem formed on his lips. Capa captured not only the emotion of that particular day but of the whole war.
Montblanch near Barcelona on the 25th of October 1938. The International Brigades are withdrawn
The probable staging of the Fallen Soldier image does not infringe on the validity of his other work. This approaches genius and I hope that others are not dismissive over this one issue. His work still includes some of the finest examples of the photo-journalistic art. His technical ability and sympathy for the subject are all too clear
from the images he created. He has chronicled the Spanish Civil War not through the horrific images of death and mutilation. He had the ability to see war through the eyes of the ordinary people, the people who really matter.
For I am involved with mankind: Robert Capa and Gerda Taro at Cerro Muriano on the 5th of September 1936
I met Bruno Gómez Obrero at his bar, the Casa Bruno just after the breakfast rush; I was drinking a cup of strong coffee and munching on a toasted roll amongst the debris of the morning assault. It was a chance meeting. He had asked me to move my car which I had abandoned in my usual chaotic fashion. I muttered an apology and mentioned my reason for being there, Robert Capa, Civil War, Fallen Soldier, etc etc.
The Fallen Soldier Image by Robert Capa
Bruno told me that he had lived all of his life in the village as had his Father before him. Born in 1939 he was something of a local historian, having absorbed all of his
Father’s recollections, Bruno was a recognised authority on the village’s past.
Cerro Muriano lies just over 18 Kilometres from central Córdoba, the hill from which it gets its name is to the north and the redundant Rio Tinto mine to the south. A disused railway line passes through and the N432 bypasses it.
There was nothing remarkable about the town, its place in history due to the controversy surrounding a photograph made by a young Hungarian photojournalist in the autumn of 1936.
Did I want to see where Capa’s photograph was taken, Bruno said this in such a matter of fact way that it didn’t initially register. “Yes of course” I said, trying to hide my astonishment. I struggled to keep up with my guide as I juggled my camera case and note books, we crossed the overgrown railway line and past its forlorn station. The walk took us past a sports field and into a gully. The remains of the Minas Cobre buildings were to our right, a steep bank with a military perimeter fence running along the top to the left.
About 600 metres into the gully, Bruno pointed to the left, “Allí” he said, the climb looked steep. I was unbuckling my camera bag, when Bruno stopped and pointed to a less torturous if not longer route to the top. During this trek he acquainted me with the events of the fifth of September 1936, according to his Father recollections.
He told me several times and he stressed the point that there was no battle here, just a skirmish and sniping from the Nationalists. There were only a few Republicans in the mine-zone, these had come from the direction of Villa Del Rio to the east, but his Father was certain the photographers (Capa and Taro) were there. The nationalists entered from the north through Cerro Muriano while another column was reported to be moving up from Córdoba. Refugees were fleeing towards Pozoblanco to the north passing through the advancing column, many he said were put in the Nationalist trucks and never seen again.
We arrived at the top of the bank just inside the military zone very close to a cave entrance. This was, according to Bruno the spot were the Republicans and the photographers were. It had a clear view of the mine area, Cerro Muriano and the Lomo de las Malageu?as. The cave was said to be by the more romantic locals, a hiding place for the bandolero José Maria El Tempranillo, but more interestingly by the more level headed residents as a magazine dating from the Civil War.
The information I got from Bruno was at a very local level and had to be put into context. The diary of the Nationalist commander in the area, general Varela, states that the main concentration of the Republican force was on the Lomo de las Malageu?as, this would put Bruno’s position for Capa as some 1.3 Kilometres to the northwest. Some reports saying that the Alcoy CNT Militia which Capa had attached himself to was protecting an artillery battery; this is why the cave could be so important.
According to Varela’s diary his Right Column moved along the Alcolea-Madrid highway for five kilometres then headed to Cerro Muriano entering the town from the north. The Central Column moved along the Córdoba-Almadén highway towards La Lomo de las Malageu?as. The intention being a pincher movement directed at the main republican force for in the Malageu?as.
So far Bruno’s account and the official record appear to be consistent. The Column of the Right included native troops from Spanish Morocco, which ties in with evidence
from a third source, that of Borkena who states that Moorish troops attacked the small
detachment at Cerro Muriano. He goes on to say that the Republicans did not put up much of a fight but fled, he mentions seeing the CNT tasselled forage caps amongst the fleeing refugees, most would have made the 1.3 kilometre journey to the main force on La Lomo de las Malageu?as, however. This description ties in Bruno’s insistence that the action in Cerro Muriano was only a skirmish.
We have anecdotal evidence that puts Capa in the mine-zone of Cerro Muriano on or before the fifth of September 1936. In some of his photographs of the fleeing refugees the railway line is clearly shown, this would put him in the village proper, about 300 metre from the mine-zone and about 1.5 kilometres from the main force at La Lomo de las Malageu?as.
Was the picture real or faked?
There are many scenarios I will outline but two, one for either camp.
Borkenau’s evidence suggests that the contingent at Cerro Muriano and presumably the mine-zone were in high spirits, drinking wine and one was seen making off with an entire leg of ham. They were behind the Miaja’s main Republican force which was between them and the Nationalists. In this sort of mood they may well have performed for Capa. Images of the CNT Militia jumping a trench and another of them taking aim in the trench, do not show the type of body language which suggests they were under fire.
The Nationalist would not have blundered in town, but would have sent an advance guard, the Moroccans? Taking the cavorting Republicans by surprise and dropping our Militiaman in front of Capa’s lens.
We know that Miaja dithered and did not take his opportunity to attack Córdoba before Varela arrived with his reinforcements. This missed opportunity and the resulting idleness would have frustrated both Capa and the republican forces. The commanders would have agreed to almost any diversion in order to keep the men in good spirit. Capa may well have taken advantage and staged the pictures. The pictures of the refugees which were taken on the morning of the fifth may have been his last before he moved to a safer location with the main force at La Lomo de las Malageu?as.
The only thing of any certainty is that if the truth is know it will be none of the scenarios put forward, but a train of circumstances not even considered.
After visiting Cerro Muriano and other towns and villages in Andalucía, talking to ordinary people about the Civil War, it has made me realise how ‘UNIMPORTANT’ the authenticity of this picture is. Capa’s reputation does not stand or fall on this one picture.
A photographer who can capture all the horror of war in the eyes of fleeing refugees, without resorting to the shock tactics of mutilated corpses, is a true photojournalist of the highest order. Capa has proved time and time again not only to be involved with mankind but to be able to depict the plight of mankind to us lesser mortals.
As for the Spanish man or woman in the street, they aren’t concerned with the picture; they are concerned however with the lessons of their disastrous civil war and are also rightly proud of how they have become reconciled, put it behind them and looked to the future.
Spanish Translation (Mexican) of Republican Spain: Images of tragedy and compassion
The translation is courtesy of Rogelio Villarreal
Este año marca el 81 aniversario de la muerte de Gerda Pohorylle.Siendo una joven socialista e idealista abandonó su patria, Alemania, y encaminó sus pasos hacia Francia, llegando a la capital en 1934. Ahí cambió su nombre por el de Gerda Taro y fue la causa de que un joven fotógrafo originario de Bohemia se convirtiera en uno de los más grandes fotoperiodistas en la historia de la recabación de noticias.
Robert Capa, verdadero nombre de Endre Friedmann, refugiado de la Hungría de la época del almirante Horthy, conoció a Taro en París el otoño de 1934. La atracción mutua fue inmediata y en ese momento se hicieron amantes, camaradas y conspiradores.Al aparecer Friedmann, Taro se puso a trabajar, convenciéndolo de que abandonara su desgarrada chamarra de cuero por un traje, con camisa y corbata, que le daba una apariencia respetable al ocultar sus fuertes rasgos gitanos. Una vez efectuada la trasformación, lo envió de vuelta a las calles, con la cámara en la mano.
Gerda Taro y Robert Capa
Para completar la ilusión y para disparar el precio de las fotos de Friedmann, la pareja se inventó al personaje de Robert Capa, un rico, exitoso e imaginario fotógrafo estadounidense.La estratagema funcionó bien, con Friedmann peinando las calles de París en búsqueda de imágenes redituables y Taro tratando de obtener precios estratosféricos de los fotógrafos de las agencias de noticias. El fraude acabó descubriéndose y a Friedmann no le quedó otra que adoptar el disfraz de Robert Capa.
La leyenda tuvo su propio impulso y estuvo en vigencia entre las anécdotas humorísticas, de valor y de fotografía evocadora. Capa captó la esencia del conflicto, no las imágenes de sangre y entrañas que sólo sirven para asustar, sino más bien la expresión facial de los países en guerra, las siluetas y los sonidos de quienes sufren, que expresan aquellos que padecen mayormente, la población civil y los soldados rasos.
En 1936 Taro y Capa fueron a cubrir la Guerra Civil española. Taro era ya toda una fotoperiodista y procuraba hacer que publicaran sus fotos bajo su propia firma. Los dos eran rabiosamente antifascistas y estaban decididos a aplicar sus capacidades periodísticas en favor de la causa de la República española.
Los últimos días de agosto de 1936 Capa y Taro llegaron al frente, ubicado al oriente de Córdoba. Hubo un respiro en la lucha y Capa, a toda velocidad, puso en escena distintas fotografías. Estaba ansioso por mostrar imágenes de los progresos republicanos, pero estas fotografías carecían de fuerza de convencimiento y no lograron engañar a nadie. No obstante, una que realizó en Cerro Muriano sí la tuvo, la famosa foto de El soldado caído, cuya autenticidad ha sido puesta en duda por decenios.
El 5 de septiembre Capa retrató a un miembro de la milicia anarcosindicalista, CNT, mostrando su caída como derribado por una bala. El fotógrafo causó sensación al publicarla y gran controversia desde entonces. Existe duda si Capa y Taro estuvieron en Cerro Muriano por aquellas fechas, a la vez que los expertos de campo han señalado a Federico Borrell García como el miliciano moribundo.
Para algunas fotografías de esta secuencia se preparó en verdad el escenario, pues otro cuadro muestra a un miliciano derribado distinto, exactamente en el mismo lugar que El soldado caído. ¿Pura coincidencia? Capa usaba una antigua Leica, probablemente una III o una IIIa, una cámara bastante manual pero que requería aparte de un exposímetro. Si uno intentaba hacer una fotografía cuyo escenario hubiera sido predispuesto para esa cámara, parecería lógico ajustar la apertura del diafragma y la velocidad del disparador a una luz determinada y sólo después hacer venir a los actores.
Se ha discutido la vida íntima de Capa tanto como sus fotografías. Rara vez lo volvían a invitar a una casa de visita; con una vez era más que suficiente. Hubiera pedido dinero, cigarrillos, alcohol y, si pudiera salirse con la suya, hasta la mujer del anfitrión. Durante la época en que se quedó a cargo de la agencia Magnum en París se gastó el salario de los corresponsales asignados.
Vivió en hoteles, bebiendo y apostando hasta altas horas de la noche; si necesitaba compañía femenina, estaba dispuesto a pagar. Muchas de sus anécdotas eran subidas de tono, a decir lo menos; para curarse las crudas se metía por horas al baño, al baño de quien fuera.Así era el carácter de este hombre. Aunque también era sumamente generoso; si tenía dinero todos comían y bebían hasta que el efectivo se acabara. Pasaba horas con los jóvenes reclutas en la agencia Magnum, enseñándoles el oficio. Pero su cualidad más alta era la conmiseración.Esta conmiseración se hacía evidente en su convivencia con los demás, manifestándose en las imágenes captadas.
¿Podríamos perdonar sus defectos de carácter?
No conocemos todos los acontecimientos que conformaron su vida, tampoco tendríamos por qué, ya que no tienen nada que ver con nosotros. Sabemos que Capa nunca se perdonó por no haber estado en París al momento de morir Taro, arrollada por un tanque durante el motín republicano en Brunete, sin haber siquiera completado sus 26 años.
Capa legó sus fotografías al mundo, ¿podríamos limitarnos a juzgarlo por éstas?En el Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía se encuentran archivadas las tomas fotográficas que Capa realizara de la Guerra. En estas imágenes vemos una fuerza como en ningunas otras, reflejada en las caras de aquellos hombres y mujeres de Montblanch mientras miraban la salida de las Brigadas internacionales. Recorremos el mísero camino de Málaga a Almería con los hoyos dejados por las bombas o bien compartimos el horror ante la retirada de los civiles en Cerro Muriano.
En estas imágenes en blanco y negro vemos a la Madre y la Hija corriendo en Bilbao buscando refugio durante un ataque aéreo, sus asustados rostros contrahechos, con sus abrigos apretados, vuelven a la vida ante nosotros. Se puede caminar entre las ruinas de Madrid, en Ciudad crucificada, o compartir las risas de los milicianos y las mujeres en un rato de esparcimiento en Barcelona.
De Bilbao a Almería Capa captó las emociones del país, no los grandes acontecimientos ni a los influyentes hombres de Estado, sino a quien realmente importa, la gente común y corriente.
Republican Spain: Images of tragedy and compassion. Robert Capa and Gerda Taro in Spain during the Spanish Civil War
This year marks the 81st anniversary of the death of Gerda Pohorylle. As a young idealistic socialist she quit her German homeland and made for France, arriving in its capital during 1934. Here she changed her name to Gerda Taro. She was responsible for moulding a young bohemian photographer into arguably the greatest photojournalist in the history of news gathering.
Robert Capa, real name Endre Friedmann was himself a refugee from Admiral Horthy’s Hungary, met Taro in Paris in the autumn of 1934. Their mutual attraction was immediate, they became lovers, colleagues and conspirators.
Taro set to work on Friedmann’s appearance. She persuaded him to forsake his tattered leather jacket for a suit, shirt and tie. This gave him a semblance of respectability by concealing his most obvious gypsy features. Once the transformation was complete she sent him back onto the streets camera in hand.
Gerda Taro and Robert Capa
To complete the illusion and to hype the cost of Friedmann’s pictures the pair invented the persona of Robert Capa. An imaginary American photographer attributed to be rich and successful.
The device worked well with Friedmann scouring Paris for saleable images and Taro touting the photographs around editorial offices at inflated prices. The ruse was inevitably discovered and Friedmann had no option but to adopt the guise of Robert Capa.
The legend had a momentum all of its own, afloat on a sea of humorous anecdotes, courage and evocative photography. Capa caught the essence of conflict. Not the blood and guts images that only serve to shock but the facial expression of nations at war. The shapes and tones of the suffering expressed by those who suffer most, civilians and foot soldiers.
In 1936 Taro and Capa went to cover the Spanish Civil War. Taro was by now a photojournalist in her own right and was looking forward to having her pictures published under her own by-line. They were both vehemently anti-fascists and
determined to use their journalistic skills in the cause of the Spanish Republic.
In late August 1936 the couple arrived at the front to the north of Córdoba. There was a lull in the fighting and in desperation Capa staged several photographs. He was desperate to provide images of Republican successes, but these photographs lacked conviction and fooled no one. However, the one he took at Cerro Muriano did. This was the famous Fallen Soldier photograph as it became known. Debate over the image’s authenticity has continued since its first publication.
On the 5th of September Capa photographed a CNT militiaman falling as if dropped by a bullet. The photograph caused a sensation when first published and controversy ever since. Doubts exists. Were Capa and Taro even at Cerro Muriano on that date? The pro-camp has offered up one Federico Borrell García as the dying militiaman.
Some of the photographs from the sequence are staged. Another frame shows a different militiaman falling in the same spot as the Fallen Soldier. Coincidence? Capa used an early Leica probably a III or IIIa. A very portable camera but requiring an external exposure meter. If one was staging a photograph with such a camera it would seem logical to adjust aperture and shutter speed for a particular light. Then bring on the actors.
It was not only Capa’s photographs that attracted comment. His personal life also came in for scrutiny. As a house guest, one visit from Capa usually sufficed. He would borrow money, cigarettes, booze and if he could get away with it your wife. While running the Magnum office in Paris, he was not adverse to spending the wages of the correspondents on assignment.
He lived in hotels drinking and gambling into the early hours, if he needed female company he was quite willing to pay for it. A lot of his tales were questionable to say the least. His cure for a hangover was to spend hours in the bath, anyone’s bath.
This however was the nature of the man. He was also very generous. If he had money, everyone ate and drank until the cash was exhausted. He spent hours with the young recruits to the Magnum agency teaching them their trade. His most endearing quality was his compassion.
This compassion was obvious in his interaction with others, manifesting itself in his captured images.
Can we forget the flaws in his character?
We do not know all the events which shaped his life. Nor should we. They have absolutely nothing to do with us. We do know that Capa never forgave himself for being in Paris when Taro died. Crushed by a tank during the Republican retreat from Brunete, she didn’t even reach her 26th birthday.
Capa left his photographs to the world. Can we judge him by those alone?
At the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía Capa’s Spanish Civil War photographs are archived. In these images we see intensity like no other. We see pride, fear and hopelessness on the faces of those men and women at Montblanch as they watch the International Brigades leave Spain. We walk the bomb cratered road of misery from Málaga to Almería. Share the horror of the civilian retreat from Cerro Muriano.
In those black-and-white images we see a mother and daughter in Bilbao running for cover during an air-raid their frightened faces upturned. Their coats hastily fastened.
They live again for us. You can walk among the ruins of Madrid, the Crucified City, or share the laughter of the militiamen and women as they relax in Barcelona.
From Bilbao to Almería, Capa captured the emotions of the nation. Not the great events or the mighty statesmen but those who really matter, the ordinary people.
September 1936, Cerro Muriano, a minor skirmish between Republican and Nationalist forces, two photographers, one photograph, result a timeless icon of the Republican struggle.
The ‘Fallen Soldier’ photograph helped to secure Robert Capa’s place in history as probably the greatest war photographer of all time.
A heady statement indeed.
But does this one picture justify the title? Was the picture even genuine or was it staged? I honestly and sincerely do not think it matters. Capa’s work doesn’t stand or fall on this one image. Through his work we look into the very souls of the victims of war, we see the fear and the pride, the panic and the passion, living again through these old nitrate negatives. We mustn’t forget the other photographers who also risked all, in particular Gerda Taro, Capa’s female companion and David Seymour (Chim), all three displaced Europeans on a quest to fight Facism and to further the republican cause. Taro gave her life, “…Who spent one year at the Spanish front and stayed on” was how Capa described her death in their joint book Death in the Making, 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 to redress that balance offering a black and white testimony to the heroism and suffering of Spain’s Second Republic.
The Mexican Suitcase
All of these three photographers died young, Taro in 1937 from wounds received at Brunete during the Loyalist retreat. Chim killed by Egyptian bullets while covering the Suez Crisis of 1956. Capa himself in 1954 a victim of the ubiquitous landmine in French Indo-China. Their deaths left a void not only in the art of reportage but also in the understanding of the existing images. Unanswered questions remain over many of the photographs. Who took them? Location? Sequence? Etc? Negatives vital to the understanding of certain sequences have also been lost and subsequent prints have been made from copy negatives.
In keeping with the character of the people involved so the story continues in similar fashion. In 2007 a suitcase was passed to the International Centre for Photography (ICP) in Manhattan, it was the property of a Ben Tarver who had inherited it from his aunt, the widow of General Francisco Aguilar Gonzalez Mexican Ambassador to the Vichy Government of 1941. Inside there were three cardboard boxes containing over 3,500 negatives. They are from the cameras of Capa, Taro and Chim all depicting the Spanish Civil War and include images of García Lorca, Hemmingway and La Pasionaria.
Gerda Taro Sleeping (From the Mexican Suitcase cache)
This cache has become known as the Mexican Suitcase, The ICP is presently scanning and archiving the nitate negatives which are subject to autocatalytic decomposition meaning that the decomposition process is self sustaining, once it starts it is very difficult to control. The scanning process is also fraught with problems as the process of decomposition causes the film strips to become friable and likely to break or crumble. We can only hope that the professionalism and skill of the ICP can complete the work successfully, eventually making the images available to the world. All the stress and tension of this undertaking must be offset by the excitement of being the first to see the images of that distant turbulent conflict.
Just how the suitcase found its way to Mexico is another convoluted and ambiguous thread which dogs any research regarding Capa, Taro and Chim. There appears to be two versions of events.
First up is the relatively straight forward tale of Capa’s dark room assistant and close friend Cziki Weiss, he is said to have simply handed the case to the Mexican Embassy in Paris before being sent to a Moroccan detention camp. Cziki finally arrived in Mexico in 1941 where he settled, although there is nothing on record that shows he made any attempt to contact the Mexican authorities to see if the case had made it out of France.
Militiamen in happier times (From the Mexican Suitcase cache)
The second version involves Capa heading for the United States via Marseilles , suitcase in hand. During the journey he may have feared that he would be arrested, so he was said to have handed the case to an ex-Republican soldier with instructions to take it to the nearest Latin-American embassy.
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 one yet to be discovered. We can further complicate this proposal if we consider that the original strip of film which included the Fallen Soldier image was lost after a presentation of prints from the strip by Fotografia Italiana in 1972. Could there also be in some dusty archive a strip of five or six negatives which could prove irrefutably whether or not Capa staged his most famous image.
I hope not in the case of the latter for if it did prove that the Fallen Soldier photograph was faked it could reflect on his other work, the vast body of which approaches genius. I think the controversy should continue and I for one hope that the ‘Fallen Soldier’ strip remains undiscovered.
Capa wanted his photographs to record the truth about a vicious war which tore a country and its people apart, he wanted his images to act as a warning which was unfortunately not heeded about the aspirations of the Nazis and their repugnant ideology.
It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. For Capa’s images that is a gross underestimate.