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The Mexican Suitcase. Robert Capa’s lost negatives found in a suitcase in Mexico

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
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)
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)

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.


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