Robert Capa’s Mexican suitcase

capa-suitcase1

Update 19 July 2009: Fresh argument erupts

When I was in London last year I heard that a suitcase of missing Robert Capa negatives had been found, but I couldn’t get any confirmation. Now it’s been announced that there is indeed a suitcase, or at least three cardboard cartons of negatives and it’s been handed over the the Capa archives at the International Center of Photography in New York.

The boxes contained rolls of negatives taken by Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour (known as Chim).

In a media release the Center announced that the 3500 negatives are in good shape considering they’re over 70 years old and that they will be conserved for public display and research.

“We are thrilled about the return of what has become known as ‘The Mexican Suitcase,’” said ICP Director Willis E. Hartshorn. “These small cardboard boxes containing the negatives will give us critical information about the working process of three extraordinary wartime photographers. We are hoping for new discoveries, and the ability to provide access and new scholarship to the field. Public access to the images through publications, exhibitions, and online viewing is another key objective.” [ICoP 30 Jan 09]

If the rolls of negatives contain the sequence in which the famous “falling soldier” image appears it may help to clear up one of the most confounding puzzles in 20th Century photojournalism. Was the photograph staged, or was it, as Capa always claimed, a lucky shot at the exact moment a sniper’s bullet felled the Republican soldier?

Personally, I have been arguing for sometime on EM that the image was staged, perhaps as a result of Capa’s loyalty to the Spanish republican cause.It seems that I’m not alone here. In a recent article NewYork Times art writer Randy Kennedy comes to a remarkably similar conclusion.

The discovery has sent shock waves through the photography world, not least because it is hoped that the negatives could settle once and for all a question that has dogged Capa’s legacy: whether what may be his most famous picture — and one of the most famous war photographs of all time — was staged. Known as “The Falling Soldier,” it shows a Spanish Republican militiaman reeling backward at what appears to be the instant a bullet strikes his chest or head on a hillside near Córdoba in 1936. When the picture was first published in the French magazine Vu, it created a sensation and helped crystallize support for the Republican cause.

Though the Capa biographer Richard Whelan made a persuasive case that the photograph was not faked, doubts have persisted. In part this is because Capa and Taro made no pretense of journalistic detachment during the war — they were Communist partisans of the loyalist cause — and were known to photograph staged maneuvers, a common practice at the time. A negative of the shot has never been found (it has long been reproduced from a vintage print), and the discovery of one, especially in the original sequence showing all the images taken before and after the shot, could end the debate. [The Capa Cache NYT]

When I visited the Barbican exhibition of Capa and Taro’s images it struck me that a large number of their photos were staged – soldiers and civilians in heroic poses, or hudled as refugees. They were powerful and artistic images, but not, strictly speaking, photojournalism in the sense of capturing events as they happen.

Here’s what I wrote at the time

I don’t doubt Taro and Capa’s political allegiance to the Republicans. That was always the right side of the barricades and many fine socialists, intellectuals, poet, anarchists, workers, women and children died defending and extending working class political rights against the rising tide of European fascism.

But did this ideological sympathy for revolution in Spain create ethical problems for either Capa or Taro? One famous series of images by Robert Capa sheds some interesting light on this debate.

It will be interesting to see what emerges from these negatives, particularly if the roll containing the “falling soldier” sequence is in one of the cardboard boxes.

The NYT story also details the remarkable journey the boxes made from Nazi-occupied Paris to the home of a Mexican general and diplomat. At the Magnum Agecny site there’s a cool slideshow of some Capa images that’s worth a look.

You can follow EM’s discussion of the Capa “falling soldier” images through these backtracks

2 Responses to Robert Capa’s Mexican suitcase

  1. [...] think we will have to wait to see what fresh evidence might emerge from the Mexican suitcase before it can be finally [...]

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