New York Photo Review
NYPR Archives - 2010

The Mexican Suitcase Revealed: Lost Negatives from the Spanish Civil War

The Mexican Suitcase
Exiled Republicans being marched down the beach to an internment camp, Le Barcares, France March, 1939 by Robert Capa. Source:
Robert Capa, "Exiled Republicans being marched down the beach to an internment camp, Le Barcares, France March, 1939"

In 1936 three Jewish refugees from Hitler, Robert Capa, David “Chim” Seymour, and Gerda Taro, went to Spain to photograph the Civil War.

Much later Capa and Seymour went on to found Magnum with Henri Cartier-Bresson, but Taro died in the war a few days short of her 27th birthday. With the ICP exhibition, the Mexican Suitcase, the work of the three companeros comes fully to light, the contribution of Taro taking its rightful place among them.

The war itself was such a watershed in the turbulent history of the times and such a magnet for politically committed intellectuals that it has come to symbolize the perennial fight against fascism and a passionate call to arms. It also became the prototype for the many civil wars that followed in its bloody wake in which brother fought against brother, villages were repeatedly sacked by opposing sides, and terrible, savage hatreds raged.

The Suitcase, really three boxes containing the photographers’ negatives, has had its own dramatic history. Rushed out of Paris just before the arrival of the Germans in 1939, it disappeared, accruing a mythology all its own, before resurfacing in Mexico City some fifty-six years later.

Now, ICP, founded by Robert’s brother Cornell, has mounted a major exhibition of the work. Electing to focus on the extent of the coverage in contact sheet form, the ICP show is an archive mounted on a wall. There are, to be sure, many wonderful prints, but the overwhelming impression is that of a library catalogue, reverently displayed.

To be expected, perhaps, as the work is of tremendous historical importance, documenting as it does almost every aspect of the war. Of inestimable value to historians and sociologists, the images are far more than ‘war pictures’: they are pictures of a society caught up in war. This kind of depth, in our sound-bite era, has gone out of fashion. So it is more than mildly instructive to see in negative after negative how deeply these photographers immersed themselves in their subjects and with what love and courage they chronicled their sufferings.

Crowds at the gate of the morgue after the air raid, Valencia May 1937 by Gerda Taro. Source:
Gerda Taro, "Crowds at the gate of the morgue after the air raid, Valencia May 1937"

At first Taro and Capa released their work jointly under the fictitious name of “Robert Capa”, but Taro soon demanded equal billing and by the time of her death was receiving assignments on her own. Her death at such a young age cut short what surely would have been one of the most brilliant female journalistic talents to ever work in the medium. That it has taken this long to re-establish her reputation is one of the grosser oversights in photographic history. Again it was an ICP show in 2007 that was instrumental in resurrecting her name. In the Mexican Suitcase we see her functioning alongside her illustrious peers, Capa and Chim, her talent on the rise, her courage at the peak.

Of great interest historically are the many magazines, such as VU, included in the exhibit. It was the great era of the photo magazines, especially in Europe, and the kind of picture-stories the three photographers took had ample and immediate distribution.

Considering how long it took ICP to get its hands on the ‘Suitcase’, I am surprised they did not devote their entire space to its presentation. Instead they chose to share it with another quite good exhibit on the Cuban Revolution. An interesting pairing, though I am sorry that we do not get to see more images from the long missing suitcase.

However, the archival approach of the Mexican Suitcase contains the seeds of other shows, ones ICP will hopefully mount in the not-too-distant future. For the moment we have this excellent and comprehensive show with a hint of things to come.

The Mexican Suitcase

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