Robert Capa's Spanish Civil War treasure trove
There are not many photographers who also make it into a book of quotations, though Robert Capa (alias Andre Freidman) managed just that.
"This war is like an actress who is getting old...It is less and less photogenic and more and more dangerous," he said of World War II.
Though of course, Capa is more famous for his pictures and last Sunday, several newspapers reported that around 127 rolls of previously missing film had finally turned-up at the International Centre of Photography in New York, which is run by the late photographer's brother Cornell Capa.
Thus, the legend of Robert Capa continues, perhaps he is the most postumously famous photojournalist ever. The pictures were left in Paris when he left in 1939, fleeing the Nazis.
Indeed, the times were very much part of Capa's life, working for a press agency in 1930s Germany, as a Hungarian Jew, he soon realised he had to flee. He sold some of the agency's cameras, though left the pawn shop tickets!
He had left Hungary on the advice of his parents in 1932, due to his political sympathies with anti-government protestors - which led to his arrest. He soon figured out that Nazi Germany was perhaps more dangerous and left for Paris in 1933.
In 1936, he headed south to cover the Spanish Civil War and remained until 1939. In that same year, he took the legendary picture of a Republican (actually Loyalists, to the Spanish Republican government of the day) soldier at the moment of death.
It is these films which have now reappeared at the ICP. The "Mexican suitcase" as it has been called was aquired mysteriously by a Mexican diplomat, General Francisco Javier Aguilar Gonzalez (a soldier and diplomat for Pancho Villa) who was posted to Paris at the time. The films were then kept in his home until they were passed on to his children. Why the Mexican general kept the films hidden is a mystery.
In 1995, a professor at Queen's College in New York, a certain Jerald Green, recieved a letter from a Mexican film-maker who had inherited the suitcase witht he negatives and indentified them as the work of Robert Capa. He remains anonymous, though presumably is a relative of the general who aquired the films. The lost films were reported to have been finally sent to Cornell Capa after years of negotiations and eventually ended up at the ICP in December 2007.
Up to his unfortunate death in Vietnam in 1954, Robert Capa thought that the pictures were lost, which in a sense, they were.
Carefully rolled up and placed in cake boxes, the negatives are marked with brief caption information and according to the Kodak technicians, are in remarkably good condition.
There are some 3,500 or so pictures in total and what makes this appearance interesting is that the only pictures we have seen from this collection are largely the ones sent out as picture stories to magazines and newspapers such as Illustrated, Picture Post, Vu, Ce Soir and LIFE.
The films also include some work by Capa's 1930s girlfriend Gerda Taro and David "Chim" Seymour.
"The full story of how the negatives made their way to Mexico might never be known but Capa apparently asked his darkroom manager, a Hungarian photographer named Imre Weisz, to save his negatives in 1939 or 1940, when Capa was in New York and feared his work would be destroyed," Brian Wallis, the chief curator of the ICP told the London Guardian.
It may have been the case that Mr Weisz could have handed them to the Mexican diplomat for safe-keeping, though it is odd that he never handed them over to the ICP or the agency that Capa helped to found, Magnum Photos.
While Capa was one of the first celebrity photojournalists - there are few these days - he also suffered a lot. His girfriend, Gerda Taro tragically was killed in a traffic accident in the Spanish Civil War in July 1937 as she covered the battle of Brunete.
He also suffered great bouts of poverty throughout his life (no change there then!) and was forever in financial difficulties between great bursts of success. When he arrived in New York, he became very poor and was only saved by a letter from LIFE Magazine which popped through his door in 1940 with news that he was to become one of their WW2 correspondents.
Many times though, he was forced to avoid the landlady at a guesthouse and sell equipment to eat. Often he says in his biography "Slightly Out of Focus" that he would spend all-day in bed to avoid working up any sensation of hunger and to save money!
Sadly, this appears to have also set a trend - aside from his innovative use of a 35mm Contax cameras, when most press photographers used 5x4 Speed Graphics.
Though through his coverage of the Second World War, when picture magazines were the CNN of their day, Capa's fame continued to grow. Actually, he arrived in the European Theatre quite late, though did noteable reportages from Italy in 1943 and later covered the Allied Invasion of Normandy in 1944.
He then followed the Allied troops all the way to Berlin and claimed to have taken a picture of the "last German soldier killed" - though this was probably dramatic license.
Controversy surrounds his famous picture of the falling Republican soldier, though this is probably incorrect and it is doubtful the picture was staged.
Infamously, the darkroom technician at LIFE Magazine's office in London - a 15 year-old called Dennis Banks - left them in the dryer too long and melted most of the emulsion from the 106 frames - leaving only a handful - just eight surviving.
However, what was left were hailed as some of the best pictures from D-Day and the slightly melted emulsion gives them a more gritty counternance.
Following the Allied invasion he also photographed the liberation of Paris and also Leipzig.
After the war ended, in 1947, along with David Seymour, Henri Cartier-Bresson and George Rodger (all also legendary in their own right) established Magnum Photos.
This agency had it's ups and downs in the first few years and Capa famously took all the profits one day from the bank and gambled them on a horse - which won and saved the agency.
His death came during the lesser-known French conflict in Vietnam - before the Americans were involved. This was out covering South Vietnamese troops as they patrolled a paddy field which was mined. Capa ran ahead to photograph them and stepped on one and died.
His legacy is massive though and his contribution to photojournalism is undeniable. The quick candid snapshot style influences war photographers to this very day and indeed many film-makers. While not regarded as a great photographer in terms of composition, he certainly had the content and his photographs also show many touching, human moments of war, in all it's sadness and granduer.
Also, his character was special. One friend said of him; "Capa speaks several languages, all of them badly..." and there is another well-known quote from William Saroyan who said; "Capa is a poker player whose sideline in picture-taking." Capa also often played poker with the editors of magazines (good old days for sure, try to find a picture editor who still goes to the pub, never mind gambles on the politically-correct desks of today!).
For Capa life was a gamble, and he often bet and won. Though one wonders if he bet that his missing Paris films would turn up 70 years later and find their way into the hands of his brother?
A treasure of photojournalism it surely is and photojournalism lovers world-wide will surely wait with baited breath to see this new aspect of Capa's work which has now come to light.
Tags: Photojournalism , Photography , Culture , Art
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 License.