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The Spanish Civil War in the Lost & Found: The Mexican Suitcase at the ICP

The Mexican Suitcase has come to describe the contents of three boxes, once considered lost, containing 4,500 negatives of photographs of the Spanish Civil War. After resurfacing and then delivered, in somewhat mysterious fashion, to the International Center of Photography in 2007, these images by Robert Capa, Chim (David Seymour) and Gerda Taro are now seeing the light of day in an exhibition at the center's galleries. Displayed as contact sheets along with enlargements of selected images, and with some images blown up to wall size for visual effect, the photographs once again open the wounds of a war that tore Spain apart. If anyone is in need of a reminder about the lengths people will go in the service of their ideology, then look no further than the events in Spain from July 1936 to April 1939.

Robert Capa 
[Exiled Republicans being marched down the beach to an internment camp, Le Barcarès, France], March 1939 
Negative 
© International Center of Photography / Magnum 
International Center of Photography 
The conflicts between the members of the democratically-elected Republican government and the Nationalist forces seeking to overthrow them engaged the full spectrum of heated political opinions, pitting socialists and liberals against one another even as they worked to combat the rising tide of fascism and its tense coalition of militarists, monarchists, and many members of the clergy. The cause of the besieged Republican government inspired many writers and artists overseas to join their cause, becoming fighting members of the International Brigades, or like Ernest Hemingway, reporting on the story for the American press, or like Capa, Chim, and Taro, as photojournalist witnesses shooting with their cameras. The larger world would follow the stories of the war through the publication of their photographs in the leading magazines and journals.  

Chim (David Seymour) 
[Outdoor mass for Republican soldiers, near Lekeitio, Basque region, Spain], January–February 1937 
Negative 
© Estate of David Seymour / Magnum 
International Center of Photography 

Born Endre Ernő Friedmann in Budapest, Hungary, Robert Capa would become one of the most well-known combat photojournalists of the century. Known for his swagger and eagerness in rushing to the front lines of battle, he first achieved notoriety with the publication of a controversial image known as  the "Falling Soldier," a photo of a soldier shot in battle and falling to his death. Many historians held out hope of settling several disputes about the image, for example, the question of whether or not the scene was staged, with the opening of the Mexican suitcase. Surely the images before and after on a roll of negatives would settle the case, but alas, the suitcase did not cast light on these questions. While the exhibit at the ICP does not contain these sorts of smoking guns (pardon the expression), it nevertheless makes up for the lack of surprises with painstaking research and scholarship, led by curator Cynthia Young, and a host of historically important and frequently beautiful images by three very different photographers. Also on exhibit are the labeled boxes of negatives, periodicals in which the photos first appeared, and the fascinating photographers’ notebooks containing images from their contact sheets.

Gerda Taro 
[Crowd at the gate of the morgue after the air raid, Valencia], May 1937 
Negative 
© International Center of Photography 
International Center of Photography 
As an act of historical imagination, it helps to visualize these three romantic and self-inventive young twenty-somethings as they arrive in Spain from their homes in Paris and travel through the countryside to document the bullets and the homefront of the war. A map on the wall of the exhibit that shows their travels inside Spain aids in this exercise. If Capa sought out the heat of battle to capture on film, Chim (the pseudonym of David Seymour, born Dawid Szymin) looked for the faces of workers, mothers, villagers, and children far behind the battle lines. Trained as an artist and fluent in several languages, Chim often showed the Spanish Civil War through the visual language of everyday life. One of his most famous images, that of an upturned face of a woman nursing her baby (Land Distribution Meeting, Estremadura, Spanish, 1936), is often charged with multiple meanings or misinterpretations, as Susan Sontag noted in Regarding the Pain of Others (no, the mother is not staring at a menacing aircraft), but as displayed at the ICP as one image of a sequence on a roll of film, the picture settles back into context. She's just listening to a speech at a political meeting. Nevertheless, as framed by Chim, the image's aura of religious associations and perfect composition makes it one of the most important in the canon of documentary photography.

Gerda Taro traveled to Barcelona to cover the war with Capa, her photo mentor and romantic companion. Her images of the bombing of Valencia and the war news near Madrid were published in several leading magazines, including Ce Soir, the Paris left-wing magazine that would become her champion, and in Life. On July 25, 1937 after taking many photographs of an artillery assault on the Republican forces in the area of Brunete, Taro hitched a ride back into town, riding the outside running boards of a car carrying wounded soldiers. A nearby tank lost control and veered into the car, striking and wounding Taro. She died the next day, becoming the first female journalist to die in battle and a martyr for the antifascist cause. She was 27. Of the many images in the exhibit at the ICP, some of the most memorable are Capa's images of the sleeping Taro. The image of a pretty sleeping photographer is not a photo of combat, but given the circumstances of her death, it is indeed an artifact of war.

Images courtesy of International Center of Photography.

While at the ICP, be sure to save plenty of time to see the exhibit, Cuba in Revolution, in the downstairs gallery. It’s an important and revelatory exhibition of images of a critical time and place in post-war history.  

Visiting: The International Center of Photography is located at the northwest intersection of 6th Avenue and W. 43rd St., a block north of Bryant Park. See the center's official website for visitor information. http://www.icp.org/

The Mexican Suitcase and Cuba in Revolution are on exhibit at the International Center of Photography, 1133 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY through January 9, 2011.

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