vrijdag 1 mei 2009

Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour New Works by Photography’s Old Masters

Cornell Capa/International Center of Photography, via Magnum A shot of a woman and child at a Spanish refugee camp in France, taken by Robert Capa in March 1939.

New Works by Photography’s Old Masters
By RANDY KENNEDY April 30, 2009

When the three weathered cardboard boxes — known collectively, and cinematically, as the Mexican suitcase — arrived at the International Center of Photography more than a year ago, one of the first things a conservator did was bend down and sniff the film coiled inside, fearful of a telltale acrid odor, a sign of nitrate decay.

But the rolls turned out to be in remarkably good shape despite being almost untouched for 70 years. And so began a painstaking process of unfurling, scanning and trying to make sense of some 4,300 negatives taken by Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour during the Spanish Civil War, groundbreaking work that was long thought to be lost but resurfaced several years ago in Mexico City.

What the center’s scholars have found among the 126 rolls over the last several months are a number of previously unknown shots by Capa, one of the founders of the Magnum photo agency and a pioneering war photographer, and by Taro, his professional partner and companion, who died in 1937 when she was struck by a tank near the front, west of Madrid. But more surprising has been the wealth of new work by Seymour, known as Chim, that was in the cases. Another of Magnum’s founders, he was known not for his battle photography but for penetrating documentation of Spanish life in the shadow of war.

“This really fleshes out for the first time our picture of Chim in Spain, and the work is truly a great accomplishment,” said Brian Wallis, the chief curator for the center, which is planning a retrospective of Chim’s career to open in September 2010. Roughly a third of the negatives found in the cases have been determined to be by Chim (pronounced shim, an abbreviation of his real surname, Szymin), who was killed in 1956 while covering the Suez crisis. “We were bowled over by how much of his work was in this,” Mr. Wallis said.

While there was some initial hope, the negatives did not end up laying to rest a question that has long hovered over Capa’s career: whether he staged perhaps his most famous picture and one of the defining images of war, “The Falling Soldier,” which shows a Spanish Republican militiaman reeling backward at what appears to be the instant a bullet kills him near Córdoba. The boxes contained none of the series of photographs taken that fateful afternoon of Sept. 5, 1936, though several surviving images from the sequence have been published previously, and Richard Whelan, Capa’s biographer, has made a persuasive case that the picture was not faked. (A negative of the shot has never been found; it has been reproduced from two vintage prints.)

What the boxes have provided, said Cynthia Young, the curator of the center’s Capa Collections, who has been most closely involved with the images, is a much deeper understanding of how Capa, Taro and Chim worked during the relatively brief period in which they were collectively creating the archetype of the modern war photographer. The find has also fleshed out important stories from the war, like Capa’s coverage in March 1939 of the notorious internment camps for Spanish refugees in southwestern France, a subject that is the focus of increasing historical research.

For Capa and Taro the newly discovered negatives are providing a way to make sense of their jumbled archive of images from the Spanish Civil War, in which dates, sequences and even attributions have remained uncertain. Much of their known work from those years was organized in nine notebooks of contact prints with little identifying information. (One of the notebooks is at the center; the others are at the French national archives in Paris.)

Because the rolls in the boxes show sequential shots from much of all three photographers’ most famous work from the war, it also allows scholars to “see how their eyes were working as they shot these stories,” Ms. Young said. “And I really think that’s the most interesting thing in this project, to see their thought process.”

The job of carefully scanning all the 35-millimeter images could not begin in earnest until several months after their arrival in New York, when Grant Romer, a conservation specialist from George Eastman House in Rochester, helped develop a special holder through which to run the negatives for digital scanning without damaging them.

Even now that the images have been brought to light, the story of how they wended their way from Capa’s Paris studio to Mexico has not become any clearer. From what Mr. Whelan, the biographer (who died in 2007), and other experts have pieced together, Capa apparently asked his darkroom manager to save his negatives in 1939, after Capa fled from Paris to New York. The boxes probably made their way to Marseille and at some point ended up with Gen. Francisco Aguilar Gonzalez, a Mexican diplomat stationed in the late 1930s in Marseille, where the Mexican government was helping antifascist refugees from Spain emigrate to Mexico.

The negatives also made the trip to Mexico, where after the general’s death they came into the possession of a filmmaker in Mexico City, Benjamin Tarver, whose aunt was a close friend of the general. In the 1990s, Mr. Tarver made the existence of the negatives known, and in 2007, after fitful negotiations, he agreed to give them to the International Center of Photography, which was founded by Capa’s brother, Cornell Capa.

In addition to new images by Chim that will be exhibited at his retrospective, the center is now planning a major exhibition of much of the work from the Mexican suitcase for sometime in 2010, Mr. Wallis said, adding: “We consider this one of the most important discoveries of photographic work of the 20th century.”

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