An acquaintance mentioned to me the name of an exhibit she had seen and liked: “La Valise mexicaine, Capa, Taro, Chim-Les négatifs retrouvés de la guerre civile espagnole” . The mysterious name drew me to the exhibit housed in the Paris Jewish museum. “The Mexican Suitcase, rediscovered spanish Civil War negatives” is on display until June 30, 2013 at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme.
During the course of the exhibit, I found out that four photojournalists and friends could support themselves as photographers in Paris, a female was a pioneering war photographer, and that when you have a chance to flee a dangerous situation, you leave valuable things behind. Hard-core evidence of four and a half years in the span of history and the Spanish Civil War disappeared in 1939.
Negatives in the boxes
The valuable things are called “the suitcase”. “The suitcase” is three small boxes containing nearly 45,000 negatives of images shot by Robert Capa (Endre Ernö Friedmann, born in Hungary), Gerda Taro (Gerta Pohorylle, born in Stuttgart), Chim (David Seymour/Dawid Szymin, born in Warsaw). A side mystery to the war photographs is why a couple of Fred Stein’s (born in Dresden) photos of Taro and Capa were found in the “suitcase” as well as four rolls from Capa’s trip to Belgium. The collection of negatives would not resurface until 1995. Through persistent persuasion, they finally came into the possession of the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York in 2007.
Capa joined many other French and European artists and intellectuals in 1939, leaving Paris and the negatives. He received a visa from the Chilean consul and a commission from Life magazine and took the ship to New York. The negatives stayed with Csiki Weisz in Paris and were then passed from hand to hand for safekeeping.
Negatives to back up the story
The exhibit features the photojournalists in the throes of the daily lives of their subjects. The photos in the displayed magazines are sound bites or snippets verifying the descriptions and stories written in the articles. The ICP writes that the negatives “provide insight into how a photographer covered a story in its original sequence. This is the largest cache of negatives of such historic value by such major photographers to have ever been found, nearly seventy years after they disappeared.”
The magazines–Regards, Vu, Life, Schweizer Illustrierte Zeitung, Volks-Illustriete, employed Capa, Taro and Chim to document the Spanish Civil War: A war which began with a military coup (Nationalists) after a democratic election (Republicans) in 1936.
The collection offers an opportunity to bring those snippets to life in 32 chapters. Each chapter focuses on one of the three photographer’s vision of a particular moment in the Spanish Civil War. The exhibit features contact sheets, images of the photographers during “down” time, their notebooks and photo scrapbooks, the Valencian crowds waiting at the fence to enter the morgue after the air raid, the soldiers eating and fighting, daily life of villagers before, during and after raids, the refugees on their way to the French border and their internment — the details behind the sound bites.
The rolls of film in one of the three boxes of “the suitcase” are like round pegs in square holes. Drawn on the lid are squares with a number, a location or a description. Each square matches a roll of film in the box. Bataille de Brunete takes up squares 74, 75 and 76. Those three words leave no hint that Capa will lose his former lover, Taro, during this battle.
The negative journeys
They negatives were in the possession of a Mexican filmmaker who had inherited them from an aunt who was friends with a General who was Mexican ambassador (1941-1942) during the Vichy reign in France. In 2007, the filmmaker, Benjamin Tarver, gave the negatives to curator and filmmaker, Trisha Ziff. She persuaded Tarver to give the “Mexican Suitcase” to the International Center for Photography in New York.
I visited the exhibit on a Wednesday around 11 a.m. in virtual tranquility. Taking my time to study the French magazines on display, trying to find the published photos on the contact sheets made the visit more intense. The doorman provides you with a square, plastic magnifying sheet. The exhibit was very crowded by the time I left.
More Reading and Information
The trailer for the film “The Mexican Suitcase” provides a general idea of the exhibit.
The Story of the “Mexican Suitcase”
Frequently Asked Questions about the Mexican Suitcase
Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme
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