[ The Mexican Suitcase ]
ROBERT CAPA, CHIM, & GERDA TARO
Ten years ago, on a last minute trip to Italy, I saw an banner advertisement for a show by the fashion photographer, Patrick Demarchelier. The exhibition was collection of contact sheets from his shoots with supermodels, Hollywood types, and pretty people of the fashion world. The subject matter was not particularly compelling, but the contact sheets came at just the right time. It was the first time I had seen into the archives of a big name photographer. Over the next hour and a half, I poured over individual frames looking for my favorite images. The final images, circled in oil pencil, were not the pictures my favorite pictures. Standing in the gallery, I learned an important lesson: We never see the best shots.
In a home coming of sorts, the International Center for Photography, founded by Cornell Capa, welcomes home a box of negatives that disappeared into the bowels of Mexico for over 60 years. Cornell, the younger brother of famed Magnum Photo founder and photographer Robert Capa, brings home his brothers lost negatives for a public viewing until January 11th, 2011. Along with Capa’s negatives are those of his girlfriend Gerda Taro and another Magnum founder Douglas Seymour, better known as Chim. All three were dedicated souls who died in the horrific concoctions of war.
Capa took a job for Life magazine, just before his fortieth birthday shooting the conflict between the French and the Vietnamese. As the rumblings of the Vietnam War were taking shape, Capa was in his typical financial state, a mess. With the offer of $2,000 and a $25,000 life insurance policy, he reluctantly agreed to take, what would be his last job because it was a guaranteed him a fee to “sit on his ass in Hanoi.” (Russell Miller, Magnum, p. 116) He was killed, shortly after stepping on an anti-personnel explosive while on assignment. He lost his leg immediately and died later that day from a wound to the chest. In a statement issued by writer John Steinbeck, who traveled through the Soviet Union with Capa just a few years earlier, he wrote this about his friend:
“The greatness of Capa is twofold. We have his pictures, a true and vital record of our time – ugly and beautiful, set down by the mind of an artist. But Capa had another work which may be even more important. He gathered young men about him, encouraged, instructed, even fed and clothed them, but best he taught them respect for their art and integrity in its performance. He proved to them that a man can love by this medium and still be true to himself. And never once did he try to get them to take his type of picture. Thus, the effect of Capa will be found in the men who worked with him. They will carry a little part of Capa all their lives and perhaps hand him on to their young men.”
- John Steinbeck
(Russell Miller, Magnum, p. 122)
-David Seymour, Chim
Douglas Seymour, nicknamed Chim, was known for his heart wrenching portraits of the real victims of war. He devoted most of his time in the Spanish Civil War capturing images of starving children and mothers helpless to feed their empty mouths. At the time of his death, Chim’s sister Eileen Schneidermann said, “David was basically an unhappy man, torn in himself and lonely despite the glamour of his career and the many friends that he made wherever his assignments took him. He never married, and only shortly before the end of his life did he establish a semblance of a home in Rome, where he began to assemble his books, objects d’art, and trophies from his travels.” (Russell Miller, Magnum, p. 135)
Chim was covering the conflict between the Israelis and Egyptians in Port Said, when he took his last famous picture of a small boy running from a tank. Later that day, while speeding between the Suez and Sweet Water canals, Chim and Jean Roy, another photographer, approached an Egyptian outpost. They had blown past a British lieutenant, begging them to halt, instead flipping him a “V” for victory. Within range of the Egyptians, a machine gun opened fire. They were killed instantly, just ten days before Chim’s forty fifth birthday.
There is an unavoidable trend that surrounds war photography, it is dangerous business. Any photographer, nurturing romantic ideas about sporting some dusty clothing and rolling around with the troops, must consider that some of the most famous photographers have not made it out alive.
The same was true for Gerda Taro, Robert Capa’s girlfriend and the sales woman behind his adopted pen name “Robert Capa.” Andre Freidmann, Capa’s given name, was not selling well in Paris in the 1940′s and Taro, started marketing this mysterious American photographer named Robert Capa. It worked for a while and got Capa’s career off the ground. She shared time in Spain with Capa and Chim. While developing a name for herself as a dedicated war photographer she was riding on the side of a truck, when they were side swiped by a tank. The collision ended her brief, but prolific career. Capa, was crushed and carried a tear stained photo of Gerda for months, introducing it as a picture of his wife, though they were not actually married. All three photographers possessed their own distinct styles which are displayed in prints, contact sheets, negatives, and historic magazine spreads. ICP even has magnifier sheets for close up views of the 35mm and 120mm contacts.
-What I Learned
Looking at contact sheets is like picking through the mind of a photographer. The critcism of the digital age is that pictures are disposable. As a result a new breed to careless shutter clickers, abuse the concept of careful photography. In some cases this is true, but more interesting is looking at the two and three shot bursts that Capa, Chim, and Taro used to practice. It plain light, the contact sheets are like looking at the gears of a brain in slow motion. You can almost hear the thoughts in their head “Click, few steps forward, click, switch to portrait, click, done.” Its encouraging to see a mixture of success, re-adjustment, and missed opportunities in the files of the Mexican Suitcase.
-don’t Touch That Dial
If you ever have a chance to see a large collection of contact sheets, Take it! There are certain ideas that only crystalize when looking at an entire sheet of images. In all of the pictures of the Mexican Suitcase, which ranged from nearly black to completely over exposed, there is a clear trend in how they took pictures. It appears like scenes were metered or guessed in advance, and after that the camera was only used for focus and composition. Looking at their contact sheet, you can follow their footsteps through the scenes. The shots in direct daylight look slightly over exposed and the shots in shadow are slightly under exposed. They let the latitude of the film make up the difference, allowing them to concentrate on shooting. Without the thought of multi spot metering or post production Photoshop, the pictures feel like they were taken without mentally laboring over the technicalities of exposure.
Without the contact sheets, it might have been another exhibition on war. The show would be about finished photos, but with the raw materials on view, we can start to understand how the pictures were taken. By including the contact sheets, its possible to investigate the footsteps, slips, and falls of the photographers and the war.
Going to galleries will always been considered a luxury, but when the experience of seeing an image can create a fundamental shift in the way we think, its hard to quantify its value. Thousands of shows every year will not make any difference to us, but as I talk to more artists and photographers about their formative years, there are always a handful of shows they could not have lived without. The Mexican Suitcase could be one of those shows. I only wish the experience of finding my lost apartment keys lead to the same revelations as finding a box of missing negatives.
International Center for Photography: Exhibition Information
“The Mexican Suitcase” Archival Site