PARIS — Lost for decades, the work of three revolutionary Jewish photographers has gone on display in Paris, documenting both a breakthrough in war journalism and the mass involvement of Jews in the fight against fascism.
Considered a priceless record of the Spanish civil war, the so-called Mexican Suitcase is composed of three boxes of negatives — a total of 4,500 pictures taken between 1936 and 1939 by Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David “Chim” Seymour.
Given up as lost near the start of WWII, the collection — part of the valuable material Capa was forced to abandon during the Nazi invasion of Paris — resurfaced in Mexico in 1995.
After years of secret negotiations with the descendants of a Mexican general who found the work, the lost negatives arrived at the International Center of Photography in New York in 2008, where they were exhibited between 2010 and 2011.
Now showing at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme in Le Marais, Paris’ old Jewish quarter, the recovered negatives are an homage to three Jewish photographers who laid the foundations of modern combat photography.
“What distinguished them the most from their predecessors is that they had a profound pro-Republican political allegiance and were not afraid to show it,” says curator Nicolas Feuillie. “You can feel the politics in the way they relate to photography — it’s a form of partisan art.”
Like the men they immortalized through the lens, the three came to the Spanish civil war during a terrifying period, as the forces of fascism gathered strength across much of Europe. Although their central subject was Spanish Republicans’ losing battle against future dictator Francisco Franco, the trio also captured the desperate efforts of Jewish fighters who had enlisted from across the world.
In 1933, the Hungarian-born Capa, just months removed from his 20th birthday, moved from Germany to France to escape the newly empowered Nazis. He had initially wanted to be a writer, but turned to photography to earn a living.
In France, he met Taro — born Gerta Pohorylle — a left-leaning Polish-born refugee who would become his girlfriend and co-worker, and Polish photographer Seymour, whose original name had been Dawid Szymin.
Together, the three invented a new form of war photography, visceral and dramatic and close to the action.
“Unlike other war photographers, they actually took part in the conflict,“ Feuillie explains. “They wanted to live and experience it as their subjects did. Because they used a Leica camera, which was lighter and more flexible, they could get closer to the front lines, and were directly involved in battles.”
In roll after roll of film, one can see Capa — born Endre Friedmann — move with his subjects. Some of his most iconic images include photos taken at the Battle of Teruel in 1937, where he documented hundreds of civilians fleeing the area.
Equally compelling is Capa and Taro’s series of gelatin silver prints showing Madrid in ruins after a nationalist air raid. The couple photographed the capital’s deserted streets, the interiors of decimated buildings and damaged façades jutting into the sky.
Sharing strong similarities with Capa’s style, Taro’s differs in her interest in more morbid subjects. She captured the essence of life and death in the trenches, taking photos of wounded fighters carried out on stretchers, corpses in the morgue and soldiers who died on the battlefield.
As for Chim, he was particularly famous for portraits, and for his more human perspective on the conflict. From shots of textile-factory workers to egg sellers, he depicted how life continued off the battlefield.
Echoing his own political allegiances, he photographed key figures he admired in the war, such as the leftist writer and poet Federico Garcia Lorca and Dolores Ibarruri, the charismatic head of the Spanish Communist Party known as la Pasionaria.
He also made striking portraits of the smiling young soldiers of the International Brigades in Toledo in 1936, who posed proudly with their weapons or fired through barricades.
Scheduled to run until June 30, the exhibition features clippings from Regards, the illustrated weekly magazine of the French Communist Party — Capa, Taro and Seymour’s employer during the Spanish civil war — and Haynt, a Warsaw Yiddish daily.
Taro, sadly, would become more than a groundbreaking figure in war journalism — she was also the first female reporter to die on the battlefield, at the Battle of Brunete in 1937. On display in Paris is the telegram sent by the Republicans’ 39th division to Paris’ Ce Soir daily newspaper, announcing her death on the front line.
“It was such a huge loss for Capa,” says Feuillie. “He never fully recovered.”
The exhibition also highlights the involvement of thousands of Jewish intellectuals and fighters in the conflict. Of the 35,000 volunteers who joined the Republican forces between 1936 and 1939, a full 20 percent, or 7,000, were Jewish.
Coming from all over Europe, the United States and Palestine, they were mostly communists, socialists and left-leaning Zionists.
“To these militants, who often had to flee their own country, joining the International Brigades was the most obvious thing to do,” wrote Michel Lefebvre, the co-author of 2003’s “International Brigades: Recovered Images.“
“The fight against fascism had to go through Madrid, and they had to be part of it.”
Lefebvre reports that many Jewish intellectuals and artists supported Spanish Republicans off the battlefield, among them Einstein and Russian painter Marc Chagall — who wrote, in a letter addressed to Jewish volunteers in Spain in 1937, “Your names will shine in history.”
Killed while documenting the First Indochina War in 1954, Capa has since become one of the most influential figures of photojournalism, as well as a hero of fiction, including in Romain Gary’s ”The Roots of Heaven” (1973) and Susana Fortes’ ”Waiting for Robert Capa” (2011).
“He was a lady’s man, much more charming and charismatic than Chim ever was,” Feuillie says. (Chim, for his part, would be killed by an Egyptian machine gunner four days after the signing of the Suez War armistice in 1956.)
“It is not surprising that his passionate yet short relationship with Taro, and his career, have aroused the interest of writers,” Feuillie says of Capa. “He was such a bon vivant. But war reporting was like a drug to him, and to Taro and Chim. They were addicted to the action, the adrenaline. And eventually, it killed them.”