Suitcase of Memories
In 2007, the contents of a suitcase lost in Spain in the 1930s and unearthed in Mexico City decades later finally arrived at the International Center of Photography in New York. Inside were never-seen photos of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) by Robert Capa, arguably the most famous war photographer of the 20th century, his lover, Gerda Taro and their friend “Chim” David Seymour. The rare photos became an international news item, then an exhibit, now a film, The Mexican Suitcase.
Hungarian Jewish immigrants in Paris, they reinvented themselves before going to Spain, simplifying their names and together launching a new kind of war photojournalism. Capa famously said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”
He and Taro lived and died by that motto: Taro was killed as she covered the Battle of Brunete in July 1937; Capa perished in 1954 after stepping on a landmine in Indochine.
The Spanish Civil War was one of the defining events of the 1930s and the gateway to WWII. Hitler supported Franco’s fascists, test-driving his bombers to crush the ancient Basque town of Guernica immortalized in Picasso’s famous painting. The then-USSR also got involved, organizing the elected left-leaning Republican forces. Thousands of international volunteers swelled the Republican ranks; American fighters formed the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
But the photographers fought another war, capturing it second by second. A voice-over in The Mexican Suitcase says, “They thought they could change the world with photography.”
In that, they resembled the RA and FSA photographers born of Roosevelt’s New Deal on the other side of the Atlantic. And they did, all of them, change the world, or at least the way we look at it.
“Without memory,” notes the narrator of the film, “There is no history.”
Gerda Taro and Robert Capa probably were not thinking of memory during the Spanish Civil War. They were too busy capturing moments: a soldier falling back as he dies of a gunshot, a mother nursing her baby. But their lost-and-newly found images open a window for us to view events long past, to experience something of them.
Memories live on, but only as stories told or written down and in images they. We need writers, photographers, archeologists, story tellers to shine a light on our past and make a bridge for us to cross to the future.