The Mexican suitcase

In 1939 a small cardboard box with over 4,500 negatives of photos taken during the Spanish civil war, was smuggled out of Spain. More than 70s later the box was discovered, author Peter Fieldman reveals.

THE box lay forgotten in a cupboard for seven decades before being discovered and taken to the International Centre of Photography in New York. Now for the first time the images can be seen in Spain.

The negatives belonged to three young Jewish immigrants from East Europe who had fled from the rise of Nazism to Paris. Through a mutual interest in photography, Andre Friedmann from Hungary, Gerta Pohorylle from Germany and David Szymin from Poland first met each other in1933.

After working together in Paris, in 1936 they travelled to Spain to cover the Civil War. Today they are better known as Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David ‘Chim’ Seymour.

The images were taken between 1936 and 1939 and cover not only key episodes of the conflict but depict the hardship of the Spanish people.

They include portraits of Hemingway, Andre Malraux, Garcia Lorca, Dolores Ibarruri – La Pasionara – and members of the International Brigade who, like the photographers, had lent their support to the Republican cause.

At the end of the Civil War in 1939, Capa took the negatives to his studio in Paris. But when the Germans invaded France he sought refuge in the USA leaving the box of negatives with his close friend and assistant Emerico Csiki Weisz. But he too was forced to leave when the Germans entered the City.

Mexico had generously opened its borders to accommodate thousands of Spanish refugees and somehow the box found its way to the Mexican Embassy in Paris and ended up in the hands of General Francisco Aguilar Gonzales, Ambassador to the Vichy Government.

When the General returned to Mexico in 1942 the box was shipped home with his personal possessions without attracting attention. He died in 1972 without ever knowing what it contained.

It was only years later after the death of his widow that their daughter came across the box and on seeing the contents asked her cousin, Benjamin Tarver, a Mexican filmmaker, to take care of it. Tarver realized he had in his possession something unique. In 1995 Jerald Green, professor at Queen’s College in New York, a specialist in the Spanish Civil War, was organising an exhibition of photos of the war in Mexico.

A visitor remarked that he possessed similar pictures. It was Tarver. Sometime later Green received a letter from him giving details of the box he had inherited from his Aunt. Green contacted Cornell Capa, Robert’s brother, founder and director of the International Centre of Photography (ICP) in New York who had been looking for lost photos since the death of his brother in 1954.

However it was not until 2007 that Cornell Capa, unable to go to Mexico personally, asked Trisha Ziff, a British born filmmaker who lived in Mexico and worked with the ICP, to follow up the lead and she arranged to meet Tarver in a cafe. It was clear from the negatives that Tarver produced that the search had ended. Ziff and Capa managed to persuade Tarver to donate the negatives to the ICP and she took them to New York.

Remarkably they were still in perfect condition. The 126 rolls of film and negatives had been protected individually in separate sections in three cardboard boxes.

The rolls of films and negatives had been meticulously arranged in chronological order with the name of the photographer, the date and location.

Cornell Capa was at last able to see his brother’s work although he died in 2008 before seeing the photos displayed. Specialists from the ICP set about carefully cleaning the negatives and in 2010 they were ready to be shown to the public.

The ICP organised a major exhibition in New York as well as publishing a comprehensive illustrated catalogue in two volumes which includes essays by renowned Spanish Civil War Experts together with extracts from the international magazines which published the photos during the 1930s such as Life, Picture Post, New York Post, Illustrated London News, Match, Regard, Le Soir and Vu.

The Spanish Civil War marked the beginning of modern photojournalism and Capa, Taro and “Chim” Seymour became pioneers in this field.

They were deeply involved in the republican cause and their photos not only provide an historical record of what took place but demonstrate the political as well as the human aspect of the conflict.

After a year of preparation the Spanish version has now been published by La Fabrica Editorial (La Maleta Mexicana 600 pages, €85 and the Pablo Iglesias Foundation in Madrid.

After 70 years the photos that are part of the nation’s history have finally returned to Spain.

Spain exhibitions The photos are being exhibited until January 15 in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona ( before moving to the Museo de Bellas Artes in Bilbao ( where they will be on show until June 2012 and finally from next July, to coincide with the annual PhotoEspaña summer festival, a major exhibition has been planned at the Circulo de Bellas Artes in Madrid.


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