Saturday, May 26, 2012

Book Review: "The Mexican Suitcase" from the International Center of Photography

The Mexican Suitcase (2010)  

Published by the International Center of Photography, NY City
Edited by Cynthia Young

2 Volumes

In the mid-1930’s, three refugees from Eastern Europe came together in Paris, sharing a love of photography and an anti-fascist ideology. To survive they would take pictures on the streets of Paris and try to sell them to various journals, or hire themselves out for specific projects or photo shoots. Eventually, they changed their names to more neutral sounding pseudonyms (presumably to make themselves more commercially acceptable), and thus were born Robert Capa (originally AndrĂ© Freidman), Gerda Taro (originally Gerta Pohorylle) and Chim (originally Dawid Szymin).

Political Speech on Land Reform,
Badajoz, Extremadura, Spain;
Spring 1936; by Chim

With the start of the Spanish Civil War in mid-1936, the brutal and bloody battle between the elected government of the Republic of Spain and the rebel, fascist forces led by General Francisco Franco, the three friends traveled to Spain and ‘embedded’ (to use a modern term) with the Republican forces in order to photograph the war, both to earn a living and to get out the story of the fascist threat. A number of their photographs appeared in newspapers, magazines and journals during the war, however most of the negatives of the three photographer’s work from the Spanish Civil War disappeared after the war and were thought lost.
Off and on over the years the search had continued for the negatives, eventually leading to a man in Mexico who was rumored to have large collection of negatives that were similar to known photographs of Capa, Taro and Chim: the so-called ‘Mexican Suitcase’ of negatives. In 2007 the negatives were finally tracked downa and eventually delivered to the International Center of Photography (IPC) in New York City; the IPC assembled contact prints of the negatives, and some background history, into this two volume set, as part of an exhibit of the newly found negatives.

Cover of French magazine
Regards, with photo by
Robert Capa
Robert Capa is the most well-known of the three photographers, in large part due to his memorable photograph of a Republican soldier falling backward to his death as he is hit by a bullet while running across a field.  Through the years the photograph has become an object of some controversy, over whether the shot was staged by Capa, and in the introduction to this two volume set this controversy is put forth as one of the reasons the search for the missing negatives was picked up again. Unfortunately, as is described in the introduction, the sequence of negatives that include the fallen soldier was not part of the collection, and so that mystery remains to be debated.

Contact print of pictures
from battle for Mardid, University
City and Parque Del Oueste;
Gerda Taro

The first of the two volumes includes a discussion of the background of the photographers, the Spanish Civil War and their involvement in it, and the search for the missing negatives; it also includes enlarged prints of some of the negatives. The second volume contains contact prints of all the negatives that were found in the collection, divided into groups based on who was taking the pictures, and where they were taken, with some brief introductory notes before each group.

If you have an interest in the Spanish Civil War, this set is a fascinating look into the heart of that war, providing critical additional understanding beyond what might be read in the histories written about the conflict.

Other reviews / information:
Visit the International Center of Photography web-site for more information on:

For more details on the years of the Spanish 2nd Republic and the Spanish Civil War: The Spanish Civil War

See the 'Fallen Soldier' picture, and an example of the controversy over it, in an article on a PBS site by Richard Whelan (note also the comments that follow the article).

Have you read this book, others by this author, or similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.

For more reviews of books on Spain and its history, click a link to my bookshelf of:
Spain and Spanish History

or click one of the following links to my complete bookshelves of:
Fiction or Non-Fiction