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A Secret Archive: On the Mexican Suitcase | The Nation

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A Secret Archive: On the Mexican Suitcase

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In the spring of 1942, Gen. Francisco Aguilar González, the Mexican ambassador to the Vichy government, left France to return to Mexico with his wife, Maria. The couple traveled through newly Fascist Spain to Lisbon, where she boarded a steamer bound for New York, with twenty trunks of their belongings, while the general made his way back across Spain, through France and then to London, eventually flying to New York for their rendezvous. In New York they boarded a passenger train with their belongings and traveled across the United States and Mexico before finally arriving at their home in Mexico City. Tucked away in one of the trunks and kept hidden for nearly seventy years were three small cardboard boxes given to Aguilar for safekeeping. They contained an archive of 4,500 negatives of photographs of the Spanish Civil War taken by three extraordinary photojournalists: Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour (known as Chim).

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Dan Kaufman
Dan Kaufman is a musician and writer living in Brooklyn, New York. He has written previously about the Spanish Civil...

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Though Capa's negatives had been missing for decades, rumors that a cache of them had been secreted away persisted. In 1979 Capa's brother, Cornell, the founder of the International Center of Photography (ICP), in New York City, began a search for the lost images. He published an appeal in a well-known photography journal, and over time he managed to recover a number of lost works by Capa, Chim and Taro—but not the fabled negatives. They remained in Mexico, passing from Aguilar to his daughter, who gave them to her cousin, a filmmaker named Benjamin Tarver. In 1995, at an exhibition of Spanish Civil War photography in Mexico City, Tarver told the curator, a Queens College professor named Jerald Green, that he possessed images of similar scenes, which he believed were taken by Capa. Green relayed the information to curators at the ICP, but letters to the mysterious Tarver went unanswered, and the tantalizing lead vanished. In 2007, on behalf of the ICP, Trisha Ziff, a Mexico City–based documentary filmmaker, established contact with Tarver, and he agreed to meet her at a coffee shop. At a subsequent meeting he showed her three contact sheets with stunning images of Republican soldiers in battle and a woman dressed in black walking alongside a tank on a snowy battlefield. Ziff soon realized that these were the long lost negatives that Cornell Capa, who would die less than a year later, had been trying to locate. What had come to be called the Mexican Suitcase had finally been found.

The negatives in the Suitcase span the duration of the war, beginning with Chim's foreboding photographs of marching Republican dignitaries in April 1936, three months before the conflict broke out, and ending with Capa's stark portraits of Republican refugees in concentration camps in Southern France in March 1939. The distribution of the negatives among the photographers divides the war roughly into thirds, with Chim's coverage heaviest at the beginning, Taro's in the middle and Capa's toward the end. A small number of the negatives correspond to previously published works—the Suitcase contains a famous 1936 photograph by Chim of a woman breastfeeding a baby at a rally for land reform—but the vast majority have never been seen by the public. A selection of the negatives is on display at the ICP through May 8. All 4,500 images, including a few touching shots of Capa and Taro in a Parisian cafe by a fourth photographer, the German-Jewish exile Fred Stein, are reproduced in an exemplary two-volume exhibition catalog published by the museum.

In an introductory essay to the catalog, the ICP's chief curator, Brian Wallis, writes, "With their dramatic coverage of the Spanish Civil War, Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, and Chim invented modern war photography." Remarkable as that achievement is, the newly discovered negatives do more than deepen our understanding of the origins of photojournalism or flesh out the biographies of three photographers, all of whom were killed on assignment. (Taro was crushed by a tank in Spain in 1937, Capa stepped on a land mine in Indochina in 1954 and Chim was shot by an Egyptian sniper days after the end of the Suez War in 1956.) The images convey the war's complexities and offer a visual counternarrative to the revisionist view that the Republic was a monolithic Soviet satellite. Some photographs feature female soldiers and pro-Republican clergy. Others depict fleeing refugees, Communist generals, volunteers from the International Brigades, portraits of Federico García Lorca and La Pasionaria, and Republican guards protecting artistic treasures that belonged to the Francoist duke of Alba. Taken together, the images in the Mexican Suitcase portray a besieged country's fight for its survival and its soul amid a Nazi-backed Fascist revolt. "The culture of the Spanish Republic," Ziff said recently from her home in Mexico City, "was preserved in the Suitcase."

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Chim, a Polish Jew whose given name was Dawid Szymin, was the most established of the three photographers. In 1932 he relocated to Paris from Leipzig, where he had been studying graphic arts, to pursue a degree in chemistry and physics at the Sorbonne. Amid rising anti-Semitism in Poland his father's Yiddish publishing business struggled, and Chim was forced to work in order to continue his studies. He picked up a camera and began shooting street photography, focusing on portraits of the working class and unemployed of Paris. Within a year he was selling photos to Regards, which billed itself as "the illustrated newspaper of the Popular Front," and later to Ce Soir, a Communist evening paper edited by the poet Louis Aragon. By all accounts Chim was a gentle, quiet man. Henri Cartier-Bresson, who later founded the Magnum photo agency with Chim and Capa, described him as "a philosopher, a chess player." Perhaps it was this equipoise that enabled Chim to photograph unexpected moments of tranquillity amid chaos. A 1937 series of two boys playing in the ruins of Gijón after its destruction by Fascist bombers and naval artillery is one of the many revelations of the lost negatives.

Before the discovery of the Mexican Suitcase, Chim's work in Spain was little known. He began covering the Republic in the spring of 1936, when Regards sent him to photograph the aftermath of the electoral victory by the center-left Popular Front coalition. Even then, with little experience as a photographer, Chim quickly mastered the captioned photographic essay, a narrative format favored by immensely popular new photo journals like Regards, Life and the British Picture Post. These essays typically featured some half-dozen photographs in an artful layout and told a story mainly with images. Often, Chim appeared to shoot with this format in mind: narrative sequences are found throughout his rolls. Besides their formal achievement, several of Chim's essays open a pictorial window onto still-contentious aspects of the war.

In October 1936 Chim shot four rolls of film of Moroccan prisoners held by Republicans in a Madrid barracks. The pictures (none of which were published) show the prisoners eating, smoking cigarettes offered by Republican guards and smiling and laughing with their captors. Though the images showcase the Republic's humane treatment of its captives, Chim's extremely sympathetic portrayal of the Moroccans, especially a series of tender close-ups of three men in the final roll, is still surprising, given the reputation they earned for brutality. To augment the nearly 100,000 professional soldiers sent by Hitler and Mussolini to aid his revolt, Franco relied heavily on the Moroccans. They were his shock troops, dying at a rate of 1,000 a month in the long siege of Madrid. As the military historian Antony Beevor noted, they were also called on to inflict terror on the population. In Seville, in July 1936, Antonio Bahamonde, the press officer for the Fascist Gen. Queipo de Llano, an architect of the revolt, described watching the Moroccans throwing grenades into the windows of small houses in working-class neighborhoods, indiscriminately killing women and children. "The Moors took the opportunity to loot and rape at will," he added. "Queipo de Llano, in his night-time talks...urged on his troops to rape women."

Though the Moroccans, or Regulares Indigenas, held no particular allegiance to Fascism, they were desperately poor and easily recruited; the promise of a regular salary and food was especially enticing because the conflict in Spain followed a severe famine and drought in Morocco. "They took us as if we were cows. We knew nothing," one veteran recalled in The Moroccan Labyrinth, a recent Spanish documentary about the Regulares. Another characterized his enlistment this way: "When you are hungry, you can't see." The Fascists further induced them by presenting their cause in religious terms, as a jihad against a godless enemy.

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