A smile is the strangest thing. In the right context it can illuminate the world, suggest kindness or joy, invite us into intimacy. But in the wrong setting, or on the wrong faces, it seems creepy, malevolent, even disgusting: a sign of moral corruption.
These thoughts were prompted by a visit, in October, to the four interconnected Spanish Civil War shows at the International Center of Photography in New York City (on view through January 6) and by a series of photographs that the New York Times had published the previous month. One of the first photos a viewer encounters at the museum is called "Republican militiamembers, Barcelona"; it was taken by Gerda Taro in August 1936. It shows a young, handsome couple sitting on rattan deck chairs; in the background is a blurry collection of trees. The man, dark-haired, wears a button-down shirt and a tie under his coveralls and sports a pointed hat with a star, which would have identified to which of Spain's many left-wing groups he belonged. The woman, her smooth blond hair pulled away from her face, wears a dark shirt and, probably, trousers; she rests her head on the back of her chair. The man and woman tilt their heads toward each other as the sun bathes their faces, and they seem almost to explode with laughter: they must have shared a thought that was deliciously intimate, or deliciously funny, or perhaps both. They look healthy, strong, hopeful and in love: radiance is the word for this. And between them, gripped in the man's left hand--we can clearly map the veins in his forearm--stands a huge rifle.
The Times photos were full of laughter too. In one, a gleeful group of young, uniformed women and a few men--one of whom plays an accordion--surge across a wooden bridge as they try to escape a rainstorm. In another, a group of well-coiffed, pretty young women, all wearing dark pleated skirts and neat white blouses, sit on the ledge of a deck as they eat blueberries and smile for the camera. Anyone who claims we can no longer be shocked by photographs is wrong; for these banal pictures--part of a newly discovered trove of snapshots taken by an anonymous SS officer in the summer of 1944--depict a group of Auschwitz guards relaxing and at play. (As Jean Hatzfeld showed in Machete Season, his book of interviews with Rwandan genocidaires, torture and murder are hard work.) The Auschwitz employees look healthy, strong, confident and cheerful: horror is the word for this.
All of which is to say: in looking at photographs, especially those that document the political crises of our time, context is (almost) everything. A smile can welcome a new world or announce its annihilation.
Gerda Taro died seventy years ago, but the ICP show is the first major exhibition of her work in this country. She was born Gerta Pohorylle in 1910 in Germany, to parents who were recent immigrants from Galicia. She left Germany in 1933 after being arrested, then released, by the Nazis: as a Jew and a leftist, she was no longer at home in her homeland. Moving to Paris, she met André Friedmann--also a leftist, a Jew and a stateless exile--whom the world would come to know as Robert Capa. She became his manager and his lover; he taught her how to photograph. (As the show's catalog makes clear, Taro was intent on becoming a picture-maker in her own right, not on serving as anyone's muse.) Under her guidance, the two changed their names to sound more modern, more glamorous and, perhaps, less Jewish; after all, anti-Semites lived in Paris too. Though Taro's parents remained, as her biographer Irme Schaber writes, "attached to the culture of the shtetl," photos of their daughter reveal her to be the very model of a "modern" woman, with her short blond hair, smart clothes, forthright smile and black beret.
In August 1936--only weeks after Franco launched his rebellion--Taro and Capa went to Spain, where they lived and worked together, documenting the war on the Republican side from both military and civilian vantages. On July 25, 1937, in the wake of a fierce battle near Brunete, Taro was accidentally struck by a Republican tank. She died, age 26, the next day--a death from which, his biographers agree, Capa never recovered. (Though horrible and premature, Taro's death was far kinder than those of her family: trying to immigrate to Palestine, they got only as far as Yugoslavia, where, after the Nazi invasion, they were murdered.) The French Communist Party organized Taro's funeral, which tens of thousands attended: she was hailed as an antifascist heroine and is thought to be the first woman photographer to be killed in war, though that should be considered a sadness rather than an accomplishment. But her photojournalism, which spanned only a year, has been largely forgotten; her pictures have often been attributed to Capa; and she became identified solely as Capa's sidekick. Posthumously, Life magazine described her as "the pretty little woman"--though it published some of her work--while the British magazine Picture Post called her "the wife who had died in Spain." In fact, she had apparently turned down Capa's marriage proposal, though she had planned to travel to China with him.
Taro came of age in a post-World War I Germany that, freed from censorship, was flooded with newspapers--in the 1920s, Berlin alone boasted a phenomenal forty-seven dailies--plus magazines, journals, tabloids, newsreels and movies, including those made by the Soviets. The illustrated magazines founded during the Weimar period, such as the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung and the Müchner Illustrierte Presse, covered everything from natural catastrophes to political issues to fashion; pioneered the use of the photo essay; and would inspire magazines and illustrated newspapers like Life, Picture Post, Regards, Ce Soir and Vu, all of which would publish Capa's and Taro's photos from Spain. And Berlin had become the central locale for émigré photographers of the avant-garde, such as Lászlò Moholy-Nagy, Martin Munkácsi and Gyorgy Kepes (all, like Capa, from Hungary). The sense of cultural energy--of cultural possibility--was thick; the disdain for popular culture and the mass media held by theorists like Siegfried Kracauer wasn't shared by Weimar's new breed of creative editors, journalists and photographers. On the contrary: they exulted in the new modes of working and the new outlets for their work. Taro was an avid consumer of what Schaber calls "the visual language of modernity"; it is fitting, perhaps, that her first photograph appeared in a fashion magazine.
All this--the merging of an avant-garde sensibility with the tools of the mass media and mass propaganda--is immediately evident in Taro's work. Her pictures look less hurried and more carefully composed than Capa's, and she often shot from odd, dramatic angles. Taro's picture of a Republican militia training on the beach near Barcelona shows five women--most turned away from the camera--and is taken from below, making the women look tall and stark against the cloudless sky. Conversely, "Worker in a munitions factory, Madrid" is photographed from what must have been a balcony above the shop floor. We peer down on a sole worker, surrounded by his steel machines: a lonely, decidedly unfunny version of Chaplin's Modern Times. "Three men in the window of the Hotel Colón," taken in August 1936, is an almost perfect symbolic representation of the ways Spain's competing leftist groups clashed and combined. Two young, grinning, handsome men look out from behind a bullet-smashed window, while their even younger, and apparently more serious, comrade leans onto the ledge; voluptuous curtains drape behind him. The caption tells us that this was the Madrid headquarters of the United Socialist Party of Catalonia. But various graffiti have been carved into the cracked, cloudy glass, including "Viva P.C.C."; a hammer and sickle; and UHP ("Proletarian Brothers, Unite!"), a slogan often used by the anarchists.