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).
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.”