Dark Rooms

Dark Rooms

Susie Linfield | The photographers who documented the Spanish Civil War captured the heart of battle in ways that now seem iconic but were then radically new.


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.

Taro frequently focused on civilian life: children playing in the rubble of bombed-out buildings, a man getting a haircut, an orphan eating soup. One of her most striking pictures–moving and terrible–was shot in February 1937 and is called “Child refugee from Málaga in Almería, Spain.” We see a plump, sleeping toddler surrounded by a striped mattress and a mound of white blankets. The child, whose sex cannot be gleaned from the photograph, wears Mary Janes and what looks like a pajama top over a sweater. White pants are pulled down below the child’s knees; the genitals are exposed but blurry: this is an image of unbearable vulnerability. But the shock of this picture, or what Roland Barthes would have called its punctum–“that accident,” Barthes wrote, “which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)”–are the two perfect, round scabs that adorn the child’s chubby knees.

I doubt, however, that much of an argument about a “woman’s view” can be deduced from photos such as this (though only Taro photographed a militiawoman wearing high heels); Capa, too, often focused on life behind the lines. This was less an aesthetic or emotional choice than a political one. Taro and Capa wanted the world to see not just what was being destroyed in Spain but also what was being created. They were not only antifascist; they were pro-Republican. (It is this kind of allegiance that, alas, contemporary war photographers often cannot entertain: which side should they have supported in, say, the Liberian civil war?)

Capa and Taro realized, immediately and intuitively, that the Spanish Civil War was a modern war not just in the way it was being reported, photographed and filmed but in the way it was being waged. Bombing campaigns designed to cause massive civilian deaths, especially by Hitler’s Condor Legion, were a key tool of the fascists; though it may be hard for us to imagine now, the destruction of civilian centers like Valencia, Madrid and Guernica was truly shocking at the time. (It is true that 1914 had ushered in what Eric Hobsbawm called “the age of massacre”; but it is also true, as Hobsbawm and others have written, that the majority of casualties in World War I were uniformed soldiers.) Documenting civilians as builders, fighters and victims was central to Capa and Taro’s project. It was a project avowedly international in intent, geared above all to build interventionist support–whether based on solidarity, anger, fear or shame–in Britain, France and America. One of the Spanish posters in the ICP’s vibrant accompanying exhibit called “Other Weapons” captures this well. It shows a photomontage of a dead child with bomber planes flying overhead; its prescient headline simultaneously pleads and threatens: “What Europe Tolerates or Protects/What Your Children Can Expect.”

Taro’s photos, too, were meant to plead, threaten and shock–and they are sometimes gorier and more graphic than Capa’s. Her up-close series of air-raid victims in a morgue, shot in Valencia in 1937, shows blackened blood streaming from just-stilled faces onto slabs, sheets and dirty tiled floors. Taro prided herself, also, on photographing soldiers–reading, resting, strategizing, fighting–at the front; the partisan who would become Capa’s “Falling Soldier” appears in one of her pictures too. And she photographed the training of the new Popular Army, a unified, Communist-dominated force designed to replace the panoply of anarchist-syndicalist militias. (Like most photos of uniformed armies standing in straight rows, hers are not particularly interesting.)

Those improvised militias were a stirring phenomenon, and Capa’s famous, immensely moving portraits of them in the early days of the war are suffused with something we can only call love. Still, George Orwell’s opposition to the Popular Army in Homage to Catalonia was, I think, simply wrong, though the book is now regarded as gospel by much of the American left. The militias were a manifestation of spontaneous, revolutionary democracy in action. They were also untrained, underarmed and undisciplined: hardly a match for the forces of Franco, Mussolini and, especially, Hitler. In fact, as the Spanish historian Juan Fusi Aizpùrua wrote in Heart of Spain, a book of Capa’s photographs from the war, the improvised militias were “disastrous” from a military standpoint. Orwell erred, too, in opposing a popular front that included members of what he called “the capitalist class”: for it was just such a front that eventually defeated fascism. (Capa was an ardent popular frontist, going back to his days in Paris.) And then there is Orwell’s belief–tragically utopian, in retrospect–that a more radical revolution in Spain might have inspired an uprising, or at least a general strike, by the international proletariat. This was also Lenin’s hope, in 1917, for Russia: such dreams die hard.

Like Taro, Capa was killed while documenting war: he died in 1954, at age 40, when he stepped on a land mine in Vietnam. His body of work is, of course, far more extensive than Taro’s, and the current exhibit makes no pretense of being comprehensive. “This Is War!”–the title comes from a 1938 Picture Post headline heralding Capa’s photos–concentrates on the hopeful beginnings of the war in Spain in 1936 and its devastating end in 1938-39; on China in 1938, churning with revolutionary activity as it fought the Japanese invasion; on D-Day; and on Leipzig in the spring of 1945, as the German army collapsed. (Leipzig had been Taro’s home, and its liberation held a special significance for Capa.) But even this admittedly narrow focus is, perhaps, narrower than need be. None of Capa’s photos from Vietnam, nor from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence–which his biographer Alex Kershaw called “Capa’s most personal war”–are included. And the exhibit gives the misleading impression that Capa defined “war” primarily in terms of battles, troops, ammunition, bombs, rubble, wounds and death. Many of Capa’s most evocative photographs, which document the beauty, grief and everyday heroism of civilian life during wartime, are missing.

Still, the ICP show is full of memorable pictures: the delivery of fat stacks of newspapers to Loyalist soldiers on the Aragon front in 1938; crowds of Chinese men, dressed in Western-style suits and ties, excitedly watching an air battle in Hankou in 1938; bedraggled, pitiful Spanish refugees trudging to the French border as the Republic fell in 1939 (one small, dark-haired girl looking eerily like a young Anne Frank); an American GI kicking a Nazi soldier in Leipzig in 1945, an image that was censored at the time. And then there’s the portrait of a serious, wan young man standing before a pen-and-ink portrait of Karl Marx and a banner of Chinese calligraphy. He turns out to be Zhou En-lai at the Communist Party headquarters in Hankou.

The show is good at conveying how exciting–indeed, how revolutionary–Capa’s battle photos were. Capa wasn’t a witness to war so much as a visual participant in it; he conceived of his photos as intervention, not art. That we, now, consider these photographs to be more than “just news” is due in part to Capa’s phenomenal eye. From the beginning of his career, Capa was a genius at capturing the dramatic moment of decision, the seemingly tiny detail that could suggest a much larger world, and the narrative drive that the best pictures encapsulate. Armed with his lightweight Leica and his apparently utter lack of fear, he plunged his viewers into the heart of battle in ways that now seem iconic but at the time were radically new: unsettling, nerve-wracking, terrifying. Capa’s photographs were closer, faster, denser than any that had been seen before: these were photographs taken by a partisan in the thick of battle, not an observer of it. The ICP, rightly, showcases some of Capa’s pictures as they appeared in magazines and papers: we see how these images zipped around the world, published by everyone from the reactionary Henry Luce in New York to Communist editors in Paris. And regardless of ideological affiliation, such publications weren’t shy about touting the sheer drama of Capa’s pictures. Regards, staunchly left-wing, promised “des documents sensationnels,” while Life boasted: Life’s Camera Gets Closer to Spanish War Than Any Camera Has Ever Got Before.

Capa’s photos, especially those from Spain, had a moral and political impact that may be hard for us to conjure, living as we do in a picture-glutted, horror-glutted age. Spain–the way it was documented, the way it was fought, the why it was fought–was freighted with meanings, and with a kind of exigent participation, that other wars were not: Capa’s viewers weren’t simply regarding the pain of others. We approach war photographs with a weird combination of guilty voyeurism, apathy and helplessness; Capa’s contemporaries didn’t. As the media historian Caroline Brothers has written, “With seemingly everyone from writers to politicians to the Liverpudlian unemployed taking sides over Spain, the civil war took on an unprecedented urgency in the way it was lived and believed in and represented. More than in any previous war and possibly any war since, photographs of Spain became images not just of but in conflict. And none of them was indifferent.”

Capa’s audiences for his Spanish Civil War pictures lived just before the avalanche: of history, of images, of mass death. We postmoderns are more cynical than they; and we tend to mistake our weariness for wisdom.

In 1938 Capa published a book called Death in the Making, which he hoped would mobilize international support for the Spanish Republic. He wrote the book and illustrated it with photographs of his own and of Taro’s. His dedication read: “For Gerda Taro, who spent one year at the Spanish front, and who stayed on.”

Those who stayed on–both the dead and the living–are the subject of Francesc Torres’s installation, Dark Is the Room Where We Sleep, and his accompanying book. Torres, a conceptual artist whose works often address the confluence of memory, history and politics, co-curated the 2004 Barcelona exhibit “At War,” an immense, ambitious show of photographs, paintings and other artifacts that depict modern war as a cultural and social experience. Torres was born in 1948 in Barcelona–“across the street from a brothel,” he notes–and is also, I learned in conversation with him, the grandson of a man who spent a decade in jail as a political prisoner of Franco.

Torres’s installation documents the excavation, in 2004, of a mass grave near the town of Villamayor de los Montes. (He had previously attempted similar projects in other venues but was always blocked, he says, for political reasons, even by governments of the left.) It was there, on the night of September 14, 1936, that forty-six civilian supporters of the Republic–all male, and ranging in age from 18 to 61–were murdered, execution-style, by fascist paramilitias and then dumped, along with their belongings, into the grave. Torres worked with the excavation team–anthropologists, archaeologists, forensic specialists and members of the Association for the Recuperation of the Historical Memory–as it dug up and painstakingly identified each victim; two years later, the town gathered to give each man a proper burial. Many of the victims’ descendants are now older than their relatives were when they were killed. There are brothers on the victims’ list, and a father and his sons, and the terrible question emerges: who watched whom die? Torres’s work evokes not just the injustice and sudden cruelty of these deaths but how drenched in sorrow they were and are.

The installation includes twenty-nine huge (approximately 6 by 10 feet) matte black-and-white digitally printed photos. The size of the photos is arresting: one’s first impression is of slight shock. But the prints, all unframed, are stuck onto the wall with pushpins, as if these are someone’s snapshots, though of a particularly sad and grisly kind. We see skulls that look as if they’re screaming, and piles of bones. But even more powerful are images of the personal, prosaic things–a comb encrusted with dirt, a pair of eyeglasses–that the victims carried to their death. Torres presents us with just one such item: a watch found on one of the men, which the artist displays carefully, almost reverentially, under glass. It is elegant, and stained, and undeniably beautiful, but it has no hands: time, Torres seems to suggest, was not merely stopped by Franco but actually erased. The excavation, then, is less an attempt to retrieve old memories that have been lost than to create new ones in a place where they had been forbidden. This, at the very least, is what we owe the dead.

“I foolishly insist on winning the Spanish Civil War,” Torres’s text announces as a visitor enters the installation. It’s a statement that made me laugh, though with admiration, at its sheer, counterintuitive audacity. What would it mean to turn such a defeat into its opposite–to create “the negation of the negation,” as the Holocaust survivor Jean Améry once wrote?

We start, Torres seems to say, by distinguishing between perpetrators and victims, and with our remembrance of the latter. But this remembrance is of a particularly sober kind. It has nothing to do with glorious warriors who died unvanquished, or with exultant martyrs making a beeline for heaven, or with false promises of “Never Again!” Dark Is the Room Where We Sleep is quieter, humbler, than all that; and bleaker, too, for it rejects both consolation and revenge. It is constructed in praise not of famous men but, rather, of the ordinary ones–and their descendants–who had a vision of a better, more capacious, more human Spain, and whose cries for international solidarity went largely unheard.

I think–though who can be sure?–that Taro and Capa would have shared Torres’s vision had they lived long enough to see a democratic Spain. For to look at their work–so long ago, and yet so very recent–is to see the citizens of Villamayor de los Montes: then and now, dead and living, forgotten and honored, betrayed and hopeful, vanquished and free. It is to see those who perished, and those who persevered.

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