Lost since 1939, the Mexican Suitcase contains nearly 4,500 negatives documenting the Spanish Civil War by Robert Capa, Chim (David Seymour), and Gerda Taro. These films had traveled from Paris via the south of France to Mexico City, where, almost seventy years later, they were recovered. They now on view in an exhibition at the International Center of Photography. Adeline Sire has the story. Download MP3
Read the Transcript
This text below is a phonetic transcript of a radio story broadcast by PRI’s THE WORLD. It has been created on deadline by a contractor for PRI. The transcript is included here to facilitate internet searches for audio content. Please report any transcribing errors to email@example.com. This transcript may not be in its final form, and it may be updated. Please be aware that the authoritative record of material distributed by PRI’s THE WORLD is the program audio.
LISA MULLINS: The title of a new exhibit at New York’s International Center of Photography can be deceiving. It’s called “The Mexican Suitcase.” It’s not really about a suitcase. And it’s not really Mexican. It’s about a set of photo negatives, images that were taken during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. And it showcases the work of three iconic photographers of the era. The World’s Adeline Sire has our story.
ADELINE SIRE: In 1936, Robert Capa, David Seymour and Gerda Taro, all European leftists committed to the fight against fascism, headed for Spain to cover the battle between Republican soldiers, and the troops of fascist falangist leader General Francisco Franco. The conflict raged for three brutal years. During that period, Capa and his colleagues produced thousands of pictures, many of which were published in news accounts of the war all over the world. After the conflict, Capa stored his and his colleagues’ negatives in his Paris studio. But at the beginning of World War II, Capa, a Jew and a communist, had to flee France. He asked his assistant to take the negatives to safety. But that effort was cut short when the assistant was arrested. The negatives were thought to have been lost or destroyed. But in the 1990s, they wound up in the hands of a Mexican filmmaker named Ben Tarver. Ben Shneiderman is the nephew of photographer David Seymour and the executor of his estate.
BEN SHNEIDERMAN: Well, the suitcase was a rumor and story for many years and only later did it become a reality. I must say one day when I received a photograph of Ben Tarver holding them in his hands, that made it a lot more real, and so that began to seem like something was going to happen and they would be returned.
SIRE: They were returned indeed, but it took 12 years of on-and-off negotiations between the Mexican filmmaker, and the International Center of Photography in NY. The ICP is home to the Robert Capa archive. Documentary filmmaker Trisha Ziff was the mediator of the negotiations and she was the one who personally escorted the negatives to New York in 2007. She says their containers looked like chocolate boxes.
TRISHA ZIFF: Because, you know, in the lid of a candy box, you see these little drawings and you know what’s inside each candy and in the lid of the boxes it refers to the roll in the inside of the box, what the content of each of those rolls of film. So, it was thrilling.
SIRE: About the mysterious travels of the boxes, this much is known. Somewhere in France, the negatives ended up in the hands of General Francisco Aguilar Gonzalez, who was the Mexican ambassador to the Vichy government of occupied France. When Aguilar traveled back to Mexico, the prized negatives were in his luggage. And they sat in their boxes, anonymous, and idle, until Aguilar gave them to a friend before his death, who in turn gave them to her nephew, filmmaker Ben Tarver. The photographs are now on view for everyone to see at the ICP in New York. The contact sheets have been enlarged to cover walls, next to original copies of the magazines that published some of the prints. Cynthia Young is the assistant curator of the Robert Capa archive at the ICP. She curated the Mexican Suitcase exhibition. She says it took over two years to sort, preserve, archive and identify the contents of those precious negatives. A special device even had to be created to scan the 70-year-old negatives in their curled up shape, without flattening them out. Researchers were afraid they might crack, but Young says they were remarkably healthy.
CYNTHIA YOUNG: They were in beautiful condition. It was really like seeing the images that I knew so well come to life. It was almost like watching even a film of these images to see two images before and the two frames following the famous image that I know. And it was quite striking and I hope never to forget that sensation of seeing the negatives like the photographers first saw them.
SIRE: Young says examining the negatives helped determine which photographer took which pictures, as the three photographers worked side by side. The Hungarian born Robert Capa and the German born Gerda Taro met in Paris and were a couple. And curator Cynthia Young says they sometimes shared credit on their images.
YOUNG: These are photographs from Madrid of 1937 in February. It was a story that was published in several magazines. Photographs of the trenches, of the soldiers, waiting, discussing plans on the telephone. And it was really impossible to ever know who took what picture. However, in one roll of film here, Taro appears twice, both holding her camera and her trench coat. So we can confirm, not only was she definitively there with Capa and photographing her, but that roll of film was by Capa.
SIRE: A few months after those pictures were taken, Gerda Taro was killed by a tank while covering the Battle of Brunete. She was only 26 years old. Another set of images in the ICP exhibit shows how cropping can change a picture’s meaning. A famed David Seymour photo of a woman nursing a baby and looking up was cropped to suggest that the woman had been scanning the sky during an air raid. But as Ben Shneiderman says, his uncle, David Seymour, known as Chim, had in fact taken that picture at a rally. And the woman had in fact been looking up at the speaker.
SHNEIDERMAN: When we got the negative and we saw the full print it was a very different story because it was a much wider field of view that showed the whole crowd at the rally and some of the background of the town as well. And so, you can see the contrast between the maybe modern interpretation of the heroic individual versus Chim’s attempt to show the communal or socialist view of the group.
SIRE: But for Shneiderman, the pictures are more than a historical record, they are pieces of his own family’s history. He was surprised to find a photo of his father in the exhibit. Samuel Shneiderman was a journalist who also covered the war in Spain. David Seymour and Robert Capa later co-founded the agency Magnum Photos. They went on to cover conflicts all over the world. And both men died on the job in the 1950s. Their work during the Spanish Civil War, as well as Gerda Taro’s, defined what it was to be a war photographer. You can see their images at the International Center of Photography in New York until January. The Mexican Suitcase exhibit will travel to Spain next year. For The World, I’m Adeline Sire.
MULLINS: And you can also see some of the images from the recovered negatives, including one of Ernest Hemingway covering the Spanish Civil War. It’s part of our slideshow at TheWorld.org.
Copyright ©2009 PRI’s THE WORLD. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to PRI’s THE WORLD. This transcript may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without prior written permission. For further information, please email The World’s Permissions Coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org.