ICP – The Mexican Suitcase
Cynthia Young, Interview
In December 2007, three boxes filled with rolls of film, containing 4,500 35mm negatives of the Spanish Civil War by Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, and Chim (David Seymour), which had been considered lost since 1939, arrived at the International Center of Photography. These three photographers, who lived in Paris, worked in Spain, and published internationally, laid the foundation for modern war photography. Their work has long been considered some of the most innovative and passionate coverage of the Spanish Civil War (1936–-1939). Many of the contact sheets made from the negatives are on view as part of the exhibition, which look closely at some of the major stories by Capa, Taro, and Chim as interpreted through the individual frames. These images are seen alongside the magazines of the period in which they were published and with the photographers’ own contact notebooks.
The exhibition was organized by ICP Curator Cynthia Young and first opened at ICP in 2011. Since then it has been presented in many museums around the world. This month – July 23 – opens at the Caixa Cultural, Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Cynthia Young, ICP’s curator of the exhibition, talked to Eleni Zymaraki Tzortzi, sharing interesting points, views and impressions about the exhibition and the impact it had on people so far.
You have organized the exhibition The Mexican Suitcase for ICP; an exhibition first opened six years ago and still being hosted by great museums around the world. What would you say is the main contribution of the Mexican Suitcase to history and moreover to art history?
The fact that these negatives were discovered almost 70 years after they were considered lost, in an unexpected location, in perfect condition, is powerful source of hope for anyone studying the past. New material does surface, even when least expected.
Which sides, aspects of the Spanish Civil War come to light through the works included in the suitcase?
Two of the most important stories of the war as seen in the negatives is about the civilian population. The first is the brutality of the German and Italian aerial bombing for the civilian population during the war, as seen in the multiples stories of people fleeing their homes and bombed towns, first to larger cities then into France, and the powerful series Taro made outside and inside the Valencia morgue following an air raid. The other is the stories of once anonymous civilians identified in the photographs, which has given the photographs yet another value beyond the original news story. They enhance a greater narrative of the war and its consequences. I continue to hear from people who have identified family members or hope to after looking closely at the film.
The Mexican Suitcase preserved the work of three legendary photographers, Robert Capa, Chim (David Seymour), and Gerda Taro.
What more have we learned from the suitcase about each of them as a person and as an artist?
I have written extensively about how these additional negatives, far more than the number of individual prints we had previously, provided a new perspective on how these photographers worked and approached their subjects. Seeing the contact sheet from any one of their published stories allows the viewer to begin to understand how they framed and reframed their subject, how they conserved or used their film, what subjects they considered important to document and what images they wanted to show to the editors. Taro is developing her style as she changes from a medium format to a 35mm camera. Her strong composition meets with her direct and close proximity to her subject. Chim is concerned with cultural heritage, as seen in his images from the Basque Country, as well as portraits of the individual Republican leaders. There are no pictures from the front, but more of the portrait of a country during a war. Capa, the most renown of the three, appears very engaged with his stories, and as they are from later in the war, he is clearly aware of how to shoot for the magazines and what is of interest to the editors and readers.
You have pointed out that the material contained in the Mexican Suitcase documents a turning point in the history of photojournalism. Could you explain this further?
The period of the Spanish Civil War coincides with a several other technological innovations that made photography faster (advent of the Leica, a small hand-held camera that used 35mm roll film instead of a heavy camera with plate film) and cheaper to print in higher quality in the magazines. This coupled with a rising middle class engaged with an exploding world around them, provided a fertile period for photojournalism. Capa, Taro and Chim were in the middle of that.
What is – according to you – the most accurate and perspicacious comment that has been pointed out about the Mexican Suitcase and by whom?
So many. International interest exploded with news of the discovery of the negatives. Discussion about the Spanish Civil War was silenced for years in public debate and rarely taught in schools. In recent years, laws about historical memory in Spain have changed and investigations have opened about what happened during the war, even if there remains great hostility for the subject. Photography helps in the process of reviving untold and formerly banished histories by providing for specific documentation or a visual point of departure.
International Center of Photography, The Mexican Suitcase: