The Ghost of Gerda Taro

November 22, 2010
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Editor’s Note: The following article is reprinted with permission of the International Center of Photography from the new catalogue of their current exhibition, The Mexican Suitcase: The Rediscovered Negatives of Capa, Chim and Taro.Volume 1: The History. Volume 2: The Films. ICP/Steidl: New York/Göttingen, 2010.

The Battle of Brunete looms large in the memories and the memoirs of the veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, some 2,800 young Americans who joined 40,000 other volunteers from over fifty countries in the fight against fascism in Spain from 1936 to 1939.

In July 1937, in an attempt to stem the Nationalist advance on Madrid, the Republican army went on the offensive at Brunete, about 35 kilometers outside the capital city. The Lincoln Brigade formed part of the government’s 80,000 troops. The Battle of Brunete instantly, if briefly, attained mythical status internationally and among the American volunteers for two reasons. It was there on July 9 that Oliver Law, leading an attack up Mosquito Ridge, met his death. Law was the first African American to command white troops in the history of the United States military. It was also on a battlefield between Villanueva de la Cañada and Brunete two weeks later, on July 25, that Gerda Taro was crushed by a Republican tank in the chaos of retreat. Taro was the first woman photojournalist to die in action. She was given a hero’s burial in Paris.

Gerda Taro with a Republican solider near Córdoba, Spain. Photo Robert Capa

Law and Taro have something else in common as well: until recently, history has all but forgotten them both. The Lincoln Brigade fell victim to the anticommunist witch hunts of the 1950s, holding a place of honor at the beginning (as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade) and end (as the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade) of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s list of subversive organizations. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade has been systematically written out of American history books, including, sad to say, Howard Zinn’s otherwise splendid A People’s History of the United States, which makes not a single mention of the volunteers.

Gerda Taro was consigned to oblivion for other reasons. For one thing, Robert Capa, Taro’s partner in love and photography, quickly overshadowed her after her death. His photos of Spain and D-Day soon came to define photojournalism in thetwentieth century. For another, World War II surpassed the Spanish Civil War in sheer savagery and numbers of casualties, reducing the earlier conflict to a footnote. Yet in her brief career as a photojournalist (which lasted scarcely a year), Taro’s work was published in many of the most important European and American magazines of the time. Subsequently, many of her photos were attributed to Capa. Recently, due in large part to Richard Whelan’s meticulous efforts to identify her prints and negatives, and Irme Schaber’s groundbreaking biographical studies, Taro has begun to emerge from the shadows.

Viewing Taro’s negatives of the Battle of Brunete, preserved for seventy years in the Mexican Suitcase, is like seeing a ghost. They constitute a visual record of the last days of her life. Indeed, many of them have a ghostly quality. Whether the negatives have deteriorated over the years or were originally overexposed, many of them have a phantom look to them: figures emerge from a cloudy background, flames from a burning truck sear through the smoke, buildings literally spill their guts after an air raid.

Taro's Brunete negatives from the Mexican Suitcase; www.icp.org

The Mexican Suitcase negatives do not represent all of Taro’s photos from Brunete. Many of her better-known shots, published in reportages in a number of French, German, and American periodicals, are not here. From those that are, it is difficult to configure a chronology or narrative line. With many of Capa’s photos included in this same collection, one can reconstruct a sequence by studying the contact sheets. His photos from the Battle of Teruel, for instance, fall into groupings that can be reassembled to structure a narrative: battle itself, captured prisoners, initial victory celebration, the consequences for the civilian population after the Republican defeat.

Such is not the case with Taro’s negatives dating from the weeks of the Brunete battle. They jump from shots of the battlefield (where the war is almost always outside the frame) to a handful of pictures of María Teresa León and Rafael Alberti in the Palace of the Marquis of Heredia Spinola back in Madrid (requisitioned by the Republican government as the headquarters of the Alianza de Intelectuales Antifascistas); from the Second International Congress for the Defense of Culture (in Valencia) to scenes of Madrid under bombardment. Yet even when viewed in the contacts it is difficult to establish a narrative sequence. Perhaps this is because, as Fredric Jameson reminds us, history is not narrative, it is struggle and blood. Yet paradoxically our only access to history is through narrative. Hence our compulsion to tell stories, to set the pieces in order.

On the one hand, a snapshot is a frozen moment in time. It removes the subject from chronology and sequence, rendering it static and iconic. (Capa’s controversial Falling Soldier is one such example.) On the other hand, “photographs are artifacts with a continuing life,” as Judith Fryer Davidov contends in her book Women’s Camera Work (1998). The difference between stasis and “continuing life,” in essence, is context. In the case of Taro’s Brunete negatives, we can reconstruct context as thegeneral historical framework of the Spanish Civil War and the ideological mobilization of the media. Capa and Taro were both aware of the international dimensions of the war and consciously put their craft at the service of the Republican cause. “Objectivity” was not their goal. They strove to show the world the effects of fascism on the civilian population. Their objective in photographing the Battle of Brunete was to provide visual evidence that the Republican army was indeed prevailing.

The context of a particular snapshot is also found in the exposures that precede and follow it. One of the more compelling sequences in Taro’s Brunete negatives consists of three photos of a soldier squinting down the barrel of his Mauser (ms076, frames 49, 50, 51). Negative 50 was published on the cover of a German magazine, Die Volks-Illustrierte (August 25, 1937). Sepia tinting replaces the gray of the negative, making light glance dramatically off the two hand grenades strapped to the soldier’s belt. It is a powerful shot that captures the tension of combat in the man’s body as he pokes his weapon through the sandbag levee. The frame before is nearly identical but shot in horizontal format. In the following frame, the soldier has turned to the camera, a wide grin creasing his face. It changes our understanding of the previous photo without in any way devaluing it. Is the infantryman mugging for the camera or, more likely, for the young woman behind the lens? Is this shot staged rather than spontaneous? Ultimately, what does it tell us?

Taro’s own image is almost entirely absent from her Brunete negatives. She was always behind the camera. We see her shadow in just one shot (ms075, frame 36). Yet in a certain sense it is Taro who emerges from these ghostly negatives, haunting us as we look back over seven decades and countless armed conflicts. She is powerfully present in her traces, in her very absence. To this day, treasure hunters armed with metal detectors sweep the hills and fields of Brunete in search of Gerda’s lost Leica.

Anthony Geist is chair of the Spanish department at the University of Washington.

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3 Responses to “ The Ghost of Gerda Taro ”

  1. Rebecca Schachter on September 25, 2011 at 10:55 am

    My Uncle, Phil Schachter, was in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and died in the Battle of Brunte. I wanted to honor his life and idealism for the 75th anniversary in July 2012 – do you know if there will be a organized gathering for this either in this country or in Spain?
    Rebecca Schachter

  2. Gerda Taro | A Cozinha Refractária on July 7, 2013 at 12:18 am

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