I'm not sure why looking at black and white pictures of Spanish Civil War soldiers sitting casually against the landscape of their homeland is so poignant to me. They're laughing and smoking, or looking vacant, or marching, all with the distinctive barren and rocky backdrop of Spain (or how I imagine it beyond Madrid, the only part of the country I've ever seen with my own eyes). The photographers who captured these images are Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, and David Chim, all Magnum war photographers who put their lives in danger to show the world what Franco was up to during the 1930s. The show is "The Mexican Suitcase" which is running at the International Center of Photography through January 9, 2011.
The epic story of the "Mexican Suitcase" is a long and confusing yarn. Three small cardboard boxes that disappeared from Paris shortly after World War II, and which contained 126 rolls of film taken by the three photographers, resurfaced after decades in Mexico. Robert Capa's brother, Cornell, was able to see greet the finale of his long quest in 2007 when he was 89 years old and rapidly nearing the end of his own life.
The result of his dogged search for the negatives is an exhibit chock-full of evocative old photo ephemera: worn rectangular manilla envelopes, labeled by Capa in pencil: "Taro: Sierra" and old notebooks filled with tiny developed contact sheet images, arranged by the photographers to tell the story of which images were used in which publication. There's Capa's 1939 Press Card. Old covers of yellowed magazines splashed with the confidence of handsome Spanish generals. Even a haunting film shot by Henri Cartier Bresson, a founding member of Magnum, of American volunteers in Spain.
My favorite images were the ones where civilians are living their lives with the war falling naturally into the backdrop: life goes on with an old woman selling sardines straight from the ocean's edge. We're also given the choice, for the first time, to examine the published prints against the surrounding images on the contact sheets. Take, for example, the picture of a little girl with saucer brown eyes, a refugee who sits on a bed clutching her toy bears staring off into space. Now you can see that in the surrounding images she looks more like a child than a shell-shocked war veteran, her eyes actually engaging with the camera. Those pictures, in the end, didn't make the cut.
Bonus: Take a minute to soak in the only known photograph from the show, shown above, of Capa and Taro together in the first blushes of their tragic romance.