The Mexican Suitcase, the International Center for Photography, New York

The Spanish civil war taught the world what murderous conflict looked like. Or, to be precise, it was photographers such as Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour, aka “Chim”, who carried their new lightweight cameras into battle zones and first documented the hectic lunacy of battle for magazine readers in more tranquil lands. The first war photographers were not disinterested observers, however, but risk-taking publicists for the republican cause.

While their published images made Capa, Taro and Chim famous, their negatives vanished into obscurity. Hundreds of rolls of film reappeared in the legendary “Mexican Suitcase”, which isn’t really a suitcase at all, but three battered cardboard boxes that were smuggled out of Paris in 1939, unearthed in Mexico in the late 1990s, and conveyed to the International Center of Photography in 2007. The cartons have now been unpacked for an exhibition that is simultaneously tantalising, overwhelming and frustrating.

The 4,500 negatives don’t begin to encompass the trio’s total output of civil war photos, but they cover many important moments, including the battle of Brunete, where Taro was killed in 1937. The ICP has printed the images on to contact sheets, putting a selection – along with a small number of prints – on view in its galleries. The frames are nearly too small to examine with the naked eye; the ICP should have provided magnifying glasses.

The contact sheets mingle the chaos of battle with the routines of peasants amid destruction and disarray. In ways that a single, iconic image can never do, these sequences uncover the working methods, narrative aims and ideological commitment that drove the three friends.

Capa & Co developed a new practice that stationed the photographer in the nucleus of battle, as participant rather than bystander. The techniques they developed in Spain became the modus operandi for their successors. All three pioneers died on the job: Taro was killed in a collision with a tank; Capa stepped on a landmine in Indochina in 1954; two years later, Chim was mown down while covering the armistice of the Suez war. But it was in Spain that they invented the practice of modern war photography, which Capa summed up with the dictum: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

These contact sheets also demonstrate that, from the beginning, the profession was about taking sides. Taro, Capa and Chim set out for Spain as envoys of French communist-sponsored publications. Their brief was to buttress the loyalists and oppose the forces of fascism.

Spain’s troubles had international implications. Hitler and Mussolini helped Franco’s rebels, while France, the UK and the US assumed a neutral stance. The photographers’ primary goal was to win material assistance and generate broad sympathy for the republic.

The photographers considered the Spanish people their most important assets, and portrayed them as patriots arrayed against rebels imported from abroad. Chim homed in on children singing as they marched through Madrid and Barcelona, fists raised in the republican salute; on the rough-hewn peasant faces of militiamen; and on the camaraderie of the fighting miners of Oviedo.

To counter charges – mostly true – that the republic scorned the Catholic Church, he spotlighted the Basque region, where clergy joined forces with loyalists in their bid for Basque autonomy. Trying to reassure mostly Catholic France about the religiosity of the fighters, he portrayed them with heads bowed, taking mass before a battle.

Taro turned her lens to the daily rituals and tribulations of Spanish civilians. Street vendors and cobblers flow through the first roll of film she shot of Valencia, maintaining a semblance of routine. That normalcy is shattered in the second roll: an air assault has struck the city. These shocking juxtapositions were meant to alert the French – and the other democratic nations – that the serenity they enjoyed could be wrecked in a single cataclysmic moment.

Taro and Capa manipulated incidents when it suited their dramatic needs. The contact sheets show soldiers pausing for a cigarette break during a charge on La Granjuela. Evidently, the village had already been won; the re-enactment was for posterity.

The photographs make a tangled situation seem starker than it was. By the time Capa and Chim left Spain, the Soviet Union had in effect taken over the Spanish government, giving what was left of the republican side a Stalinist cast. It would be nice to think that the “Mexican suitcase”, or the ICP, revealed the complexities behind the ideology, but the exhibition does no such thing. While the curators acknowledge that the photos functioned as propaganda, they also buy into the boiled-down version of history inscribed in frame after partisan frame. Until January 9,

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