The curious case of the Mexican suitcase

February 3, 2008 at 2:00 am 3 comments

As ThinkingShift readers know by now, I love a gripping mystery; anything curious or bizarre. And today’s post really intrigues me as it also involves my current obsession – photography – as well as history, drama and plot twists.

You’ve probably heard that Hemingway’s early manuscripts vanished mysteriously from a train station in 1922 (damn fine mystery that is!). His first wife, Hadley, somehow lost his Paris manuscripts (guess that might have led to the divorce). I seem to recall from my American literature classes at Uni that Hemingway called her “feather cat” and I suspect that nickname was changed to something less cute following the missing manuscripts incident.

Anyway, I digress. Because there’s another curious mystery that has a Hemingway connection- the case of the “Mexican Suitcase”. Picture this: rumours have been swirling since the early 1990s that thousands of negatives of pictures taken by Robert Capa and thought to have been lost still exist. But who has them and where are they?

Robert Capa was a dashing globe-trotting war photographer, who hung out with Hemingway during the Spanish Civil War. Capa died in 1954. He took dramatic and poignant pictures of the Spanish Civil War, WWII, the first Indo-China war and other conflicts. He was Jewish and had to leave Berlin for Paris in 1933 because of the rise of Nazism. Ultimately, as the Nazi stain spread across Europe, he fled for America leaving behind the contents of his Paris darkroom.

And from this point the mystery deepens. Naturally, Capa thought that his negatives would go up in smoke along with Europe during the conflagration that was WWII and he died never knowing that in fact 3500 negatives had survived. The story goes that the negatives came into the hands of a Mexican general and diplomat who served under Pancho Villa. The precious negatives travelled from Paris to Marseille, eventually arriving with the general in Mexico City where they remained hidden until January 2008. A final trip to Manhattan took place when ownership of the negatives was transferred to the Capa estate from descendants of the Mexican general. Although Wikipedia refers to an anonymous Mexican film-maker but I think this film-maker might be a descendant of the general.

Robert Capa’s brother, Cornell, is also a photographer and still alive. Cornell founded the International Center of Photography in Manhattan and this is the final resting place for Capa’s lost photos. A real coup was that amongst the lost Capa negatives were Spanish Civil War images taken by photo-journalist, Gerdo Taro, Capa’s business partner and real-life lover. Also found in the suitcase (which consisted of three pretty fragile cardboard valises) were photos by David Seymour who, along with Capa, founded the Magnum photo agency.

And then there’s the REAL mystery. Was one of Capa’s famous photographs, known as The Falling Soldier, staged? Here’s the photo taken in 1936.

Allegations of fakery swirled for years. The photo shows a Spanish Republican (or Loyalist) militiaman collapsing in the final moments of life. After a bit of sleuth work on my part, I found that the reason for the allegations would appear to be that when the photo was published in September 1936 in French magazine, Vu, another very similar picture by Capa also appeared. Here they are:

The so-called falling solider is the photo on the left. I suppose at first glance they do appear to be one and the same person, which was the allegation levelled at Capa. Were they two different men who fell in death on exactly the same spot (in Cordoba) or was it one and the same man posing? The allegation of a staged photo cropped up in a 1975 book by Phillip Knightley called “The First Casualty: From the Crimea to Vietnam; The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker”. A South-African journalist, O.D.Gallagher, had once shared a hotel room with Capa and he recounted to Knightly that “there had been little action for several days, and Capa and others complained to the Republican officers that he could not get any pictures. Finally … a Republican officer told them he would detail some troops to go with Capa to some trenches nearby, and they would stage some manoeuvres for them to photograph.” So the finding of the negatives could solve the mystery if the sequence of shots before and after the Falling Soldier show war scenes rather than a staged manoeuvre.

Conservation experts are now trawling through the 70-year old nitrate stock that is said to be in remarkably good condition. And experts are wondering whether some of the images were actually taken by Taro, who met her end in Spain in 1937 in a tank accident whilst she busy snapping away. Her real name incidentally was Gerta Pohorylle and Capa’s was Endre Friedmann.

If you have a look at Capa’s D-Day photographs, you almost feel a part of the war scene. An amazing photographer indeed.

Image credits: Wikipedia. Sources: The New York Times and American Masters.

Entry filed under: History, Journalists & journalism, Photography.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Piksson  |  January 29, 2010 at 10:01 pm

    How I wish that these photographs were not fake 🙂 But still, Capa was only following the great tradition of war photographers such as Roger Fenton or Alexander Gardner Personally I believe these, and some others were staged, but honestly, who cares? The whole image included in Images of War is simply breathe-taking and very moving, so we may excuse him from taking a picter of a soldier wo “slipped on a piece of c….” 🙂

  • 2. Fernando May  |  January 26, 2014 at 3:14 am

    Sometimes is hard to believe everything you read of the internet, if you investigate a little, instead of following rumors, you will find a series of pictures like the following one, where it shows, both mans moments before the shooting waiving at the camera man, happy. Naive of their destiny.
    What a great sad moments of this people….

    • 3. thinkingshift  |  January 26, 2014 at 9:16 pm

      Please note I did not say the photo is fake. If the Spanish Government archives are correct and the man in the photo is indeed Federico Borrell Garcia – then hopefully that clears up the mystery. Robert Capa was a remarkable photojournalist indeed.


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