'Imagination will take you everywhere'
I’m sure most people have heard of Robert Capa. The adventurous, risk-taking photojournalist renowned for his documentation of the D-day landings on Omaha Beach, along with the spectacular image of a militiaman in mid-air after being shot during the Spanish civil war. Capa is one of the most famous war photographers of the 20th century – he even died in action – blown up by a landmine in Indochina in 1954. His well-known quip “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” has inspired generations of war photographers to follow in his dangerous footsteps. Capa didn’t just capture a conflict through a lens; he was part of it.
But I wonder how many people have heard of Gerda Taro? The independent, free-spirited woman who arguably invented Robert Capa. The story begins with two exiles living in Paris; a Hungarian photographer, named Andre Friedmann and a German Jew, Gerta Pohorylle. Both were outsiders and communist activists, having fled their home countries when Hitler came to power. Their similarities made them the perfect match. After Friedmann taught Pohorylle the basics of photography, he got her a job at the Alliance Photo agency, and so blossomed a professional partnership which would produce some of the most famous war photographs in the world.
The two of them then decided to reinvent themselves as Robert Capa and Gerda Taro. Soon after, the pair tricked the Alliance Photo agency into thinking that Robert Capa was an American photographer who demanded a lot of money for his prints; thus selling both of their images under the ‘Capa’ name for three times the price that they would normally receive. How Cheeky. Yet this scheming plot didn’t last long as they were soon discovered. However their new names and personas stuck. This gave them a fresh start and a clean slate to be whoever they wanted to be.
The Spanish civil war was their calling. It was what made Capa and what ultimately destroyed Taro. In the summer of 1936, General Franco – backed by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy – decided to rebel against the Spanish Republican government. Taro and Capa leapt at the chance to document such a conflict, not only for the photography but also to support the Republican effort. Early on in the civil war, Taro would wear high heels when reporting from the frontline, however when things worsened for the Republicans the heels were soon replaced with more suitable footwear. They both captured arresting images of the devastation hitting the country; torturous conditions in hospitals, militiawomen training for combat, children playing on barricades, morgues and munitions factories in Madrid, but most shocking were the photos taken from the frontline. These images were then sent to leftist publications back in France, however the photo credit was always simply ‘Capa’.
When Capa captured the Spanish militiaman being hit by a bullet, the demand for their or ‘his’ photos rocketed. It was around this time that Taro suggested they should change the byline to Reportage Capa & Taro, to acknowledge their joint effort. But Capa refused. Their popularity was going strong, however their romance began to fade. They remained friends and professional companions, however Taro started going solo in an attempt to make a name for herself. This was soon a success and publications around Europe were quickly falling for her vivid photographs which shone a light on the truth behind the Spanish civil war. When viewing her photographs you don’t feel like a spectator; on the contrary, you feel like a participant involved with the action. Taro believed photographs were a powerful medium which could influence public opinion. Both Capa’s and Taro’s images captured the Republican’s point of view – often by putting themselves in the position of the militiamen, which in turn cost Taro her life.
The date was 25th July 1937, Taro was reporting alone from Brunete, west of Madrid. She was hit by a tank in a sudden and unexpected attack on the village, and later died of her injuries. She was 26 years old. Tens of thousands attended her funeral, as she was regarded highly not just as a war photographer, but also as a political activist. Some even declared her as an anti-fascist martyr. However only a mere year later her work was being forgotten and she was being referred to as simply ‘Capa’s wife’, which wasn’t even true. Unable to define which were Taro’s photographs and which were Capa’s, they were all labelled as his. This seems pretty unfair considering Taro not only took spectacular photographs, but also subverted the traditional female role at that time – she proved that women can be just as good as men, even in a male dominated environment.
It was Richard Whelan, Robert Capa’s biographer, who eventually discovered the difference between Capa’s and Taro’s work. He was in Capa’s brother’s Manhattan apartment, going through boxes of Capa’s work and stumbled upon about 140 Spanish civil war prints with an indication on the back that they were actually taken by Gerda Taro. He then realised that the square-format prints (taken using a Rolleiflex) were Taro’s, and the rectangular ones (taken using a Leica) belonged to Capa. Soon after this miraculous discovery, Taro’s biography was written and then published in 1994; thus telling the world exactly who she was and what she had achieved. In 2007 there was an exhibition of Taro’s work at the International Centre of Photography in New York, the ultimate form of recognition for her art. Yes her life was short but it was also a fulfilled and exciting one.
Gerda Taro © International Centre of Photography