Missing suitcase of Capa war photos found after 70 years

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

A suitcase containing thousands of undeveloped photographs of the Spanish Civil War shot by the great war photographer Robert Capa has reappeared after being lost for 70 years.

The haul of some 3,500 pictures – 120 rolls of film and sheaves of envelopes of cut negatives – taken by Capa, his companion Gerda Taro and fellow photographer David “Chim” Seymour was taken from Paris to Mexico in 1940 by a diplomat, and came to light only in the 1990s.

New York’s International Centre of Photography, which was founded by Capa’s brother Cornell, has acquired the suitcase containing three flimsy cardboard boxes of film. Researchers are still examining its contents, the centre’s curator, Kristen Lubben, said this week in Barcelona at a conference on “historic memory”.

The historic find came too late for the ICP’s exhibition last September of works by Capa and Taro, but some rediscovered pictures may be included when the show travels to London’s Barbican this autumn, and then to other European capitals, Ms Lubben told El Pais newspaper.

The ICP’s chief curator, Brian Wallace, has described the discovery as “momentous… the raw material from the birth of modern war photography”.

The cut shots in the envelopes already scrutinised have revealed previously unknown images of the brutal closing stages of Spain’s civil war in 1939.

They date from 1937, and do not therefore include any that might form part of the sequence containing the famous “falling soldier” picture taken in Cordoba in 1936, Ms Lubben said.

Ms Lubben promised that the images would be posted on the ICP’s website “as soon as possible”. The uncut rolls of nitrate stock will take longer to study and be made public, she said. They are in remarkably good order for their age, but special equipment must be built for them to be scanned and copied safely because of their fragile and unstable state.

Careful peeks at the rolls have revealed pictures of Ernest Hemingway and the poet Federico Garcia Lorca.

“It’s a mystery why these particular pictures were put together. It seems to have been a pre-selection for a joint project that in the end never happened,” Ms Lubben said. “There are no negatives of the famous falling soldier, taken in September 1936. We looked to see if there were any in the same series, but there’s nothing. We’ll have to keep looking.”

Capa fled Paris for America in 1939 on the outbreak of the Second World War, leaving the contents of his darkroom behind. He assumed the work had been destroyed when the Nazis occupied France in 1940, and he died in Vietnam in 1954 convinced they were lost. But his friend and assistant Imre “Chiki” Weisz entrusted the suitcase in 1940 to a Mexican diplomat in Paris, General Francisco Aguilar Gonzalez.

The general took it home to Mexico, where it reappeared among his possessions decades after his death in 1967. The ICP recently acquired the “Mexican suitcase” after protracted negotiations with the general’s descendants.

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