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A Wartime Photographer in Her Own Light

Posted By Administration, Saturday, September 22, 2007
Updated: Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Sometime in the spring of 1936, the lovers and photographers André Friedmann and Gerta Pohorylle changed their names and, in the process, the history of photography. To distinguish themselves from other Jewish émigrés in Paris at the time, Mr. Friedmann, a Hungarian Jew, took the name Robert Capa; Ms. Pohorylle, also Jewish and born in Poland, became Gerda Taro. Working at times as "Capa," an imaginary American photographer, they began documenting the Spanish Civil War, capturing the ruined towns and devastated civilians and soldiers on the Republican side.


Mr. Capa went on to become one of the world's greatest war photographers. But Ms. Taro, seen by many as the first woman known to photograph a battle from the front lines and to die covering a war, survived in the public eye mostly for her romance with Mr. Capa.

Now, 70 years after Ms. Taro's death at age 26, the first major exhibition of her work begins Wednesday at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan. Many of Ms. Taro's sympathetic and graphic photographs of supporters of the Spanish Republic will be seen for the first time. The exhibition is one of four concurrent shows at the Center related to the Spanish Civil War, including a display of Capa war pictures.

Now, 70 years after Ms. Taro's death at age 26, the first major exhibition of her work begins Wednesday at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan. Many of Ms. Taro's sympathetic and graphic photographs of supporters of the Spanish Republic will be seen for the first time. The exhibition is one of four concurrent shows at the Center related to the Spanish Civil War, including a display of Capa war pictures.

"This is really a discovery," Willis E. Hartshorn, the director at I.C.P., said of the exhibition and new research on Ms. Taro. "It adds immeasurably to the perspectives and history of photography," he said, "a history that in a great many ways is being written as we speak.

"For the first time, we really understand the scope and scale of her work," Mr. Hartshorn said.

Ms. Taro's celebrity was short-lived but outsize. Shortly after establishing herself independently of Mr. Capa, she was sideswiped by a tank after jumping onto the running board of a car transporting casualties during the battle of Brunete, and killed. Her funeral in Paris (on Aug. 1, 1937, which would have been her 27th birthday) drew thousands who hailed her as a martyr to anti-Fascism. The French writer Louis Aragon and the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda were among those in attendance. Alberto Giacometti, the sculptor, designed her memorial.

Because the two photographers worked together, some of Ms. Taro's photographs were published under Mr. Capa's name or with a joint byline, while others were lost, Mr. Hartshorn said. The I.C.P. show, which includes about 100 of her photographs, highlights her as an artist in her own right and as an important figure in both the changing role of women and the use of art as propaganda.

"War photography and propaganda are inseparable," Irme Schaber, Ms. Taro's biographer and one of the show's curators, said in an e-mail message. "Moreover, Gerda Taro was a woman photographer in a war that is retrospectively seen as the first modern media war because of the rise of war photography, photojournalism, magazine and film."

Jordana Mendelson, an art historian and an associate professor in the department of Spanish and Portuguese at New York University, said Ms. Taro left behind "an extraordinary document of war" that was lost until now.

"Taro is part of a small pantheon of women photographers who saw photography as an extension of their political commitment and of their role as new women," Ms. Mendelson said.

The 184-page catalog that accompanies the exhibition is the first book about Ms. Taro to be published in English. It includes her photographs, her biography and the tale of how some of her work was discovered in 1980, stacked in boxes among Mr. Capa's papers and prints in the Manhattan apartment of Cornell Capa, Robert's brother and the founder of the I.C.P., and his wife, Edie. The book is edited by Ms. Schaber, an independent scholar based in Germany; Richard Whelan, who published a definitive biography of Mr. Capa in 1985 and who died this year; and I.C.P.'s associate curator, Kristen Lubben.

"Defiant farmers, fists clenched, photographed from audacious angles — it is not least because of such mutual demonstrations of self-confidence in front of and behind the camera that the Spanish Civil War has been perceived as a romantic conflict," Ms. Schaber writes in the catalog of Ms. Taro's role in creating the visual language of war photography.

Among her work at the center, on display through Jan. 6, will be photographs of Republican militia women training on the beach outside Barcelona in 1936, a photograph from the same year of a man getting a haircut at the headquarters of the fifth regiment in Madrid, and a 1937 image of a sleeping child refugee from Málaga in Almería.

Ms. Taro's work was published in the Parisian newspaper Ce Soir and in the French magazine Regards, among other places; in this country, her death was reported in Life magazine, which also ran some of her photographs.

But after her brief career ended, a flood of photographs of World War II helped push her work off the stage, Ms. Lubben said. In later years, she had the stigma of being "a communist heroine," Ms. Schaber noted in her e-mail. As a result, Ms. Taro all but disappeared from public consciousness.

With the I.C.P. show, "we're trying to redress the crimes of history," Ms. Lubben said. "A lot of it has to do with being in the shadow of this man, whose career was so renowned. And part of the reason she is lost to history is people don't know what photos she took," she said, noting the frequent errors of attribution of Ms. Taro's work.

"She has a different aesthetic than Capa," Ms. Lubben said. "Her pictures are much more posed, using strong camera angles. Capa was much more into movement."

For Mr. Capa, his relationship with Ms. Taro was "a very painful private matter," Ms. Schaber wrote in an e-mail message, and he never attempted to officially commemorate her except in his book "Death in the Making," about the Spanish Civil War.

Just what history will make of Ms. Taro's newly robust story is too early to tell, said Naomi Rosenblum, an art historian and the author of "A History of Women Photographers."

"She died so young and her career was so short, her significance wasn't so much in photography — though it was significant — but can be attributed to the fact that a woman did go and involve herself in battlefield photographs," Ms. Rosenblum said. "Taro and Capa represent a sort of romantic vision of the stateless person involving themselves in terrible battles: the social battles, the political battles of the time."

By Felicia R. Lee
www.nytimes.com

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