101 poorly illuminated contact sheets on burnt ochre walls is a lot to absorb, but the fanfare that preceded the presentation of the infamous Robert Capa ‘Mexican Suitcase’ at the ICP suggested that the experience would be worth the visit. Indeed it was, but not in the way I anticipated.
In the dark years of World War II when Robert Capa and his left leaning friends left Paris as the Nazis rolled into France, they gave a small suitcase to the Mexican Military Attaché in Vichy France for safe keeping. The suitcase contained three boxes of neatly rolled negatives exposed during the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930‘s . They belonged to photographers Robert Capa, Gerda Taro (Capa’s lover), David ‘Chim’ Seymour and Fred Stein. After the war the Attaché, a Colonel, returned home where he died a General. In 2006 his heirs returned the small and inconspicuous suitcase of negatives to Capa’s brother Cornell – founder of the ICP in New York.
There has been much speculation that the suitcase would contain answers to questions of veracity and integrity asked of Capa’s work since his death. Perhaps it would contain brilliant and unseen images or at least fill in the gaps of our knowledge about the man we know as the worlds greatest war photographer. So what of the photographs?
Quite frankly they are of greater interest to an academic or a Capa groupie than they are of interest to the either the casual consumer of photography or the chattering photographic classes. Other than the previously published battle images by Capa of the Republican 5th Corps the collection lacks the grace or muscularity evident in Capa’s most famous works, either from Spain or the Normandy landings, and it reveals no previously unseen work of any merit. What we see is the work of a group of fledgling photographers making early steps and learning the craft. There is little of real interest in the contact sheets, which is presumably why the ICP insisted on printing them so small that they were almost impossible to read, and – note to the curator – the useless hardware store magnifying tool they provided seemed an unnecessary conceit. We weren’t looking at vintage contacts, so they were of no historical interest, they weren’t printed at the size they would originally have been printed so why not make them big enough to read in the first place?
The exhibition was exhausting to regard and added little to the sum of our knowledge about Capa or his illustrious friends. It’s curation was weak but in fairness the material was weak to start with. If we had seen this newly discovered work in the context of the work we know from the Capa oeuvre it would have been more convincing.
But it was worth the visit.
Why? Well it reminds me that this form of photography was born at a time of terrible political repression and the proto war photographers had as their principal objective a desire to smash totalitarianism and Fascism. This was muscular unambiguous advocacy using photography. The work was empathetic certainly, but mostly it was opinionated and angry, and I was left thinking that if they hadn’t used photographs Capa, Taro, Seymour and Stein would have used razors to slash the face of totalitarianism.
I am confronted daily with ambiguous post modern photography that objectifies and banalizes those suffering from injustice produced by photographers who seem to fall over themselves to run away from an opinion. The Mexican Suitcase holds no hidden surprises, no holy grail, but it was gratifying to be reminded of Capa’s clarity of view, even if I had to use binoculars to see it.
2nd December 2010