A pioneer of modern war photography, Capa left three cardboard valises, which came to be known as “the Mexican suitcase” and contained about 3,500 negatives of pictures he took during the Spanish Civil War, in a Paris darkroom before he fled Europe for America in 1939. He died in 1954 on assignment in Vietnam.
In 1995 word began to spread that the negatives had survived WWII, traveling from Paris to Marseille and then, in the hands of a Mexican general and diplomat, to Mexico City, where they remained hidden for more than half a century. After years of negotiations, legal title to the negatives was recently transferred to the Capa estate by descendants of the general, including a Mexican filmmaker who first saw them in the 1990s and realized their historical importance. Last month, they journeyed to the ICP, founded by Robert Capa’s brother, Cornell.
Besides the Capa negatives, the boxes contain Spanish Civil War images by Gerda Taro, Capa’s professional and personal partner professional. Research could bring about a reassessment of the career of Taro, one of the first female war photographers, who sometimes credited early work jointly with Capa. There are also negatives by David "Chim" Seymour, who founded Magnum photo agency with Capa. The negative for one of Chim’s most famous Spanish Civil War photographs, showing a woman cradling a baby at her breast as she gazes upward in 1936, has also been found. “We were astonished to see it,” said Brian Wallis, the ICP's chief curator. Researchers have also already come across pictures of Ernest Hemingway and Federico Garcia Lorca.
The discovery could determine if what may be Capa's most famous picture and one of the most famous war photographs of all time was staged. Known as “The Falling Soldier,” it shows a Spanish Republican militiaman reeling backward the instant a bullet strikes him on a hillside near Cordoba in 1936, and the image helped garner support for the Republicans. Capa biographer Richard Whelan made a case that the photo was not fake, although Capa and Taro were Communist partisans of the loyalist cause and known to photograph staged maneuvers (a common practice at the time). The shot has been reproduced from a vintage print, so a negative of the shot, especially in a sequence showing all the images taken before and after the shot, could end the debate.
The valises are also being hailed because they contain the formative work of a photographer who played a pivotal role in bringing war's horrors nearer and making them more cinematic than ever.
The full story of how the negatives made their way to Mexico may never be known, but conservation experts say the film appears to be in remarkably good condition for 70-year-old nitrate stock stored in flimsy boxes. “They seem like they were made yesterday,” said Wallis. “They’re not brittle at all. They’re very fresh. We’ve sort of gingerly peeked at some of them just to get a sense of what’s on each roll.”