This exhibition at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York is exceptional in many ways. In addition to the work of famed photojournalist Robert Capa, the exhibition presents new scholarship that has led to the proper crediting of the work of Chim (David Seymour) and Gerda Taro. The book, once a rare collector’s item, has also been republished with new scans of the original photographs.
Together in Spain
In July 1937, photojournalist Gerda Taro was covering the Battle of Brunete, just outside of Madrid, Spain, during the Spanish Civil War. It was but a year into the war, which began in July 1936 after a coup supported by the Nationalists lead to the collapse of the government of Republican Spain.
Taro found herself covering the conflict after meeting Robert Capa in Paris in 1934. The two had become lovers, and Capa taught her photography. When the Civil War broke out in Spain, they covered it as a team at first. But by early 1937, Taro had emerged as a photojournalist in her own right and began making photo excursions on her own.
Also working in Spain was David Seymour, who went by “Chim.” He had befriended Capa through the Rap picture agency and their time together in Paris before the war. While there is no direct evidence that Capa, Taro, and Chim were together in Spain, it is possible that they crossed paths. All three photographers worked to cover the Republicans, or Loyalists, as they fought to defeat the fascist Nationalists and their leader General Francisco Franco.
As the Battle of Brunete unfolded, the Republicans at first made advances. But the tide of battle changed, and as the Nationalists counterattacked, the Republicans were forced to retreat and give up some of the ground they had taken. In the confusion, Taro was crushed by a Loyalist tank and died a few days later.
Capa was inconsolable in the immediate aftermath of Taro’s death. In August, he traveled to New York City. It was on this trip that Death in the Making was born.
Capa dedicated the book to Taro, with a simple inscription:
For Gerda Taro,
Who Spent One Year at the Spanish Front,
And who stayed on.
Birth of an iconic book
Upon its release, the book received limited distribution. But in the decades since its publication in early 1938 the book has gone on to become an iconic work of war coverage.
The photographs and text work to chronicle the arc of the war up to that point, though it would not end till 1939. It shows the initial excitement at the start of the war, the later reality of the wounded and dead, the refugees fleeing the fighting, the contributions to the war effort by everyday people, the defense of Madrid, and the terror of air raids.
But even while the book was being produced, it was clear that Republican Spain was in bad shape. The fact that many European countries and the United States were staying out of the conflict was hurting the cause. But New York, where the book was published, was a center of activity for the Republicans. The war sparked a support effort including raising funds and sending international volunteers to fight. The book was in part a propaganda effort to raise awareness and support for Republican Spain on a larger scale.
The story behind the creation of the book is what the exhibition “Death in the Making: Reexamining the Iconic Spanish Civil War Photobook” investigates. The exhibition contains nearly 75 photographs along with ephemera, including magazines and printed matter, letters, and copies of the original book. And while the original book did not identify the work of each photographer, new research has revealed the proper crediting of the photographs, and shows Chim’s work in the book, which had not previously been credited at all.
Cynthia Young, the curator of the “Death in the Making” exhibition, has been looking at Capa’s work while helping to organize the 2007 ICP retrospective of his work, “This is War!: Robert Capa at Work“.
But it was not until a large collection of negatives from the Spanish Civil War by Capa, Taro, and Chim arrived at the ICP, known as the Mexican Suitcase, that it was possible to identify Chim’s work in the book. “When the large cache of negatives from the Spanish Civil War by Capa, Taro and Chim arrived at ICP in late 2007, I looked closely at Chim’s work in Spain,” said Cynthia Young.
“There were many publications at the time that used Capa, Taro and Chim’s work. In fact, their images complimented each other and told a greater story about Republican Spain than any one of them did. While we knew that Chim had a close relationship with Capa over the years (they founded Magnum Photos in 1947 together) it was very clear that their personal and professional friendship was essential when they were all covering the Spanish Civil War. And while there are not so many images by Chim in Death in the Making, they are undeniably his.”
Chim was not listed on the title page with Capa and Taro. But as Young asks and explores in her enlightening essay, which deftly tells the tale of the book’s history and creation, were Chim’s photos added after Capa had left? Did those who laid out the book not realize that Chim’s work was included? Did those putting the book together even know which photos were Taro’s or Capa’s?
The haste of its publication, its strange layout, bad image quality, numerous typos in its text, the fact that Capa was not present for its completion, and some interpersonal issues between those involved in its creation all led to the “half-baked Spanish book” as Peter Köster, Capa’s agent at the Pix agency, called it in a letter to Capa.
“Many of the journalists covering the war in Ukraine are deeply invested in the outcome, as Capa, Taro and Chim were in Spain”
The new edition of the book, and the exhibition, work to not just tell the whole story of the book but to correct the original errors and give the book the treatment that it deserves. A major piece of this is giving the proper credit to which all the photographers are due, and this comes in the form of a checklist at the end of the book’s new edition that finally identifies each of the photographers’ work, which was compiled through extensive research in the ICP’s archive.
The exhibition and book also come at a time when scenes like those in Death in the Making are once again playing out. The war in Ukraine in many ways mirrors the scenes of the Spanish Civil War, along with photojournalists who are deeply committed to their work covering the war.
“I was really struck by the images coming from Ukraine in the first weeks of the war and how similar in subject and composition they were to Capa, Taro and Chim’s work in Spain, particularly comparing the images from Kiev and Madrid: people using the subways as shelters from air strikes, families carrying their possessions escaping the city, volunteers bringing whatever weapons they could to the front line… Survival in the big cities during war repeats itself, even 80 years apart,” said the curator of the “Death in the Making” exhibition.
“And I know many of the journalists covering the war in Ukraine are deeply invested in the outcome, as Capa, Taro and Chim were in Spain. I think this commitment to the larger story about oppression makes a difference in the kinds of images people are willing to make, the sacrifices it takes to get so close to danger and to repeatedly return to witness what is happening there.”
Capa and Chim would go on to illustrious careers, including becoming co-founders of Magnum Photos in 1947. Like Taro, they also both met their fate while covering war. Capa died while covering the French war in Indochina after stepping on a landmine in 1954. Chim was killed two years later in 1956 by Egyptian sniper fire while covering the Suez.
Eighty-four years separate us from the publication of Death in the Making and the Spanish Civil War. Once again war is raging in Europe, bombs are falling, and refugees are fleeing the violence. And photojournalists are there covering the story and losing their lives in the process. Brent Renaud, Yevhenli Sakun, Pierre Zakrzewski, Maks Levin, and Mantas Kvedaravicius are just a few of their names.
Looking at the larger story being told about Ukraine while looking at the Spanish Civil War shows, in the words of the ICP’s executive Director David E. Little, that photojournalism is just as important as ever.
“As we celebrate ICP’s history by revisiting collection highlights in a contemporary context, “Death in the Making” presents audiences with new insight into the historically resonant contributions of Robert Capa, Chim, and Gerda Taro and, as evidenced in recent photographs of the Russia-Ukraine War, points to photography’s ongoing relevance in political discourse, debate, and action.”
“Death in the Making: Reexamining the Iconic Spanish Civil War Photobook” is on display at the International Center of Photography in New York City through January 9, 2023.
Robert Capa: Death in the Making can be purchased through the museum’s website.