Trisha Ziff and The Mexican Suitcase

ONE

In May 2007, Mexican documentary filmmaker Trisha Ziff, at the behest of curators at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan, met another Mexican filmmaker, an elusive but affable man named Ben Tarver, at a coffee shop in Mexico City. Tarver brought with him contact sheets he had printed from three rolls of 35mm film negatives, images of known historic importance, but heretofore unseen and long believed to have been lost. They were part of a cache of more than 3,500 35mm. frames documenting the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War. The photos were believed to constitute a complete chronology of the three year struggle, a prelude to WWII, described by Herman Göring, commander of the German Luftwaffe, as a training exercise for the coming Nazi Blitzkrieg. The photographs were taken by three young photojournalists working on the cusp of what would be legendary careers. But all three were to die while covering this and other mid-century armed conflicts.

TWO

The Spanish Civil War has assumed the proportions of myth since it ended with the fall of the country’s Republican forces to those of Francisco Franco and the Fascist Falangists in April of 1939. What had begun in Spain in 1931 as the democratically elected Second Republic following the abdication of King Alfonso XIII, soon fell victim to the contending forces of army, monarchists and the Catholic Church, multiple aligned forces that had jockeyed power for a century. Now, poverty-plagued Spain was cast as a violent laboratory for the political, social and religious ideologies that were boiling up in Europe in the early 20th century.

In addition to a killing field for homegrown forces, the war became a rallying ground for passionate partisans from countries around the globe, especially on the side of the democratic (Loyalist/Republican) fighters. Their International Brigades consisted of foreign men of often idealist, leftist persuasions, such as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade from the United States.

Like the ragtag forces fighting for the Loyalists, journalists streamed into the fight, most often in sympathy with the endangered democratic government; they sent their photos and dispatches to left leaning publications such as Regards and Vu in France, to Picture Post in England, as well as publications in Mexico and the Soviet Union. The USSR saw this conflict as a potential new beachhead for the aspirations of its 1917 revolution. Mexico, too, having recently had its own leftist revolution, was a sympathetic ally. So deep was the commitment of these two countries that today contemporary forensic archeologists unearthing sites of major battles have found that most of the shell casings of the Loyalist forces came from munitions made in the USSR and Mexico.

Robert Capa, David “Chim” Seymour and Gerda Taro are the three photographers whose negatives make up The Mexican Suitcase. This “Maleta Mexicana” consists of three modest sized, handmade cardboard cases, most likely constructed by the photographers’ Parisian based liaison, Cziki Weisz. Weisz, like his friend Capa, was a Hungarian Jew who had found refuge from Nazi Germany, in Paris. He became de facto editor and printer for the work as it was sent to him from the Spanish front for processing and printing prior to publication.

Two of Weisz's cases look like this.

A single roll of 36 exposure, developed negative is housed in each of its 50 compartments, rows that are ten long and five wide. Weisz’s handwriting on the inside lid describes the contents of each roll, usually by town or site of the action. The third case contained flat filmstrips with cardboard wrappers listing the same data.

The incredible story of the search for, the finding, and exhibiting of the photographs in a 2010 show at ICP is best told by the documentary’s director Trisha Ziff in a nine-minute video interview. A brief rundown before you view it will help explain.

The first thirty seconds of Ziff's video are in Spanish but nearly all of the rest is in English. At 3:29 the writer Juan Villaro relates in Spanish (no subtitles) how the “Maleta Mexicana” came to be found in Mexico. When Cziki Weisz was forced to leave Paris, he traveled with the three cases to Vichy France, probably to Marseilles. Somewhere along the way he passed the three boxes of negatives to General Francisco Aguilar Gonzalez for safekeeping. The general was the Mexican government representative to Vichy. Gonzalez subsequently transported the boxes back to his home in Mexico City where they remained in his custody until his death decades later. Director Ziff narrates this picaresque tale. And the white haired Ben Tarver, who eventually acquires the boxes, reveals how the negatives came into his possession.

The story of these negatives of Capa, Taro and Chim may play like an international spy thriller, but it is hardly the whole story, and it is the larger, international perspective of a people's exile that gives the film such emotional resonance.  The “exile” of the suitcases of negatives to Mexico is a kind of trope for the parallel tragedy that befell tens of thousands of Spanish partisans.  Near the end of her video introduction, Ziff refers to her film as a meditation on "exile and memory." Beyond the discovery and archiving of the film negatives is the compelling story of personal histories that the negatives record—the dashed hopes for democracy of an impoverished people, its final, crushing defeat by Axis forces in Madrid, and relentless reprisals by Franco’s army. Once found, thousands of the Loyalists, as well as sympathetic villagers and non-combatants, were slaughtered and buried in mass graves, the "fosa comun" (a now familiar tactic from the genocides of Bosnia and Rwanda). The “lucky” ones escaped across the Pyrennes into the ill-prepared internment camps on the beaches of southern France's coastline. This human tragedy was documented in hundreds of frames by Capa several years after the death of his beloved Gerda Taro. Taro had perished, while working, on July 26, 1937 in a vehicle collision outside the town of Brunete. Nearly her entire photo corpus is of that war. She was twenty-six.

Tens of thousands of refugees were welcomed by the Mexican people; numerous boats stuffed with exiled Republicans steamed into Veracruz to begin new lives as best they could. Only Mexico and the Soviet Union fully opened their arms to the bedraggled, impecunious exiles. Today, the grandchildren of those exiles grasp a tenuous handhold on their memories of the lost Spanish cause as they search for the fate of their long dead relatives. The images of the Mexican Suitcase are for them, not only a missing link in the story of 20th century photojournalism, or of a democratic Spain that might have been. The photographs constitute an intimate portrait gallery of their loved ones, of their struggles to survive, and of their deaths, stories now almost lost to history.

Ziff concludes her presentation by discussing the 2007 “La Ley Memoria,” an act passed by the Spanish government that gives families of the dead the right to physically dig in sites suspected to be mass graves. A montage sequence of relatives and forensic archeologists, shovels in the earth, digging up skeletal remains, searching for identifying papers or personal items, opens the documentary. At first, this credit sequence seems removed from its ostensible subject of the discovery of the lost photos. But what becomes clear as the film unspools is the intrinsic connection between those graves and the photos.

This has been a much-detailed description of the video clip but one that I feel is necessary to help understand the drama behind the photos. Here is the Trisha Ziff video.

THREE

Once Trisha Ziff brought the Mexican Suitcase to the International Center for Photography, the thousands of frames were catalogued, dated as closely as possible and correlated to other negatives and fragments that had already been found and archived by the ICP. The Center’s founding director, Cornell Capa, is the brother of the charismatic photographer Robert Capa who had died at age 40 in 1954 in Indochina when he stepped on a land mine. Cornell had been hearing about this legendary suitcase of negatives for several decades but all efforts to make contact with putative owners had always ended in frustration; Cornell was on a mission to find his brother’s lost work. Though Cornell Capa did not live to see the ICP exhibition of the Mexican Suitcase in the fall of 2010, he did hold the Mexican Suitcase in his hands, knowing that this crucial link in his brother’s work, along with the total work of Taro, as well as the closely observed images from early in the war by Chim, were now safe for posterity.

The full story of this trove is rich in narrative details; the ICP website reveals many aspects of the work and of the war itself, including pocket biographies of Capa, Taro and Chim. It also has photo galleries of the work.

International Center of Photography link

One of the ancillary film records of the war is a documentary made by fellow Magnum Agency founder, Henri Cartier-Bresson. It is believed that both Capa and Taro contributed material to the film; it is known that Capa had a 35mm Eyemo.

A silent clip from the film shows the Americans of the Lincoln Brigade at leisure and training, an anomalous time out of war.

Nothing can better the taut, immersive experience of these individual Spanish Civil War photos than a close study of the two-volume exhibition catalog itself. It offers a detailed history of the war and the role of then nascent photojournalism in the conflict, and tracks photos' publication in European magazines— this at a time when the very concept of war photojournalism and the photo-essay was still struggling for definition. The catalog’s second volume is a frame-by-frame, roll-by-roll analysis of every surviving image from The Mexican Suitcase. If you consider yourself a student of photojournalism, this is a fundamental text; I urge you to get it.

Two dozen of the photos can be studied at this site.

blog: Chasing Light — Magnum Photos, The Mexican Suitcase link

An article by Dan Kaufman in the January 5, 2011 issue of The Nation offers fascinating insights and details about the political context of the war itself and how European intellectuals followed the war through the weekly articles and photo essays in the magazines, even as they debated its philosophy in the cafes of Montparnasse. The catalog places the photographs in the real world context of a continent headed toward self-immolation. It also brings to life the three figures behind the lens who daily risked their lives alongside the troops.

The Nation— “A Secret Archive: On the Mexican Suitcase” article link

FOUR

From an American perspective, the Spanish Civil war was a localized, albeit tragic, prelude to global war. Much of what we have known about it is cloaked in notions of extreme left/right political fighting, with the dreaded specter of another communist revolution looming before a frightened West, especially to an American government struggling out of the Depression and its own decade of  worker unrest and leftist polemics. But, for many embattled Europeans, it also represented a visceral response to the corruption of many national leaders alongside the towering specter of National Socialism.

Parallel with the photographs of Capa, Taro and Chim is the highly charged graphic art of the decade’s political posters. A video montage of these propaganda posters helps place into an even more passionate context the photographs of The Mexican Suitcase. Capa, Taro and Chim did not see their images as only objective reportage but as visual bullets alongside the lead ones of their Republican colleagues. An impassioned video set to the revolutionary song “Ay Carmela,” is an anthem to the Republican struggle, the tune itself being adapted from an older Spanish folk song.

If the images of The Mexican Suitcase were to come to documentary, animated life, they would be a true cri de coeur of the war. A reasonable person can imagine that such a film is unbearably painful to watch. But this film does exist. It is painful, for sure, but its dolor is tempered by an almost reportorial narration that makes it a crucial historical and human document. The film is an 85-minute history of the Spanish Civil War made in 1962, mainly from archival footage. I saw it on its initial theatrical release and have been haunted by it ever since. The emotional wallop of Frédéric Rossif’s “Mourir a Madrid” separates it by leagues from any other historical “war documentary” you have seen. I thought that this seminal film from the Nouvelle Vague period was all but forgotten, as I have never been able to find a video of it; nor have I ever seen it on cable TV. Yet, in 1963 it won the coveted Prix Jean Vigo in France and received an Oscar nomination several years later.

The film is narrated in French. No countries, save the Soviet Union and Mexico, felt such political empathy with the struggles of the Spanish Loyalists as the French. Recently, on a hunch, I decided to do an Internet search for the film--- and found it on YouTube. Several months before, it was not there. And in today’s SOPA era of privacy and piracy there is no knowing how long it can be seen. (It may take a few seconds for buffering on this film.)

The ideal solution to make this historic film available would be for a company like Criterion to do a re-master with English subtitles. But in the meantime, here it is in French with Spanish subtitles. If you know some vocabulary in either language it will not be difficult to follow. Of course, the images are more eloquent than anything that can be narrated, and the visceral power of a people’s struggle against oppression is as vital today in countries of the Middle East as it was seventy years ago on the cliffs and beaches of Asturias.

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