Copyright The New York Times
January 27, 2008
TO the small group of photography experts aware of its existence, it was known simply as â€šÃ„Ãºthe Mexican suitcase.â€šÃ„Ã¹ And in the pantheon of lost modern cultural treasures, it was surrounded by the same mythical aura as Hemingwayâ€šÃ„Ã´s early manuscripts, which vanished from a train station in 1922.
The suitcase â€šÃ„Ã® actually three flimsy cardboard valises â€šÃ„Ã® contained thousands of negatives of pictures that Robert Capa, one of the pioneers of modern war photography, took during the Spanish Civil War before he fled Europe for America in 1939, leaving behind the contents of his Paris darkroom.
Capa assumed that the work had been lost during the Nazi invasion, and he died in 1954 on assignment in Vietnam still thinking so. But in 1995 word began to spread that the negatives had somehow survived, after taking a journey worthy of a John le CarrâˆšÂ© novel: Paris to Marseille and then, in the hands of a Mexican general and diplomat who had served under Pancho Villa, to Mexico City.
And that is where they remained hidden for more than half a century until last month, when they made what will most likely be their final trip, to the International Center of Photography in Midtown Manhattan, founded by Robert Capaâ€šÃ„Ã´s brother, Cornell. After years of quiet, fitful negotiations over what should be their proper home, 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 soon realized the historical importance of what his family had.
â€šÃ„ÃºThis really is the holy grail of Capa work,â€šÃ„Ã¹ said Brian Wallis, the centerâ€šÃ„Ã´s chief curator, who added that besides the Capa negatives, the cracked, dust-covered boxes had also been found to contain Spanish Civil War images by Gerda Taro, Robert Capaâ€šÃ„Ã´s partner professionally and at one time personally, and by David Seymour, known as Chim, who went on to found the influential Magnum photo agency with Capa.
The discovery has sent shock waves through the photography world, not least because it is hoped that the negatives could settle once and for all a question that has dogged Capaâ€šÃ„Ã´s legacy: whether what may be his most famous picture â€šÃ„Ã® and one of the most famous war photographs of all time â€šÃ„Ã® was staged. Known as â€šÃ„ÃºThe Falling Soldier,â€šÃ„Ã¹ it shows a Spanish Republican militiaman reeling backward at what appears to be the instant a bullet strikes his chest or head on a hillside near Câˆšâ‰¥rdoba in 1936. When the picture was first published in the French magazine Vu, it created a sensation and helped crystallize support for the Republican cause.
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Randy Kennedy – The New York Times
Copyright The New York Times