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The first female war photographer killed in action was 26 and had a brilliant career ahead of her

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Many of Gerda Taro’s pictures were attributed to Robert Capa

Gerda Taro’s photo of a militia member training on the beach outside Barcelona, August 1936. (International Center of Photography)

Because of her size, stealth, and quickness, and her strawberry blond mane, Gerda Taro was often called “the little red fox.” The intrepid photojournalist was one of the first women ever to capture a war on film, and is thought to be first female war correspondent killed in action. In his diary, Alfred Kantorowicz, a German-Jewish writer and intellectual exiled in France who was friends with Taro, described meeting up with her in Spain. Taro, he writes, was beautiful, wearing “trousers, a beret pulled down over beautiful red-blond hair, and dainty revolver at her waist.”

She was born Gerta Pohorylle in Stuttgart, Germany. To escape anti-Semitism, she moved to Paris in 1934, where she met a young Hungarian political exile named Andre Friedmann. Both had been involved in anti-fascist activism; Taro was arrested the year before for passing out anti-Nazi propaganda, and Andre was being pursued by the Hungarian police. The two began a professional collaboration that quickly became a love affair. In the climate of escalating anti-Semitic hostility, neither could afford to keep their Jewish surnames. Together, they invented Robert Capa, a wealthy American news photographer in Europe for the first time, and both took photos under his name. They renamed themselves Gerda Taro and Robert Capa — Taro chose her name both as an homage to Japanese avant-garde painter Taro Okamoto and because it was “proximate to Greta Garbo.”

Gerda Taro with her lover and business partner, Robert Capa, in 1936. (Fred Stein Archive/Getty Images)

As Capa’s manager, Taro worked to elevate the fictional photojournalist’s reputation, and his fees. Soon, Capa was commanding large sums for his newspaper images. The real Capa, formerly Friedmann, built a strong reputation and began dressing in dapper suits. When war broke out in Spain in 1936, the two decided to travel there to photograph it. Taro began covering the civil war for Vu magazine and Ce Soir, a Communist-sympathizing French newspaper.

According to her biographer, Jane Rogoyska, “Taro became very emotionally involved in the Spanish Civil War…she was so passionate about the suffering of the Spanish people.” Taro took thousands of photographs, and sought to capture the intensity of the conflict from both the point of view of the fighters and average citizens. After the bombing of Valencia, she photographed the inside and outside of the morgue. Inside were bloodied bodies, outside were families pressed up against the gates, writhing in anxiety as they waited for news.

Crowd outside morgue after air raid, Valencia, 1937. (Gerda Taro/International Center of Photography)

Taro’s images are not only important for capturing the heat of battle, they also mark a turning point in the history of chronicling war. The 35mm Leica camera had revolutionized combat photography. Previously, large, heavy cameras had to be set up on tripods, which is why World War I photographs were so often of the dead following a battle. The advent of the handheld camera meant war photographers could nimbly move about, documenting fighting but also everyday life, small moments of silence, camaraderie between soldiers, and civilian suffering.

Many of Taro’s and Capa’s photos, along with those of fellow photojournalist David Seymour (known as ‘Chim’) were lost for nearly five decades. Fleeing the Nazis in France, Capa gave three boxes containing 4,500 negatives of the war to his darkroom manager. What followed is largely a mystery, but the three boxes of negatives ended up with the Mexican ambassador to Vichy France. They languished in Mexico City for years, until a relative of the ambassador realized what they were, and gave them them to Capa’s estate.

(L) Segovia front (Navacerrada Pass), c. May 31, 1937. / (R) Battle of Brunete, July 1937. (Gerda Taro/International Center of Photography)

According to a New York Times piece about the first major exhibition of her work at the International Center for Photography in 2010, Taro “survived in the public eye mostly for her romance with Mr. Capa.” As Jane Rogoyska writes in Gerda Taro: Inventing Robert Capa, Taro’s legacy has been uneven not merely because she died before her career came into full flower, but because many of her photographs were misattributed to Capa. But she also missed out on the opportunity to build a name for herself because she died just as she was beginning to take the best photos of her career, and establishing a reputation independent of her lover.

On July 25, 1937, Gerda Taro was photographing in the Spanish town of Brunete, which General Franco’s troops had retaken from Republican forces. The 26-year-old photojournalist was set to return to France the following day, and was excited about the photographs she’d just gotten. She jumped on the footboard of a car transporting wounded soldiers. When the car was broadsided by a tank, Taro was crushed. She died of her injuries the following day.

Gerda Taro and soldier, Córdoba front, 1936. (Robert Capa/International Center of Photography)

Taro had increasingly pursued more dramatic shots, putting herself in ever more dangerous situations, and according to Rogoyska, Capa always felt guilty that he wasn’t with her when she was killed. In fact, he felt guilty for having introduced her to photography in the first place.

In chronicling the Spanish Civil War with particular emphasis on and empathy for the Republican forces, Taro became something of a hero to the left. She was buried in Paris’s famous Père Lachaise cemetery. Her funeral was organized by the French Communist Party, and drew more than 10,000 mourners. Her tomb was designed by Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti. As Stephen Wolgast writes for the National Press Photographers Association, “French girls formed societies in her memory. Newspapers in Paris stretched out their coverage of her death and funeral over two weeks. And in Philadelphia, a bubble-gum company included her in a 240-card series devoted to ‘True Stories of Modern Warfare.’”

Taro’s grave in Paris. (Flickr)

Capa went on to become perhaps the most renowned war photographer of all time, and author of the dictum, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” He documented the D-Day landings on Omaha Beach in Normandy in 1944. He was eventually killed by a landmine in Indochina in 1954.

By all accounts, Taro was the chief architect of Capa’s early persona, and the love of his life. She was also a dynamic and talented creative force in her own right. “We all loved Gerda very much,” wrote Alexander Szurek, an adjutant to a Spanish Republican general, in his memoirs. “Gerda was petite with the charm and beauty of a child. This little girl was brave and the Division admired her for that.”

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