The Mexican Suitcase: A Fascinating Chapter in the History of Photography

Ted Forbes is about to share a very captivating story. The story of how a box full of war images shot by three celebrated war photographers of the past century were lost, survived the chaos of war, and then finally found the light of day. This is the story of the Mexican Suitcase:

One of the greatest war photographers of all time was Endre Freidmann who went by the pseudonym of Robert Capa. His captivating images from several confrontations from the last century captures the vivid and often graphic details of modern wars. Capa’s work took forward the legacy left behind by photographers such as Mathew Brady, who shot images during the Civil War. But where photographers like Brady struggled with their larger cameras and wet plates, taking up considerable time to set up, and in effect losing out on the actual battle scenes, Capa and his fellow photographers were able to shoot consistently with smaller 35mm film cameras. As a result, their images depicted more of the realities of the battlefield.

Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, David Seymour

The boxes had more than 4,500 negatives shot by Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, and David Seymour.

The story of the Mexican Suitcase is not about a single suitcase but about several boxes which were full of negatives taken by Robert Capa, his wife Gerda Taro, and David Seymour (Chim) during the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939). These boxes went missing when Capa had to leave Paris in a hurry, at the height of the Second World War, in 1939, to avoid being captured by the Germans.

Capa and taro

Gerda Taro and Robert Capa

Capa left the huge cache of negatives with his darkroom manager, Imre Weisz. In fact it is from a letter wrote by Weisz, much later, that the world first came to know about the existence of the negatives. Weisz stated that he had attempted to ship the images to Mexico after having traveled on a motorcycle to Bordeaux with the negatives inside a rucksack. Weisz never made it out and he was interred in Morocco until 1941.

Cornell Capa the mexican suitcase

Cornell Capa

Since the lost negatives were never mentioned of by Capa himself, not much thought was given to them—until 1979. That was when Capa’s brother, Cornell Capa, based on the letter written by Weisz, reached out to the photography community asking for information about the lost negatives.

Somehow, the negatives landed in the hands of General Francisco J. Aguilar González, who happened to be the Mexican ambassador to the Vichy government in France. The negatives were considered somewhat important since they had lasted the vagaries of several wars and the impact of time over seven decades and are largely in excellent condition.

work of robert capa, gerda taro

High quality scans from the Mexican Suitcase negatives.

Later on in the 1970s, notebooks—which presumably served as contact sheets—containing small prints of the images began to appear.

The boxes with the negatives were finally discovered by Mexican filmmaker Benjamin Tarver in the 1990s. He happened to inherit the negatives from his aunt who happened to be a close friend of General Aguilar González. A number of years later a concerted effort was launched to bring the negatives to the International Center of Photography (ICP) archives. Capa’s biographer, Richard Whelan, and ICP chief curator Brian Wallace worked closely with Trisha Ziff, an independent film curator and filmmaker living in Mexico, who went to convince Tarver that the negatives belonged to the archives. The negatives were finally brought to the ICP archives by Ziff on December 19, 2007.

Robert capa war photography

The Mexican Suitcase

The negatives are important from a number of perspectives. They depict not only the earliest instances when 35mm film was used to document modern war, but they are also invaluable from the perspective of the documentation of modern history. The Spanish Civil War was one of the most important events of the past century—an event that changed the history of Europe and with it mankind.

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