Famed photojournalist Robert Capa and the mystery of his “Mexican Suitcase”


posted Friday, April 5, 2013 at 3:40 PM EDT


Renowned photojournalist Robert Capa took hundreds of images of the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. Yet, in the ensuing 70 years, only a handful seemed to have survived. What became of those other images lies at the heart of the mystery of Capa's "Mexican Suitcase."

Telling the story of a war that no one seemed to care about
The story begins in 1936, when three young photojournalists -- Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour (known as Chim) -- crossed the Spanish border from France. They were intent on telling the story of a war that no one seemed to care about. Even today, that war seems little more than a footnote in history (at least for most of us), something from long ago and far away. However, its impact remains with us because it was the moment when war went from battlefields to the streets of cities. Civilians were no longer non-combatants; they were often targets. And the places that were once fought over, were now fought in.

The Spanish Civil War pitted the Nationalists -- under the infamous General Francisco Franco and supported by Hitler's Germany -- against the Republican forces supported in part by the Soviet Union. The Republican side was also supported by the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a ragtag band of young Americans who volunteered to go to Spain to fight the Fascists. My friend Milt Felsen was one of them. I met him when he was in 80s; he spoke like Humphrey Bogart and got a kick out of calling me "Flash." I asked him if he had met Capa and he told me:

"Sure, I did, Flash, at the Hotel Florida bar. He was a short guy. Good looking. A good man, just a little crazy. Always running towards the shooting."

The Hotel Florida in Madrid was where Ernest Hemingway lived at the time, and it was a gathering place for the foreigners fighting and covering the conflict.


[Ernest Hemingway (third from the left), New York Times journalist Herbert Matthews (second from the left) and two Republican soldiers, Teruel, Spain].
Taken late December 1937 by Robert Capa. Negative.
© International Center of Photography / Magnum

Photographers crazy in love
Gerda Taro, like Capa, was a little crazy too, always running towards the gunfire. Idealistic and romantic, they wanted to warn the world of the looming threat and to make some money, too. They were also deeply in love, traveling and photographing together and labeling their photos Capa&Taro. To sell their work, they would cut up their contact sheets and paste the best pictures into 8 x 10 notebooks along with their captions and story backgrounds. These notebooks were then given to their agents, who would then use them to market the stories. These photo essays sold well, and soon were published in European and American publications, including RegardsCe Soir, Vu and, of course, Life magazine.


[Gerda Taro and Robert Capa on the terrace of Café du Dôme in Montparnasse, Paris]
Taken early 1936 by Fred Stein. Negative.
© Estate of Fred Stein. Courtesy of International Center of Photography.

For the couple, life existed between the polar opposites of chic Paris café society and the killing fields of Spain. Too soon, however, Gerda's luck ran out and on July 25, 1937, she was killed by a tank while covering the Battle of Brunete. Capa was devastated. It took him months before he could go back to the front. But as usual, when he did he headed towards the shooting and covered the war until it ended in February of 1939.

Fleeing the war, leaving his files behind
Hemingway and the others then decamped for Paris as tens of thousands of Republican fighters and ordinary Spaniards crossed the Pyrenees, fleeing Franco. Many ended up in internment camps in France -- in places such as Barcarès and Argelès-sur-Mer, not far from where I live. The unlucky ones were sent north to German concentration camps, while a few lucky ones survived and later settled in France.

When he returned to Paris, Capa realized he was in jeopardy. The Nazis began their occupation of Paris in 1940 and were sure to arrest him, so he stayed as long as he could before leaving for New York. He entrusted his studio and Spanish Civil War negatives to his friend the photographer, Imre "Csiki" Weiss. Although he returned to Europe two years later and extensively photographed the war, and accompanied American troops landing in Normandy on D-Day, he apparently never made a effort to retrieve his Paris files.

Cornell Capa, Robert's younger brother and the founder of the International Center of Photography in New York City, told me in 1973 that Robert had taken "other Spanish pictures" but  he had no idea what had happened to them. That was until 1975, when he received a letter from Imre Weiss:

"In 1939, when the Germans approached Paris, I put all Bob's negatives in a rucksack and bicycled it to Bordeaux to try to get it on a ship to Mexico. I met a Chilean in the street and asked him to take my film packages to his consulate for safekeeping. He agreed."

A suitcase filled with treasure
Now the search was on, but Cornell's best efforts to find the rucksack and consulate produced nothing. At this time, no one knew of the amazing journey of these lost photographs. Shortly after Weiss gave them to the "Chilean" stranger, the rucksack became a suitcase which never got to the consulate. However, in 1941 or '42, one General Francisco Aguilar González -- the Mexican ambassador to the Vichy France government -- somehow got hold of it. There is no way of knowing whether the General knew what he had or ever opened the suitcase, but we know that he took it with him to Mexico City. There it was left among his personal belongings, where it stayed safe and forgotten for nearly 30 years.


One of three cardboard boxes of the Mexican Suitcase containing Spanish Civil War images by Capa, Chim, and Taro.
© International Center of Photography

The General died in 1971, and the suitcase's journey resumed. It was passed on to a woman friend of the General's who stored it away again, probably unopened, where it stayed until 1995. Then the woman died and the suitcase was left to her nephew, who happened to be the Mexican filmmaker Benjamin Tarver. He did open it and marveled at what he found. Having just seen an exhibition of Spanish Civil War photographs by Dutch photojournalist Carel Blazer in Mexico City, he understood what he had. He then reached out to Queens College (NY) art historian, Jerald R. Green for help. "Naturally it would seem prudent to have this material... become an archive available to students and researchers of the Spanish Civil War," Tarver wrote to Green, who was also a friend of Cornell Capa.

The elusive suitcase and its contents finally come home
Green immediately called Capa to tell him the news. Capa tried to get in touch with Tarver, but the filmmaker was oddly elusive and couldn't be reached. Finally, according to Cynthia Young, Assistant Curator of the Robert Capa and Cornell Capa Archive at the ICP:

"In early 2007, Wallis (the chief ICP curator) enlisted the aid of independent curator and filmmaker Trisha Ziff, based in Mexico City. Ziff first met Tarver in May 2007, and over the next several months helped to persuade him that the negatives belonged at ICP with the rest of the Capa and Taro Archives, and a large Chim collection. On December 19, Ziff arrived at ICP with the Mexican Suitcase. The missing negatives had finally come home."

Cornell Capa was 89 when at last he got to hold and open the "Mexican Suitcase." In it were 126 rolls of film containing more than 4,500 images taken by his brother Robert, Gerda and Chim, as well as several of the story notebooks. The images are kept in collection by the ICP, and on its website you can learn much more about the story of the "Mexican Suitcase."


[Exiled Republicans being marched down the beach to an internment camp, Le Barcarès, France]
Taken March 1939 by Robert Capa. Negative.
© International Center of Photography / Magnum

[Man carrying a wounded boy, Teruel, Spain]
Taken late December 1937 by Robert Capa. Negative.
© International Center of Photography / Magnum

As for my friend Milt, he made his way home, too. The F.B.I. called him a "premature anti-fascist" and a communist but despite that, when America entered the war, he and other Brigade vets found themselves recruited by General "Wild Bill" Donovan into the new O.S.S (later the C.I.A). Because of their combat experience in Europe, their country needed them and soon Milt, well ahead of the regular troops, was behind enemy lines blowing up bridges.

But that's another story for another time.

Special thanks to Camille Ortiz, Public Relations Coordinator at ICP for her assistance with this story.