Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Mexican Suitcase @ICP

JTF (just the facts):
A total of 70 black and white photographs (framed in black and matted) and 102 contact sheets (unframed and pinned directly to the walls), hung against yellow walls in all of the gallery rooms on the main floor of the museum. The photographs are a mix of vintage and modern gelatin silver prints; the contact sheets are modern pigment prints. 20 glass cases circle the galleries, displaying relevant magazine spreads, letters, telegrams, notebooks, and other ephemera. The exhibit also includes selections of newsreels, a map of the various travels of the photographers, and a computer area for further study. All of the works were made during the period between 1936 and 1939. The exhibit was curated by Cynthia Young. A two-volume monograph, cotaining a full reproduction of all the images in the Mexican Suitcase, has recently been published by Steidl (here) and is available in the store for $98. (Since photography is not allowed in the ICP galleries, there are unfortunately no installation shots for this show. The images at right come via the ICP website.)

The following photographers were included in the show, with the number of works on display in parentheses:

Robert Capa (24 prints, 37 contact sheets)
Robert Capa/Gerda Taro (9 prints, 9 contact sheets)
David "Chim" Seymour (21 prints, 31 contact sheets)
Fred Stein (1 print, 2 contact sheets)
Gerda Taro (15 prints, 23 contact sheets)

Comments/Context: When the mystery "suitcases" finally found their way to the ICP in 2007, the unexpected rediscovery of the three boxes of long lost Spanish Civil War negatives had the photography world aflutter. Were the images all by Robert Capa? Did they definitively tell us whether Capa's famous The Falling Soldier was authentic or staged? The photo world waited with bated breath. In the end, the "Mexican Suitcase" didn't hold answers to this one controversial Capa question, but provided a surprisingly thorough picture of what it was like to be a war correspondent armed with a hand camera during the Spanish Civil War. Containing a mix of negatives from Robert Capa, David "Chim" Syemour, Gerda Taro and Fred Stein, the boxes tell the story of the origins of embedded photojournalism, where the photographers actively participated in the action, had clear biases and sympathies, and chose different narratives to follow. (Robert Capa, Exiled Republicans being marched on the beach from one internment camp, Le Barcarès, France, March 1939, at right top, via ICP.)

Robert Capa's images of the war are filled with up-close activity and movement. Young soldiers race into the blurred, smoky front line action of the Battle of Rio Serge, with others stand and peer out of rubble strewn bombed out windows. Recruits are mobilized in Barcelona, and refugees are herded down the beach or holed up in tent camps in France. Gerda Taro's images also track the battle, from attacking soldiers to burning trucks. The wounded and dead lay in plain sight, and the families in Valencia are left to helplessly wait for information. Shooting together, Capa and Taro also captured gunstocks stuck in the trench sandbags near Madrid and the destroyed walls of buildings torn apart, some left standing, others leveled to the ground. David "Chim" Seymour's photographs are less concerned with the immediacy of battle, and instead turn toward the more subtle consequences of the war. His camera is variously pointed at outdoor masses, Basque markets, anguished faces at a land reform meeting, and soldiers protecting art, capturing military and civilian expressions with equal candor.

What I liked most about this exhibit was the meticulousness with which the contact sheets and prints were matched with the magazine spreads. This detail work enables the viewer to see how the stories got constructed, how the photographers created the narrative lines via the types of images that they took. Even though the small contact sheets require some patience to pore over, they do provide the sequential context for how the photographers were "seeing" the chaos around them, and how they were framing the eventual history that would be written. Given the political viewpoints of the photographers, the line between reportage and propaganda gets a little muddy in some places, and the contact sheets make these choices more obvious.

Overall, this is a very visceral show, and all the outtakes make for a down and dirty picture of war. While there are some standout single images buried in among these thousands of frames, I was more struck by the overall sense that I myself was standing with a camera, immersed in the dizzying heat of the battle (or its aftermath), trying to make sense of it all and looking for a thread of a story to follow. The show is an amazingly potent dose of the challenges faced by these war-time photojournalists, their successes and failures vibrantly real even decades later.

Collector's POV: Since these negatives were recently rediscovered, it is not surprising that vintage prints of works from this period are scarce. More generally, of these photographers, Robert Capa has the most robust secondary market, with plenty of images coming up for sale in any given year; prices have typically ranged between $2000 and $22000, with most under $5000. Works by David "Chim" Seymour can be found only intermittently, the few lots that have sold finding buyers between $1000 and $4000. The works of Gerda Taro and Fred Stein have very little, if any, auction history. Since Capa and Seymour were members of Magnum, modern prints of their images can be acquired directly via the Mangum Photos store (here). (Gerda Taro, Crowd at the gate of the morgue after the air raid, Valencia, May 1937, at right bottom, via ICP.)

Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)
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