Photographer Robert Capa fled Paris in 1939 at the outbreak of World War II, abandoning three cardboard cases containing some 3,500 photographic negatives taken during the Spanish Civil War. Capa, whom a British magazine once acclaimed “the greatest war photographer in the world” for his work spanning five conflicts, never saw them again, a landmine claiming his life while he was on assignment in Indochina.
Four decades after his death in 1954, a Mexican filmmaker confessed to having the negatives. Last December, they reached the International Center for Photography in New York City. Most of the delicate, nitrate-based negatives, are in “miraculously good condition, all things considered,” says ICP director Willis E. Hartshorn, who expects the negatives will reveal “just an enormous amount about the development of [Capa’s] style and of his approach.”
Born Endre Friedmann in Budapest in 1913, Capa invented his persona with his lover and fellow photographer Gerda Taro in Paris during the 1930s. Both Taro and he photographed the war in Spain, which pitted Republican forces against anti-fascist Loyalists. Taro was killed there in 1937. About a third of the negatives in the “Mexican suitcase” cache are hers, while another third are by Capa’s friend David “Chim” Seymour.
Capa’s most famous photograph, in which he captured a Loyalist soldier the moment he was shot dead in 1936, evokes visceral reactions and has caused some debate over its authenticity. Capa’s biographer, Richard Whelan, has vigorously disputed assertions that Capa staged the shot. Researchers hoped the Mexican discovery would conclusively settle the argument, but the negative does not appear to be present.
The process of studying the negatives has just begun, but Hartshorn already suspects they may not contain any bombshells. “This is something that fits into a larger body of research that we’ve already been doing,” he says. “That will be very helpful and very enlightening, but it’s not necessarily revelatory.” The ICP plans to start a blog so people can keep abreast of developments. In the meantime, the negative for Capa’s “Falling Soldier” photo remains missing. Perhaps it lies forgotten in some magazine’s files, awaiting its own rediscovery.