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So what does a Mexican suitcase have to do with tourism in France? Quite a lot if you are anywhere near the southern France city of Arles between now and September 18.
Until then the Departmental Antique Museum in Arles displays an historic collection of pictures taken during the anguish of the Spanish civil war in the 1930s by three young war photographers who went on to become world-famous photo journalists.
The exhibition called La valise mexicaine de Robert Capa (Robert Capa’s Mexican Suitcase) is a European first. It features long-missing contact sheets, prints, films and more items by photographer Robert Capa; Gerda Taro, his Spanish-origin French girlfriend and lifetime companion; and David Seymour, a German-born photographer with whom Capa later became a co-founder of the prestigious photo agency Magnum.
Capa’s on-the-battlefield snap in 1936 of a rifle-toting Spanish loyalist soldier being struck, thrown backward and killed by the impact of a bullet fired by future fascist dictator Francisco Franco’s military forces during the civil war is considered one of the most telling war photos ever taken. Although years later a controversy developed about exactly when, where and of whom the picture was taken, it established Capa’s war photographer’s reputation.
After Spain, Capa later went on to a distinguished photo-journalistic career working mostly for Life magazine but also for Colliers. He covered the Sino-Japanese conflict in Asia, the World War II North African combats, the Allied landings in Sicily and Normandy, the liberation of Paris, the birth of the nation of Israel and, finally, the fighting in Viet Nam. On assignment for Life in 1954, while accompanying French forces there, he stepped on a mine and was killed by its blast. France later honored him with a posthumous Croix de guerre.
Ironically, his lifetime companion, Gerda Taro, also met her death on the battlefield in 1937 during the latter stages of the civil war when the car she was in was crushed by an out-of-control tank of the anti-Franco loyalist forces.
So where does the “Mexican suitcase” fit in here, particularly since it wasn’t even a suitcase but actually consisted of three small boxes?
Those boxes, however, contained no less than 124 photo rolls with some 4,500 negatives of pictures, the majority taken by Capa, Taro and Seymour during the 1936-39 civil war. Capa assembled them in Paris at the end of the war in Spain before they dropped out of sight and circulation. They were considered lost until they turned up again in the year 2007 in Mexico City as “The Mexican Suitcase.”
Apparently when Hitler’s German forces invaded France in 1940 and Capa left France for the United States, the photos somehow—no one knows for sure—fell into the possession of a military attaché in Mexico’s Paris embassy.
Given the generally sympathetic help provided by Mexico to thousands of Spaniards who fled their country when Franco took over, it is not sure but possible to think that Capa, given his Spanish civil war experience, had contact in Paris with the diplomatically-protected Mexican military attaché and, perhaps, turned over the photo boxes to him for safekeeping.
In the years after the photo boxes dropped from sight, Capa’s brother Cornell, who lived in the United States, kept up a constant search for them.
It was he who finally located them in 2007 in Mexico and arranged for their return to the United States to the collection of the International Photography Center of New York founded by Cornell himself.
The Center exhibited the collection in New York in 2010, but the Arles exhibition is the first in Europe. Altogether, the Arles museum is displaying 100 photo negatives, 70 framed photographs and 60 magazines or magazine pages highlighting the Spanish civil war work of Capa, Tero and Seymour plus a small number of photos also taken during the conflict in Spain by Fred Stein, a photographer friend of Tero.
The museum also features the first public showing of a film about how the photographic treasury of The Mexican Suitcase was lost, preserved and recovered and its importance in preserving a graphic, intensely humanistic picture of the Spanish civil war and its influence on the course of European and world history.
For photojournalism addicts, Robert Capa ranks about where Mozart would for a musician or Shakespeare for a writer. That’s why the Arles exhibition has to be considered a must-see for camera, photo and history fans.
The Mexican Suitcase exhibition is part of a larger annual festival of photography-linked cultural events in the city during the same time frame.
The Musée départemental Arles antique [English]
Also known as: The Musée de l’Arles antique or Musée de l’Arles et de la Provence antiques
Tél: 04 1331 5148
Presqu’île-du-cirque-romain, 13200 Arles
Hours: Open Monday, Wednesday-Sunday 10am-6pm (closed Tuesdays)
Entry: Permanent Collection: 6€ in 2011 with reduced rates for seniors, disabled visitors; under 18 free. Free first Sunday of month.
Additional fee for temporary exhibitions
Robert Capa, intro photo: Credit: ©Gerda Taro, courtesy of the International Center of Photography
The Falling Soldier: Credit: Robert Capa/I.C.P. Collection
Box of Capa’s film rolls Photo: ©NY Times-Tony Cenicola
Exhibition photos courtesy of Getty Images & L’Express.fr
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