Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Gerdo Taro (1/6/10 -26/7/37) - Pioneering Photojournalist of the Spanish Civil War

Today I pause to remember an exceptional photographer, who blazed new paths for women in photography, who contributed a unique and unusual body of work, who died  far too young.
Gerda Taro was born as Gerta Pohorylle  on 1 August, 1910 to a middle class Jewish family who had migrated from Poland to Stuttgart, Germany, she attended the Königin-Charlotte Realschule in Stuttgart, the Internat Villa Florissant in Lausanne, Switzerland, the Höhere Handelsschule (Business College) in Stuttgart, and the Gaudig Schul in Leipzig.
As oppression of Jews and other groups became a matter of national policy, Gerta Pohorylle became more political. One night on her way to a dance she stopped to help some activists distribute anti-Nazi pamphlets. She was subsequently arrested and spent the night in jail, where she drew attention for being the only inmate dressed in evening wear. In 1933, after Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor,and made life for many Jews inhospitable  and risky, so her family decided to leave Germany. Her parents left for Palestine, her brothers for England. Pohorylle decided to flee to Paris.Here she was first employed as a secretary to the psychoanalyst René Spitz. She would find work as a picture editor for Alliance Photo, an international picture agency. She met another displaced Jew, a young Hungarian man, his name was André Friedmann. Pohorylle and Friedmann became romantically involved and moved in together. In the spring of 1936, they reinvented themselves as Robert Capa and Gerda Taro.Capa taught Taro how to photograph, she made him presentable for employers and created his “brand”.
In 1936 civil war erupted in Spain. Fascist/Nationalist forces, backed by Nazi Germany, attempted a coup against the elected government of the Republic, comprised of socialist and liberal parties. As steadfast socialists, Capa and Taro left Paris and headed for Spain to cover the war.From August 1936 on, her brief career consisted almost exclusively of dramatic photographs from the front lines of the Spanish Civil War. Taro worked alongside Capa, and the two collaborated closely.They both captured arresting images of the devastation hitting the country; torturous conditions in hospitals, militiawomen training for combat, children playing on barricades, morgues and munitions factories in Madrid, but most shocking were the photos taken from the frontline. These images were then sent to leftist publications back in France, however the photo credit was always simply ‘Capa’.

                                 Gerda Taro and soldier, Córdoba front, 1936. By Robert Capa   

Taro's work over time got overshadowed by that of  Capra, and their lives since have come to represent a romantic vision of the stateless person involving themselves in terrible battles: the social battles, the political battles of the time. However she had a different aesthetic than Capa, her pictures are much more posed, using strong camera angles. Capa was much more into movement.As she chronicled the Spanish Civil War, she spotlighted the small and intimate moments that humanized the conflict: Among the memorable pictures that survive by her are ones of defiant farmers, fists clenched, photographed from audacious angles, photographs of strong Republican militia women training on the beach outside Barcelona in 1936,

A photograph  of a solitary soldier playing bugle against a backdrop of sky;

 a young boy standing near a trench, wearing the cap of the FAI (Iberian Anarchist Federation) looking ready to join the fight.

Perhaps most famous is her silhouette of a woman with a pistol, down on one knee and concentrating furiously on her shot… yet wearing impeccable high heels. Like many of Taro's wartime images, it's an incredibly memorable shot.

 When viewing her photographs you don’t feel like a spectator; on the contrary, you feel like a participant involved with the action. Taro believed photographs were a powerful medium which could influence public opinion.
On 5 September, 1936. Taro and Capa accompanied some Loyalist volunteers on field manoeuvres near Cordoba. The manoeuvre were unexpectedly interrupted when they were ambushed by Nationalist troops. Taro had already used up all her film; Capa, however, shot the photograph that made him famous the photo that has been called the greatest war photograph of all time. It shows a Loyalist soldier a split second after he has been shot.

When she returned from the front, Taro traded in her bulky Rolleiflex medium format camera for a small Leica. She abandoned the use of more posed photographs that could be viewed as excercises in propoganda and began to shoot in a journalistic style. She and Capa believed the only way to document the realities of war was to be as close to it as possible. "That is really the only way in which to be able to understand the fighting," Taro told a colleague. Capa’s comment on that approach is more widely quoted: "If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough." Taro lived that approach. With or without Capa, Taro was everywhere in Spain, and started to put herself in increasingly dangerous situations, always seeking the action. She covered the failed Loyalist offensive of the Navacerrada Pass, which was later the subject of Ernest Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. She accompanied a team of dinamiteros, bomb-makers, on a mission in Madrid. She always sought out the locations where something was happening or about to happen.She is believed to be the first woman photographer to accompany troops into combat.The republican fighters had great respect for her.


Gerda Taro spent the last day of her life in the trenches of Brunete, west of Madrid, holed up with Republican fighters.It was a critical moment in the Spanish Civil War - Gen Franco's forces had just retaken the town, inflicting heavy losses on the Republicans' best troops, who were now under fire as they retreated.As bombs fell and planes strafed the ground with machine-gun fire, Taro kept taking photographs.
She was due to return to France the next day and only left the trenches when she ran out of film, making her way to a nearby town.She jumped onto the running boards of a car transporting wounded soldiers, but it collided with an out-of-control tank and she was crushed. She tragically died in hospital from her injuries early the following morning.The war that made Taro's career also took her life. She was just 26 years old.She became the first female war photographer to die on assignement.Her photographs from that day, 25 July 1937, were never found. 
Her funeral in Paris (on Aug. 1, 1937, which would have been her 27th birthday) drew thousands who hailed her as a martyr to anti-Fascism. The French writer Louis Aragon and the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda were among those in attendance. Alberto Giacometti, the sculptor, designed her memorial.A few years later this celebrated photographer had sunk into obscurity, her negatives lost and few remembering her work, overshadowed by Capa's monumental reputation within twentieth century  photography.However a recent discovery of a vast collection of Capa and Taro's photographs,known as the Mexican Suitcase and  recently exhibited in the US, France and Spain, has served to highlight her well.Taro helped expose the bloody price the fascist forces imposed on the Spanish people.

Taro’s photographs – taken in Valencia in 1937 a few weeks after the infamous Guernica raid as painted by Picasso – are so close to you that you could almost touch the bodies and smell the blood! They are truly shocking, honest and direct accounts of the price of fascism. 

Regardless of personal risk, she became a tireless witness to the Spanish civilian atrocities and terror. Ssentially, her fight against fascism was existential, based on her immediate experiences.Found decades later, her photos have now been exhibited, demonstrating the depth she achieved in a short career. Capa was devastated by the loss of his soul mate, feeling guilty that he didn’t protect her, although he couldn’t have. He decided to travel to China in 1938 and then to New York in 1939, photographing World War II, the landing of American troops on Omaha beach on D-Day—which are the source of his most well known photographs, the liberation of Paris, and the Battle of the Bulge as a European correspondent.Hi  relationship with Ms. Taro was “a very painful private matter,”he never quite recovered from the loss of his great love and never married, he also never attempted to officially commemorate her except in his book “Death in the Making,” about the Spanish Civil War.
We are fortunate many years later to understand now the scope and scale of Gerdo Taro's work and the incredible bravery she must have shown on the battleground that was Spain. Taro is part of a small pantheon of women photographers who saw photography as an extension of their political commitment and of their role as new women. Let us forever remember her work and pioneering life, as her name is again in public consciousness, lets not lose her memory to history, or forget others like her who put themselves in incredibly dangerous situations for the sake of their art.Perhaps we can all surely aspire, to some degree, to the tight fit between conviction and existence that Taro, in her brief tragic life, achieved.

                                                  Gerdo Taro Sleeping by Robert Capo

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