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October 13th, 2011
09:53 PM ET

Revealing "The Mexican Suitcase"

His photographs are some of the most iconic images of war taken during the first half of the 20th century.   And for the longest time, we thought we'd seen all that Robert Capa had to offer.  That is, until the "Mexican Suitcase" turned up.  It "revealed" some little-known secrets behind the legendary photographer's work.  Nick Glass gives us a glimpse.

Filed under: backstory • photography • The Revealer
soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. gfmohn

    Many years ago in a reputable book on photography (one of the Time-Life series) I read that the Falling Soldier was indeed faked. However, the event was not staged. The soldier indeed died. During a battle Capa pointed out the advancing soldier to a rifleman next to him and asked the rifleman to shoot the soldier when the soldier reached the rock shown in the picture. This allowed Capa to pre-focus his camera on the rock. Pre-focus is a technique used to this day in action photography. The photographer selects an object near which the moving subject of the photograph will pass and focuses on the object. When the subject reaches the selected object, the photographer trips the shutter.

    This version of the story still raises ethical questions, but very different ones. Pre-focusing was almost a necessity. The alternative to pre-focusing was (and is) "follow focus" Using "follow focus", the photographer follows the moving subject and attempts to keep it in focus. Even with the built-in rangefinder of the revolutionary Leica II camera used by Capa, this was difficult and, when the photographer was under fire, dangerous.

    Before the Leica, staging "action" photos of combat was a necessity. Setting up a camera on a tripod in combat was not possible. Most battlefield photos from WWI (only 18 years before the Spanish Civil War) were staged. So, in Capa's era, even the staging of combat photos was accepted, let alone merely suggesting a target.

    Capa's suggestion of a target to the rifleman makes modern readers uneasy. Capa's intervention in the action to cause the death of that particular soldier violates our modern expectation that the journalist will remain an observer, not a participant in the action. Even when the journalist is known to favor one side (as was Capa) , we see his active participation as raising his stake in the outcome even higher. This increased stake makes biased recording even more likely. The situation is comparable to the media firestorm that erupts when a journalist is found to have provided information to his national intelligence service.

    October 14, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Antje

      The man did not die. Nobody died there that day. It was all a play. Check the reconstructed sequence of the photos from the same roll and it is clear that it was all a laugh.

      October 18, 2011 at 5:47 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Hernan

    Many so-called war photographers took part in fairly obvious propaganda efforts on the side of the pro-Communist Spanish republic, which received the bulk of its foreign armament from the Soviet Union. Recruiting for the famous "International Brigades" was headed by none other than Josip Broz "Marshal" Tito at Stalin's bidding. It is regrettable that propaganda materials such as those of Capa continue to be used to inappropriately characterise the nature and outcome of the Spanish Civil war. Had Franco's anti-communist coalition not prevailed, Spain would almost certainly have become a sort of Soviet client state.

    October 14, 2011 at 7:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • leviathan

      Probably you think that Roosvelt was a communist because did not join Hitler, and now the USA is a communist country!!
      The fact is the spanish democratic goverment was buying weapons to the only country selling to them, Russia. Russia never helped Spain, they got paid. The only country that helped Spain was Mexico. Mexico was sending weapons to the democratic goverment, and never recognizie the fascits regime of Franco.

      October 15, 2011 at 12:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Antje

      The republicans won the elections. Franco staged a coup d'état.

      October 18, 2011 at 9:52 pm | Report abuse |
      • Layla

        el fondo podria ser un waaeplplr cualquiera o imagen cualquiera. lo que ha echo es recortar el rostro y la rosa de tal manera que solo dejo esos 2 elementos en una sola capa.. es asi-capa 2 (contiene la imagen de la rosa y el rostro)-capa 1 (contiene la imagen de fondo)-capa 0 (no tiene nada)recorta la imagen usando laso poligonal u otra herramienta

        August 27, 2012 at 8:30 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Antje

    Of course the negative wasn't in the cases. Friedman (capa) sent it then, with it's alternative look-a-like shot and the rest to VU magazin who published it and from where it went missing. It was clipped from its roll.
    The suitcase wasn't missing and found in 2007. Brother Cornell knew long before that where it was but had some hesitation to pursue their retrieval.

    October 18, 2011 at 9:57 pm | Report abuse |