Thursday, September 27, 2007

Point and Shoot: Taro, Capa and the Spanish Civil War

This blog was originally conceived as being devoted to the arts and social issues, and if we have not always hewed perfectly to that course it is nevertheless the pole towards which we gravitate. Few art events could provide a more promising opportunity to emphasize this than the current show at the International Center of Photography (ICP), devoted almost entirely to photographs relating to the Spanish Civil War. That of course means the photography of Robert Capa, but importantly, in this case, the work of his partner Gerda Taro as well. (FYI, there seem to suddenly be about 50 sites presenting the same copy on Taro, all drawn from either a NY Times review or the ICP itself. One thing I can guarantee my readers is that any non-original text you find on this blog will be in quotes, with attribution. The lack of any real info about Taro on the web before this exhibit can be seen from her very short Wikipedia entry. That said, Google turned up a few European sites that I didn't check out but which might have info that pre-dates the exhibit.)

A far less well known figure today than Capa, the ICP documents her status as a highly honored photographer in her day. She did not survive the war, unfortunately, and as a consequence of that, and perhaps also owing to the tendency of art history to brush away all but the most prominent women, she quickly fell off the list of photographers who affected art history. (Even Capa is barely mentioned in Beaumont Newhall's THe History of Photography, so forget about finding her there.) It is rare, though not unheard of, that rediscovered artists in any medium turn out to be the equal of those whose names are well known. This is arguably such a case.

The point could not be made more clearly than by comparing Capa's most famous photo, "Death of a loyalist militiaman" (1936) with Taro's photo of the same year, "Republican militiamen training on the beach"
which serves as the icon for this show. (Both photos are shown on the ICP web site; click on the "Exhibition Images" link under the Capa and Taro links above.) Capa's widely reproduced image captures an "essential moment" alright: taken a spit second after the man is fatally hit by a fascist bullet, he stands off balance, arms flayed, rifle just about to fall from his grasp, his half-turned face exhibiting the shock of his misfortune. To say it was a lucky shot would be a major understatement; it is a shot that hardly ever be equaled for its expression of how vanishingly thin the border between life and death can be. The feeling is only enhanced by the awareness that Capa had followed the group of men to their battle positions on the hillside, and taken shot after shot of them preparing for the confrontation. The sudden loss of one whose acquaintance he had undoubtedly made a short time ago only makes more poignant the simultaneous feeling of bonding and parting that we feel in looking at this picture.

All that said, from a compositional point of view, the picture is all wrong. I once said something like this to my uncle, the photographer Harold Roth, about a picture he had taken of a woman walking with a ram. He laughed and said something to the effect that "when you see a picture like that you don't stop to think about the nice details". So be it; Capa's photo is life, death and courage all in one. But the man is all the way on the left side of the frame, which leaves about 2/3 of a photo frame without interest or detail. One almost wants to crop it, at the risk of doing damage to the extraordinary candor of the piece. I do think there is at least some justification in not doing so, for the hill to some extent enhances the sense of falling; he leans back, as if in a futile attempt to defy gravity, and symbolically, death itself. All the same, one would not choose this composition if one had such a choice. One does not need so much unused space to make the point.

Now consider Taro's shot. Taken not in battle but during training exercises, it is one of the most perfectly composed pictures in the history of photography. A woman kneels on her left knee, facing to the right, her right foot on the ground so that her bent leg forms a perfect right angle. Her right elbow rest on the leg above the knee, her arm straight up, with the hand bent at another right angle. In it there is a pistol. Her head is positioned so that her eye looks right out over the barrel. That, in essence, is the shot. Can you picture it? Let me elaborate.

What you should be seeing in your mind's eye (unless you cleverly clicked on the link above to see the actual photo) is two images of a pistol: one, that of the gun itself, and second that of its owner. The woman's form almost perfectly mirrors that of the gun. This much is more than a neat formal trick, and is accentuated by various formal echoes that take advantage of the square format produced by Taro's Rolleiflex camera (about a year later she switched to the rectangular format Leica that Capa was using). But form follows function here: the woman's fierce concentration on the firing of that gun tells us that she has in a sense become the weapon itself; her mission, defense of the Spanish democracy, has completely absorbed her, effectuating a complete harmony of spirit and purpose. That is not all, though. She brings her eye down to just above the barrel, looking directly at the target from the gun's point of view; we feel the stillness she concentrates on her aim. This is the photographer portraying herself in her subject, so careful in her focus, so still as she opens the shutter. Point, and shoot. This photograph is almost too perfect to be a candid shot.

I am not suggesting that Taro's shot is somehow "better" than Capa's. Different kind of work, different motivation for selecting it for presentation. Most of what constitutes the "art" of photography takes place in selecting among shots already taken. The rest, historically at least, is developing, printing, cropping, touching up. It goes without saying that the taking of pictures is of great importance, particularly when working with large formats. But it is saying too much to call that the only critical step in the process. Every serious 35mm photographer produces numerous images that can be thrown in the sea; the first cut is the one that separates these from those worthy of presentation. Taro had some time to compose her shot, Capa didn't. They both understood that something special had happened and preserved these two amazing photos for posterity.

In fact, Capa's eye for formal niceties can be appreciated in another of his images from the Cordoba front (this one is unfortunately not shown on the ICP site). Entitled "Loyalist militiaman running with rifle", the
formal element of the triangle formed by two rifles and a bent elbow lend a strong sense of composition to a shot that is otherwise all motion and emotion. Another exceptional shot is "Telephone call to army command" (Rio Segre 1938). Several military men sit around a table covered with a map, and one of them holds a telephone, whose wire snakes across the map. Here a combination of formal elements like lighting, shape, and diagonals serve to stimulate a sense of community among the participants; the phone line stretching across the map is highly symbolic, connecting the figures both with one another and with the outside world. This gives them a sense of imperviousness in their cocoon-like shelter. I can only guess how Capa achieved the lighting he did indoors; I don't believe he was using a flash (nor do I know if one was available to him for the Leica at that time) and I also doubt he had a tripod, though that seems less unlikely. But a time exposure would have resulted in more blurring than I recall in this picture. Sometimes photographers can't remember themselves how they got what they did.

Taro made conscious and careful use of the square format while she was using it. One idea dominates, though. She tends to find a line that divides the vertical space, not exactly in thirds, but in half, from what would be the left upper corner of the lower third to the right lower corner of the upper third (or vice versa). In "Republican militiaman with a group of boys" the children appear to form phalanx, surely not an accident. Later on, when she switched to the Leica, it seems that her formal arrangements became more diverse. In some cases she repeated ideas but arranged them differently. For instance, the square-format picture "Republican soldier stepping through a hole in a wall" (1937) is echoed later that year in the rectangular "Republican dynamiters". (Is that you,
Robert Jordan? Perhaps the bell tolls for you, but you're never more than a shutter-click from eternity, if it makes you feel better.) Both are strong compositions, and suggest that stepping through that hole is as much a metaphysical and moral act as a physical one.

It would be impossible and pointless to try to convey the force of the many gut-wrenching scenes that came from both Taro and Capa. Taro's simple, eloquent "War orphan eating soup" could be plumbed for philosophical depth, but ultimately, it doesn't need to say more than meets the eye. Ditto Capa's shot of a refugee in Barcelona, waiting with her dog, having lost her husband and son. And of course the heartbreaking shots of the dead and wounded. Comparisons with the work of Salgado present themselves here, but I'm not sure where they lead. Salgado has practically redefined socially conscious photography as an art, in a way that some people find distracting from the content. I am of the opposite view, feeling that technical and formal precision can never do anything but add to the significance and merit of a photograph. Yet these refugee pictures could be summoned to the cause of the other side, if anyone so desired. In their unadorned simplicity and directness, they suggest a photographer making a friend and study of her subject rather than using them as material for a new work altogether.

It is the unique and crucial property of photography that its rendering of images constitutes a special kind of documentation, and that it can stand out by drawing our attention to either intrinsic or formal elements, or both. Famous images like the one of a woman screaming over the body of a fallen student at Kent State, of a child running from the flames of a U.S. Napalm attack in Vietnam (Hue?), or the shot of John Kennedy Jr. saluting at his father's funeral, bring out a kind of empathy that perhaps even being at the scene ourselves would not have done. (For this and many other reasons, I disagree with those who take photographs to be windows of a sort, "transparent" frames of reality; for if they were, knowing what we do of human nature, I simply doubt that they would have either the impact that they actually do have, or the formal coherence that reality never has.)

Capa survived this hazardous and heroic line of work longer than Taro did, and he lived to capture other essential images. It is shocking to consider that his blurry, electrifying D-Day pictures must have been taken in the line of fire, possibly in the water. Though it may sound like a cliché, after reading David Guterson's description of the landing in Japan in Snow Falling on Cedars, hearing my father's description of crossing the Rhine, and seeing these pictures, I feel as if I can almost recall having participated in a marine invasion myself, with blood swirling around me, my boots leaden with water, and shells grazing my whiskers. Through luck, skill, and pure audacity, Capa captured the war against fascism from its first great battle to the fight that would eventually end it.

For this alone he certainly deserves his places in photographic history. But the show reveals more. For those who are historically minded, his shots of "Zhou en-lai next to a portrait of Karl Marx" and "Meeting of the Executive Yuan, Hankou, China" (both 1938) place one almost voyeuristically at the very moment which would dramatically change the lives of a fifth of the world's people. To see Zhou there, and then, having grown up with the image of him as a central figure on the world stage, is to peek into a crystal ball that holds history as it unfolds. Did Capa to recognize the magnitude of the occasion?
What incredible prescience if he did.

There are of course a great many photographers whose social instincts have led them to social documentary, from Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange to Mary Ellen Mark and Salgado. Capa and Taro stand out in the risk they took, but they are not alone in that either, the latest example being Kenji Nagai, the Japanese photographer who was killed in Yangon, Myanmar on Tuesday while covering protests against the dictatorship. It appears from videos that Nagai was intentionally
shot by a soldier at point blank range, and left to die; a horrifying reminder of the power of photography to threaten even the mightiest and most ruthless of regimes. There is no question that since Vietnam, photographs have changed popular sentiments and indirectly changed the world. Capa and Taro had quite a following in their time, a 2-person Lincoln Brigade with the power to influence millions. It may have taken Pearl Harbor to force the U.S. to enter the war against fascism, but even though photography did not manage to win U.S. support for the first line defense in the war against Nazism (while both Hitler and Mussolini supplied Franco with troops, weapons and advisors) we should consider the less tangible role that Capa and Taro may have played in raising consciousness about the fascist menace.

The grisly aftermath of that menace is documented by Francesc Torres in "Dark Is the Room Where We Sleep", another exhibit at the ICP. In 2004, anthropologists unearthed a mass grave where some 40 Loyalists were massacred in the town of Villamayor de los Montes. Torres captured the work, skulls, spent shell casings and all, in vivid b&w, which ICP has considerately blown up to mural size and given its own room for our viewing pleasure. It hardly matters whether this is world class photography. For one other thing that this exhibition demonstrates is that photojournalism shades into fine art at certain dramatic points, organically as it were, without great leaps over hidden aesthetic gorges. Now it is documentary; now it is art - neither can be entirely stable without the other. Even our contemporary photographers who fetishize messy households and "mall chick" types have at least that most universal of documentary styles, the snapshot, as background to their efforts. In the face of an event so closely tied to the sordid history of the 20th century, Torres' work becomes something more than a photo op at a Spanish dig: it reveals the faces that could be us, one day, if we allow our own house to go far enough down the road of hysteria over national security and militarism as a means of diplomacy. And haven't we seen enough hints, from Guantanamo to the mass arrests at the last Republican National Convention, to make us pay attention to these chilling scenes? Generalissimo Cheney & Co., beware: we are armed with DSLR's, are apertures are wide, and even controlling the film supply won't stop us now!

(The ICP exhibit continues until January 6, 2008.)

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