Books: Capa's photographs of the Spanish Civil War

Tales of stoicism in the face of extreme adversity


This whole volume is devoted to Robert Capa’s early, viscerally engaged and—with sixty years hindsight—maybe most significant, single body of work. His photographs of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), bear witness to a genuine, involvement with the war, civil or not, including that shot of the Republican militiaman being hit by a bullet (often disputed as posed, since the negative sequence went astray; now deemed genuine) that made Robert Capa’s reinvented name famous, “Fallen soldier, Cerro Muriano, September 1938”. Capa’s youthfully earnest, apparently off-the-cuff, reportage telescopes time, reactivating split seconds in a detailed and definitive study of a particular type of historic tragedy. Many images have seldom or never been seen before, including unique items presented by Robert Capa himself, now in the National Historic Archive, Salamanca. Others were rescued from an early album, assembled as samples by Capa’s great love and helpmate, German photo-journalist, Gerda Taro with David Seymour (“Chim”), one of Capa’s earliest, most committed collaborators (all three early casualties of war reportage). Also present and apposite are rare examples, recently rediscovered, of work by Gerda Taro herself.

In certain cases, the technical quality of the photographs is noticeably not helped by their provenance, being reproductions from extant prints, rather than a portfolio with negatives. Despite this problem, this group of pictures, collected and shown by the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, in Madrid, still tell a sometimes harrowing, sometimes jubilant, always strongly articulated, tale of stoicism in the face of adversity and served to publicise the struggle to the outside world, through the massive circulation of Capa’s best images in such widely read pages as Vu and Picture Post. The context of Capa’s historic and humanitarian document in the predominantly left-wing intellectual climate of the time is explained in an essay by Juan P. Fusi Aizpúrua, ex-director of the National Library in Madrid. Catherine Coleman, curator of photography at the Reina Sofia, examines the radical changes that have occurred in women’s lives, based on the photographs. Last, there is an account of Capa’s movements by his biographer, Richard Whelan, curator of the Robert Capa Archive, International Center of Photography, New York. Heart of Spain is an outstanding Aperture publication, only marred by the lack of Spanish texts for key poems translated into English.

o Robert Capa, Heart of Spain: photographs of the Spanish Civil War (Aperture, New York, 1998), 272 pp, 235 b/w ills, £31.50, $50, (hb) ISBN 0893818313

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Robert Capa, Heart of Spain: photographs of the Spanish Civil War (Aperture, New York, 1998), 272 pp, 235 b/w ills, £31.50, $50, (hb) ISBN 0893818313'