March 2014

Arts & Letters

Jane Rogoyska’s ‘Gerda Taro: Inventing Robert Capa’

By Kevin Rabalais
Jonathan Cape; $79.95

From the battlefields of the Spanish Civil War came rumours of a photographer in high heels who paraded her beauty for the morale of Loyalist soldiers. No such images survive, but the ones that do capture the spirit and allure of the woman who would become a symbol of the war.

Widely considered to be the first female photographer to die in battle, Taro was hailed as a modern Joan of Arc. In the years before her death in 1937, aged 26, her stature, hair colour and temperament had earnt her another title, “the Little Red Fox”. Born Gerta Pohorylle in 1910, the left-wing German Jew moved to Paris in her 20s, where she met an unkempt and struggling Hungarian photographer several years her junior. André Friedmann was also Jewish and of a similar political persuasion. The two became friends and, eventually, lovers.

In the elegant and well-researched Gerda Taro: Inventing Robert Capa, Jane Rogoyska details how Pohorylle, with her keen eye and managerial nature, remade herself and Friedmann. She emerged as Gerda Taro, a name easier to pronounce and proximate to Greta Garbo. Upon Friedmann, she bestowed an identity now synonymous with reportage: Robert Capa.

“Robert Capa was to be a rich American photographer, highly successful in the States, recently arrived in Europe,” Rogoyska writes. “Importantly, Capa – being such a big cheese – would accept nothing less than three times the going rate for his work.” Capa went on to cover five wars and co-found the influential Magnum Photos agency before his death in 1954. Taro’s legacy has proven less certain – partly because many of her photographs were incorrectly attributed to Capa. “Her early death, the overshadowing of the Spanish Civil War by the Second World War, and her connection with communism all contributed to her obscurity,” observes Rogoyska in the most extensive account of Taro’s life available in English. The book also includes more than 50 of Taro’s photographs, many of them from negatives discovered in 2007 in long-lost, tattered boxes known as the Mexican Suitcase. The re-emergence of these negatives has enabled researchers to more clearly distinguish Capa’s and Taro’s work and better understand Taro’s importance in the development of photojournalism.

Capa and Taro began their careers in the 1930s, when the introduction of handheld cameras, including the 35-mm Leica, was changing the ways in which photographers covered battle. Rogoyska balances this evolution with historical and technical aspects of the Spanish Civil War. She also chronicles a love affair, one played out during penniless days in Paris and against the backdrop of battle, rendering it as skilfully as a seasoned novelist.

Kevin Rabalais

Kevin Rabalais is the author of The Landscape of Desire.

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