The Mexican Suitcase

Haidy Geismar and Lee Douglas, NYU Anthropology
On display at the International Center for Photography is an exhibition dedicated to the Mexican Suitcase.

In late December 2007, three small cardboard boxes arrived at the International Center of Photography from Mexico City after a long and mysterious journey. These tattered boxes—the so-called Mexican Suitcase—contained the legendary Spanish Civil War negatives of Robert Capa. Rumors had circulated for years of the survival of the negatives, which had disappeared from Capa’s Paris studio at the beginning of World War II. Cornell Capa, Robert’s brother and the founder of ICP, had diligently tracked down each tale and vigorously sought out the negatives, but to no avail. When, at last, the boxes were opened for the 89-year-old Cornell Capa, they revealed 126 rolls of film—not only by Robert Capa, but also by Gerda Taro and David Seymour (known as “Chim”), three of the major photographers of the Spanish Civil War. Together, these roles of film constitute an inestimable record of photographic innovation and war photography, but also of the great political struggle to determine the course of Spanish history and to turn back the expansion of global fascism.

The exhibition is a fascinating insight into the process of photo-journalism, and the documentation of war, a material artifact of photographic community and a testament to the social lives of the photographers and the material traces they have left behind…All three of the photographers were political refugees themselves who used their photographs as exit paths as well as monuments to the struggle against fascism. All three photographers died documenting conflict. The series of contact images on display also demonstrate the ways in which photographs are put together, the intentionality of story-telling and ideology behind the photographers lens and the complex interplay of events, technological form and ideas that creates documentary photograpy.
The Mexican Suitcase is more than a historical treasure chest. As the exhibition delicately makes clear, the 126 rolls of film tucked away in the tattered, time-worn box are a testament not only to events from the past but also to the practices of documenting and bearing witness to violence. Displaying images in multiple visual, material forms–including contact sheet prints, framed original photographic reproductions, and a wide range of newspaper, magazine, and archival publications in which the images from the negatives appear–the exhibit constructs a world of overlapping narratives regarding violence, war, and witnessing. Illustrating the rich visual, material, and historical archival qualities of the Mexican Suitcase, the display successfully encourages visitors to tease out the many layers of meaning through which these photographs have traveled. The infinite reproduction possibilities that these once lost, but now found, negatives give us illustrate the evidentiary potential of the negative and the complexities that arise when images of violence begin and continue to circulate.

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