Out of the Shadows: A Life of Gerda Taro
By François Maspero
Souvenir Press Ltd, October 2008, £12
There’s a sentiment halfway through François Maspero’s biography of Gerda Taro that speaks volumes about both the young war photographer and about the author himself. People must, Maspero supposes, feel a twinge of sadness not to have been the famous photographer Robert Capa. And women must surely also experience a longing, occasionally, to have been his lover Gerda Taro. It’s quite a claim. It is through this lens that Maspero views the brief yet eventful life of Taro and this ardour that motivates his struggle to bring her out of the shadows. Yet it is also this sentiment that at times renders the telling problematic.
Spain. July 1937. Fifteen miles from Madrid, the Battle of Brunete is waged in a desperate attempt to push the nationalists back from the capital. By mid-July the Republican offensive gives way to a fierce nationalist counter-attack. Both sides are raving with thirst, heat and hunger. The countryside is flecked with the human debris of conflict. And then come Franco’s planes, soaring overhead. In the midst of this chaotic scene on July 25th, a petite blonde crouches amid the Republican fighters sheltering in a dugout. She takes picture after picture, calmly reloading her camera as shells explode around them. Her name, La Pequena Rubia, is Gerda Taro.
Whereas other correspondents had fled Brunete, Taro remained, excited to be taking her best pictures yet. But she knew it was time to leave. That afternoon she jumped on to the running board of a vehicle transporting wounded to the nearby village of Villanueva. It proved a fatal leap. A Republican tank struck Taro and threw her from the car. She died hours later, her stomach lacerated by the impact. She was 26 years old: the first female correspondent to die on the front line.
It is here, at her dramatic death in Spain, that you feel Maspero should begin his telling. Or perhaps at her grave in Père Lachaise cemetery, Paris, where Taro was given the funeral of a martyr, mourned by thousands, her tomb designed by Alberto Giacometti. Today, wandering its overgrown paths, the tomb lies neglected, its inscription illegible. If anything inspires a refocusing of the spotlight of history, it is this sight. But instead, Maspero’s mission to bring Taro out of the shadows begins with an imagined interview, an illusory meeting with an elderly Taro, fragile and tiny, who talks about Spain, about Capa, about her cats. You can’t help but feel cheated by his crafted conceit. And it’s with relief when the true narrative of her life begins.
Gerda Taro was born Gerta Pohorylle to Polish Jews in Stuttgart. By the time Hitler took power Gerta was already involved in anti-Nazi activities. It was this political commitment that led to her arrest in 1933 aged 23. The young Gerta fled to Paris where she met Hungarian émigre Andrei Freidman. He was 20, she was 24. Both were well read, left wing and idealistic. Both were good looking, struggling but ambitious. Both were Jewish refugees living in Paris. It wasn’t long before they fell in love.
It was through the couple’s shared émigre identity and their mutual love of photography that the phenomenon of Robert Capa was born. It was in fact Taro who created Capa. In a city reverberating with anti-Semitism to have a professional name that sounded German and Jewish was a hindrance at best. Instead, Taro picked a new name: Capa. Aurally it evoked the quality of Hollywood director Frank Capra and, crucially, seemed to be a name from nowhere. Inspired by the same reasons, and no doubt by the allure of Greta Garbo, Gerta Pohorylle also changed her name, to Gerda Taro. But for now, the two would work together under the contrived guise of photographic legend Robert Capa.
Andrei taught Taro how to use a Leica and Rolleiflex camera. They began to cover the war in Spain, travelling from Barcelona to the front at Cordoba. Today’s dispatches of rolling news and instant pictures were a mere glint in the eye. The wireless let the voices of war drift into living rooms, but they were faceless voices. Editors were desperate for photographs from the front, true images of the war that had gripped Europe’s imagination. Taro and Capa provided publications such as Ce Soir and Regards with that visual immediacy, confronting readers with unprecedented realism, and suffering.
Maspero is at his best when placing Taro in context of place and time, in characterising her as a free spirit, achingly glamorous in the midst of the dust and detritus of war. It is in the details that his book succeeds: the description of Taro arriving in a German prison cell dressed to go dancing. Or the stylish figure she cut, always in heels, even on the front line. The minutiae of the Capa invention and of her growing professional independence are beguiling. Maspero paints a picture of a woman whose career was in the ascendant, who resisted Capa’s proposal of marriage but loved him and worked with him, criss-crossing Spain to bring images of the war to Europe’s readership. The book grapples with the question of whether Taro was a communist but leaves you little the wiser. Maspero loads his discussion by siting at its climax Taro’s famous photo of a republican soldier replacing the nationalist slogan ‘Ariba Espana’ with ‘Viva Russia.’ What matters, surely, is that Taro — like Capa — was passionate about the need to stem the fascist tide that was sweeping across Europe.
Maspero depicts Taro and Capa as electrons, with the autonomy of free movement, despite being effectively embedded with the Soviet-controlled troops. There is no doubt that Taro was light of touch and seduced everyone she met, as did Capa. She was a risk taker, both politically and in her work. But she was also fiercely intrepid. This fact doesn’t come through enough. Lightness, bravery and political commitment are not mutually exclusive. Taro may have been a woman in a man’s world, but you never forget this biography is written by a man.
Maspero’s passion for Taro is an enticing premise, yet is undermined by the unsatisfying truth that he never really allows Taro to step out of the shadows, despite his title’s claim. The book’s greatest irony is that it is Maspero himself who overshadows Taro with his narrative intrusions and conjecture. His quest for biographical truth descends repeatedly into hazy fictionalised imaginings. Maspero admits in his postscript that his fascination for Taro took form through fiction: first through two characters in his novel The Fig Tree then through his short story Gerda. This genesis is apparent throughout, and the frequent vacillation from biography to fantasy is disorientating.
Any biography of Gerda Taro deserves promotion without caveats. Her story needs to be told. Taro was the woman who invented Robert Capa; who when she died Capa claimed his life ‘came to a kind of end’ despite later affairs with Vivien Leigh and Ingrid Bergman. She was the woman who fled the Nazis to pursue her political ideals; the woman whose photos encapsulate what Orwell famously remembered of the war: ‘First of all the physical memories, the sounds, the smells and the surfaces of things.’
And as to Maspero’s claim that each of us must harbour a desire to be Taro or Capa? His claim is true, at least for me. Gerda Taro has long lingered within the perimeters of my imagination. My great uncle, Dezo Hoffmann, was a Czech photojournalist sent on assignment to Spain in 1936. He was soon caught up in the impassioned anti-fascist struggle that gripped Taro and Capa. His story, like that of Taro and Capa, has always inspired me. But Maspero’s claim is also accurate because we all surely aspire, to some degree, to the tight fit between conviction and existence that Taro, in her brief tragic life, achieved.
Photographs by Gerda Taro
Republican militiawoman training on the beach, outside Barcelona, August 1936 © International Center of Photography.
Boy wearing cap of the FAI (Iberian Anarchist Federation), Barcelona, August 1936 © International Center of Photography.
Recruitment and training of the new People’s Army, Valencia March 1937 © International Center of Photography.
Republican soldiers La Granjuela, Cordoba front, Spain, June 1937, © International Center of Photography.
A Gerda Taro exhibition is on at Barbican Art Gallery until 25 January 2009. www.barbican.org.uk/artgallery