Robert Capa's Lost Negatives

An Update
March 2008

by Ron Steinman

The year is 1939. Robert Capa is in Paris. All of France is under siege by the Nazi hoard. Paris is about to fall. Robert Capa, fresh from the civil war in Spain, decides to flee to America knowing it is time to get out of France. In what we can only assume was Capa's rush to be free, understandably, he leaves behind three small suitcases filled with negatives made between 1936 and 1939 during his coverage of the Spanish Civil War. The suitcases also include negatives by Gerda Taro —his one-time collaborator and lover, who had died during the war – as well as negatives from David "Chim" Seymour, another great photojournalist to emerge from the war in Spain.

Robert Capa's vintage negative box, green.
(© International Center of Photography)
Robert Capa had a theory about covering war that still prevails. He said, "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough." Scratch any modern photojournalist at work in our war-torn world and they will tell you the same. It is dangerous work. But when the right shot is made, it is as satisfying as anything a person does. His or her camera, or cameras, slung around one's neck in the thick of an action mirrors the work of Robert Capa, a recently happily rediscovered Gerda Taro, and, of course, David Seymour.

These negatives, a somewhat definitive record of that seminal period, were missing for 56 years. Then, as if by a miracle, they turned up in Mexico City in 1995. Negotiations started in an effort to acquire the film. These ended in 2008 when the International Center of Photography announced it had the three suitcases in hand and would soon start working to bring the more than 3,500 lost photos to the world. These come in about 100 rolls of film and some short strips of negatives. The flat negatives are from David "Chim" Seymour. According to the ICP, "once catalogued, the negatives will certainly include significant photos from the Spanish Civil War" and the shots surrounding each of the already published photos. Thus the incubator of modern war photojournalism, and three of its major photographers, will finally allow us a window into the birth of how these three helped change forever the way photojournalists cover war.

GERDA TARO: Republican soldiers, Valencia, June 1937
(© International Center of Photography)
Knowing this, I wondered where ICP was in its dissection of the negatives. I wanted to find out how things were going and when the world would be privy to the guts of the discovery. To that end, I spoke with Cynthia Young, a curator at ICP who is working closely with the cache.

Cynthia Young told me the negatives were in remarkably good shape. This was perhaps because of Mexico City's climate. The three suitcases were in a stable environment in an attic where it was dry and the "boxes" were not moved around. This is important because not only was the climate a factor, but the fact that the rolls of film were intact and in good shape will make the job of unraveling each roll that much easier. No chemical work is necessary, remarkable in itself considering the film is 70-year-old nitrate stock. According to conservation experts, the rolls are "like they were made yesterday. They are not brittle at all" – a good sign for the future when the photos will be put on public view. Once there is a digital image of each frame, the work on the roll is complete, and it is placed in cold storage to further protect the discovery. Importantly, because Capa and Taro kept extensive notes about the pictures they took, each suitcase, as we can see from these photos, had extensive notes about each roll of his and her film. Capa and Taro were good record keepers. Contact sheets were important to the way they worked. The extensive notebooks and tear sheets they kept are in the hands of the ICP, and the newly discovered rolls of film correspond to these notes and contact sheets. In some ways, Cynthia Young of ICP says, they do not expect many surprises from the Capa and Taro film. But even at this early date, the curators are able to see how in some cases a negative changed as it passed through the darkroom to become a print. In the future this will provide exciting material for scholars, journalists and the public.

ROBERT CAPA: Teruel, Spain, January 1938.
(© Cornell Capa / Magnum Photos)
However, there is a strong belief that there will be surprises in the Chim photos because there is no complete record of what he shot. Curators are also making digital copies of each Chim photo. These represent about one-fifth of all the rediscovered negatives, and it is here where they expect to find something new.

Vintage Gerda Taro negative envelopes.
(© International Center of Photography)
The process of unraveling all the negatives will take at least a year. It is obvious there is no need to rush. After all, it is a rare treasure, one that need not be fully revealed before all the work is complete and understood.

To learn more about the extraordinary story of Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, click on the following link to our October 2007 issue's cover story: "Capa and Taro: Together at Last".

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.