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Capa and Taro took thousands of photographs but we only have one that portrays them together. It is a picture taken of the couple in Paris, the lively cultural centre that at the time welcomed many young exiles like them.
Endre Friedmann, who would later change his name to Robert Capa, was born in 1913 in Budapest. He was forced to escape the country first by the conservative and anti-Bolshevist regime of Horthy, and then by the coming of the National Socialist party. The same would happen to Gerda Pohorylle, a German Jew and the daughter of a bourgeois family. She had joined the Socialist party in her youth and after having experienced two weeks in prison, immediately realised that she could no longer remain in Germany. At the age of 23, she detached herself forever from her loved ones and began a new life in the bohemian capital. It was there where by pure chance, accompanying a friend in a photographic studio, she met Endre.
The two got to know each other and soon discovered that in addition to their fate of becoming expatriates, they shared political ideas and artistic interests. He confided in her his difficultly to establish himself as a photographer despite his talent. She understood the problem was in how other people saw him. She realised that appearance and prejudice were very important factors and so she had a brilliant idea: from then on he would no longer present himself as a poor, young Central European, but instead as a rich and successful American. This led him to not only change the way he dressed but also his name. He chose a name that would remain well imprinted and one that could be pronounced in any language: Robert Capa. She herself changed to Gerda Taro, and together they began a professional partnership that was destined to work very well. Gerda was initially his manageress who found him commissions and, along the way, she learned the secrets of photography from him and became just as passionate about it as him. They separated when Endre was sent to Spain and the distance between them clarified the situation for both individuals. When they met again in the south of France, something that had started off as a professional relationship quickly blossomed into a beautiful love story.
They decided to live together in a tiny apartment with a view of the Eiffel Tower, but the time they had to savour this quiet life was short lived. In 1936 the Spanish civil war broke out and they were hired as war photographers. They accepted to testify their position against the militarist dictatorship that was being established, supported moreover by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. They went out onto the front line, living next to soldiers and recording everything from the real clashes, to the lives of the ordinary people who were trying to survive on a daily basis. They revolutionised war photography portraying people “up close”, as Capa always suggested. They made Europe aware of the conflict and prepared it for the Second World War.
Robert feared for Gerda’s safety and on several occasions urged her not to put her life at risk. He knew it was useless however, as she felt as involved as he did, feeling the need to show her civil commitment and to inform and share public opinion. During these events Capa had a stroke of luck: he managed to capture the dying moment of a militiaman in a photo, a photo which would make him famous and consecrate him at the age of 25 as “the greatest war photographer in history”. It was no doubt for this reason that their paths then separated. Gerda, who was happy with the fame achieved by Capa and who had helped to build it, wanted to become “Gerda Taro”, following her own path and finding the perfect photo instead of living in Capa’s shadow. Capa, in the climate of precariousness, bombings and death, had asked Gerda to marry him but she had chosen independence!
Robert then returned to France while Gerda got closer and closer to the action. She was the only reporter present at Brunete, west of Madrid, and with her own brand, Photo Taro, she showed the falsity of the Francoist propaganda and the courage of the Republicans. She also showed the horrors that every war (but even more so a civil war) brings and unleashes on the innocent. One day in 1937, Gerda hopped onto the running board of a vehicle carrying wounded soldiers after a German air attack but somehow, she came off and was run over by a tank. Even in her last hours of agony she did not lose her courage nor the fortitude and wholeness that had characterised her whole life. She resisted composed and before closing her eyes forever at the age of 26, was said to have asked where her camera was. She was the first female photojournalist to die “in action”. When Capa learned of the news, he was destroyed.
Endre would go on to become an increasingly famous photographer, founding the Magnum Photos agency. Although he loved life and considered war “the hell that man created himself”, he documented the conflict between China and Japan, that between Israel and Palestine, world conflict and finally, the conflict between France and Indochina. It was during this when in 1954, he lost his own life after walking on a mine. He was interested in the lives of the humble and of those who had lost everything, perhaps because he could identify with them so well. In his life he had other women but he never wanted to marry.
If you enjoyed the story of Robert and Gerda, among the numerous insights (books, films, exhibitions, graphic novels) I suggest that you read the novel “The girl with Leica” by Helena Janeczek and winner of the 2018 Strega award, as well as to listen to the song “Taro” by the British band Alt-J.
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The Girl with the Leica – Helena Janeczek