April Bates explores the life of war photographer, Gerda Taro
Gerda Taro is a figure whose memory is tenuously held in history. Since her death in 1937, her name has had fluctuating fame, but as a woman who never wrote about herself, her life has become unusually fictionalised. As a talented war photographer, she published pictures of the Spanish Civil war, helping to publicise the human impact of the political conflict. However, it’s her relationship with Robert Capa that has dominated discourse about her life. Capa and Taro were some of the most successful war photographers of their time, and were both killed, 17 years apart, on the front line of combat. Legend has it that Capa was inspired by his relationship with Taro, tragically cut short by her death, to fully realise himself as the famous, poetic photographer that the world continues to revere.
However, the simplicity of this story is misleading. Gerda’s public biography is pinned together by very few established facts. When the romance between Capa and Taro began, neither of them bore the names that came to define them as public figures. When they met in Paris, in 1934, as European Jews, they had both been displaced, uprooted from their lives fleeing Nazi persecution. Gerda Taro was born Gerta Pohorylle in Stuttgart, Germany. As a Jewish liberal, she had already known the danger of political activism, having been arrested in 1933 for distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets. Her family had scattered across Europe, leaving her almost alone and without work in France. She met Endre Friedmann, a Hungarian Jewish photographer who was working indolently doing commercial work on the left bank, and persuaded him to teach her how to take photographs with a Leica camera.
Together they decided to create the character of a successful photographer to use to sell their photos to the magazines in Paris. Friedmann chose the American sounding name of Robert Capa, so that they could distance themselves from the associations of their Jewish refugee statuses and convince the magazines they pitched to that the photos they produced had been taken by an established photographer. Gerda also produced a variation of her name, Gerda Taro, for some work that was specifically her own. Gerda and Friedmann fell in love and decided that they would travel to Spain together to work as photo journalists covering the Spanish Civil War. Work that was sent back to France was published under the name Robert Capa, or under the joint name Capa and Taro.
Friedmann’s name, associated for so much longer with the pseudonym of Capa, has a meaning attached to the work of this time period which Gerda’s does not because she was killed before she could fully develop her art. A lot has been written about this period of this relationship, with little information to inform it. Friedmann and Taro’s work documenting the same subject has differences that are telling to their photographers. Taro took photos of female soldiers staring down the barrels on guns, of dusty street children in republican uniforms. Both Friedmann and Taro took photos in gunfire, of running, dying soldiers and shrapnel. Taro’s work is full of movement, taken at dynamic articles. Friedmann caught a shot of a republican soldier falling, at the very moment of his death.
In early 1934, Friedmann proposed marriage and Taro refused. At this point she started to slowly unpick the connections between their lives. She got her own contract as a reporter, and started to publish exclusively under her own pseudonym. In July 1937 she headed out to the front line alone, and caught evidence that despite what had been reported, nationalist forces were being pushed back out of the Brunete region of Spain. Late in the month of July she was struck off a truck carrying wounded soldiers and killed.
The close, flat frames of life that Gerda produced as an artefact to war are an imperfect testimony of affairs in the same way that the sources describing her own life are imperfect. Her extreme lack of biography has made her into an instrument of narrative. After her death Gerda was given a lavish funeral by the French communist party as a martyred anti-facist figure. Since then, she has become a bizarre femme fatale in the poor autobiography of her friend Norman Allen, the mystic inspiration of her boyfriend Robert Capa (who she both dated, and, briefly, was) and the cute blonde tragic lover of many narrative biographies of her life.
It’s worth appreciating what we don’t know about Gerda, rather than transforming her into something she might, could have or would have been. Like many German Jews from the 1930s, Taro was been estranged from her own story by a tragedy too immense to convey in narrative. Nobody was left to champion her work after her death, because her entire family was killed in the holocaust. She achieved an immense amount in a life cut short and lived her life bravely, in defence of what she believed was right. Her death was not the culmination of a tragic romance. Her death was a tragic loss of a talented photographer, an activist, and accomplished individual.
Illustration by April Bates