Carole Naggar, July 12, 2007


Here is what a Black American volunteer of the Brigades, C. Frankson, wrote his wife in a letter from Albacete on July 6, 1937, in the middle of the Spanish Civil War:

“Why I, a Negro who have fought through these years for the right of my people, am here in Spain today?  Because we are no longer an isolated minority, fighting hopelessly against an immense giant.  Because, my dear, we have joined with, and become an active part of, a great progressive force, on whose shoulders rests the responsibility of saving human civilization from the planned destruction of a small group of degenerates gone mad in their lust for power. Because if we crush Fascism here we’ll save our people in America, and in other parts of the world from the vicious persecution, wholesale imprisonment and slaughter which Jewish people suffered and are suffering under Fascist heels.” (1)

Frankson’s words eloquently express why The Spanish Civil War remains to this day a unique episode in history. Not only does the war represents the opening battle of World War II, a time when Europe had a sense of a common cause against Fascism, but it is the last manifestation of a fierce idealism, of a symbolic battle between Fascism and Democracy. The dream of freedom and a better future and the sense of solidarity with Spain were powerful enough to bring 40,000 people from many countries into the International Brigades, courageous volunteers who did not hesitate to put their lives on the lines for the new Spanish Republic. To them, it was a matter of defeating what they saw as the forces of evil.

The images to remember the war by are numerous. As Susan Sontag (2) has written, it was “the first war to be witnessed (covered) in a modern sense: by a corps of professional photographers at the lines of military engagement and in the towns under bombardment, whose work was immediately seen in newspapers and magazines in Spain and abroad.”

Coverage of the war was intensive, possibly greater even than World War II would be. It was also far from neutral: Photographers took an enthusiastic stand for the Republican side and saw their art as a tool that could publicize the Republican cause and facilitate its victory. In those days, it is probable that photography was still thought of as something that could help change the world.

The photographers came in droves. Apart from individual foreign photographers such as Chim, Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, the Germans Hans Namuth and Georg Reisner, the American Sam Walters and Erwin Rolfe, the Spaniards Antonio Camparia, Agusti Centelles and the Mayo Brothers, many international news photography agencies were on the terrain: The Associated Press, Keystone View Company, Planet News, World Wide Photos, The Soibelman News Agency, Universal Newsreel, etc. Their photographs appeared in Vu, L’Illustration, Daily Mail, The Illustrated London News, Photo Historyand as of May 1936 were relayed to the 1.6 million readers of the newly launched LIFE Magazine.

Beyond the professional press, photographs by amateurs –especially group photos of combatant units- were also widely published in Brigade books and newspapers and displayed on bulletin boards, playing a major role in constructing a collective memory during the war. The International Brigades, for instance, had photographic departments and a mobile photographic lab that followed the moving fronts and kept one or two photographers with the units at all times. Thousands of Brigade photographs have survived the war. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives for instance owns 400 photos by a Yugoslavian volunteer, Major Vladimir Stefanovitch.

In terms of the professionals, the style of war coverage owed much to the use of the new small, portable 35mm cameras such as the Leica, which could take 36 photographs before being reloaded and allowed photographers to get closer to the action than ever before. Meanwhile picture magazines were on the rise and gave legitimacy to photography as a professional practice. Image and text were published together and presented as a truthful or objective report on current events.  But, like the posters soon to be deployed by both Nationalists and Republicans to recruit people to their cause, they were used as propaganda. 

The Spanish Civil War took place after a long period of national political unrest: Spain was increasingly polarized and unable to better the conditions of terrible poverty in which millions of citizens lived. Landless Spanish peasants subsisted by harvesting vast and wealthy agricultural estates. The Catholic Church identified with the landowners and was in full control of education, which was denied to women, while universal literacy was seen as a danger rather than a goal. Divorce was illegal. The army had come to see itself as guarantor of the core values of Spanish society. In this context, Spain was a powder keg ready to explode.

At the beginning of 1936, Chim was in Paris to photograph the solidarity demonstrations for Spain. On February 16, the Frente Popularwon the Spanish elections by winning 273 seats out of 473 at the Cortes. High on its agenda was the promise of land reform. In less than 24 hours, the writer and political leader Manuel Azana was in power (He would become President on May 10). One of his first acts was to dismiss General Francisco Franco by sending him off to the Canary Islands. He then started an agrarian reform. But he was too slow in implementing it, and the disinherited of the countryside started assaulting churches and convents and taking over 250,000 acres of land while many factories went on unlimited strikes.

As soon as the election results were known Chim was off to Spain as Regards’s Envoyé Spécial (Special Correspondent). He arrived as violence started erupting all over Spain. In March the Fascist party Falangewas banned, and its leader Jose Antonio de Riveira arrested.

The Fascists started to create the climate for a Civil War with a program of bombings and murders. Pistoleroskilled an officer of the newly created Republican Force on July 11, and in retaliation Calvo Sotelo, a right-wing leader, was shot.

Maybe it was the murder of Calvo Sotelo that precipitated the Barcelona uprising. General Franco left the Canary Islands for Morocco where he issued a manifesto calling upon all Spaniards to revolt:” Spaniards! Whoever feels a holy love for Spain, whoever among the Army and the Navy has made profession of faith in the service of his country, whoever has sworn to defend her from her enemies, the Nation calls you to her defense…” Franco enlisted to his orders 435,000 men of the African Army,” Moors” as the Republicans would call them.

Through the spring and summer of 1936, Chim traveled all over Spanish territory. Unlike most war correspondents, he not only photographed war and moments of action but also tried to understand its causes and repercussions. He was intent on capturing the nuances and differences between various cities. His coverage of the Republican militia at the front and of civilian populations was published in several issues of Regards. In April, he was in Tetuan (Regardsof April 23 and 30, 1936). Spain had the cover of Regards with the title “With the Spanish people, A Reportage of our Special Correspondents Soria and Chim.” Chim focused on the story of a collectivized tramway. The tram workers explained to Chim and Soria how they seized the tramway system, closed since October 1935. They salvaged old cars, dismantling and reassembling more than twenty that were out of use and rusted. Then they repainted the locomotive a bright red.

In May, Chim and Soria were in Estramadura where 60,000 peasants had occupied the land (Regardsof May 14, 1936). “Thinking that Azana’s reforms were implemented too slowly” Soria writes “peasants and junteros have taken their affairs in their own hands.” Chim and Soria visited a peasant community that took the land back from the landowner. At a meeting attended by more than 200 peasant women, Chim photographed the crowd listening to a socialist depute. In Estramadura, he was not only photographing fighting scenes but the relationships between the army and the civilian population, as for instance in his famous images of a Republican soldier holding a child in his arms and of a peasant woman listening to a speech in a land distribution meeting while breast-feeding her child. Like Robert Capa’s “Falling Soldier”, this picture became a famous symbol of the Spanish Civil War and besides Regards, was published in numerous newspapers and magazines all over Europe.

Sunlight falls on the right half of the woman’s face, stressing both her tired features and the intensity of her gaze, directed upwards, outside the frame to the public speaker we cannot see. Her rapt expression is echoed three times in the eyes of three children piled up on her left. The faces fill the frame to capacity, a spatial density that evokes the rest of the crowd and gives us a sense of the importance of public speech all through the war. Land distribution was then a key issue for peasants that had to give most of their crop to the landowners: owning their share of the land had the potential of changing entirely their economic circumstances. It explains why the woman’s attention was completely drawn away from her child. Chim loved to photograph women and children, and loved to catch people at a time where they were so absorbed in the intensity of their own lives that they paid little heed to the photographer. The picture reminds me of a 1948 shot by George Rodger, who would become Chim’s Magnum colleague: it shows a baby tied to her mother’s back as she performs a ritual dance in the African rain forest.

 These are snapshots but also manage to be in-depth portraits in their own right, focusing on the tender or intent expressions of the subjects’ faces while they are absorbed in their occupations and most probably unaware of the photographer. In those emotional moments of life, it is if the whole of a person is revealed in a glimpse to the attentive observer.

At the end of May Chim briefly went back to Paris to cover the celebrations of the Front Populaire, which had triumphed at the elections. He did a reportage on the commemoration of the Commune on Barbusse’s tomb. Women had produced striking serigraphic posters with portraits of Zola, Signac and Vallès. Chim stayed all day, until the last group entered the cemetery by the light of torches and lanterns. In the May 24 demonstration, Chim shot his iconic picture of a little girl with half-closed eyes, an intense expression on her face and a raised fist, sitting on her father’s shoulders, while a long crowd snakes behind them.

Then Chim was back to Spain, once again working with Georges Soria. Together they visited Triana, one of the poorest suburbs of Seville where a family of seven lived in a building without water or electricity with 56 pesetas a month. The father picked up overripe fruit on the market at 4am then went fishing. The families in the building were on strike because they wanted their rent to be cut down. When Soria asked them if they ever ate meat, they repeated incredulously“ Carne! Carne!” and laughed at him for this extraordinary idea.

At the end of June Chim traveled extensively in Andalusia, to Estramadura, Caceres, Cordoba and Cadiz, a harbor in the west of Spain. For the first time he used a Rolleiflex to record views of the street, of children, portraits of peasants, water-carriers. All these gave a sense of how daily life was pursued in a country at war. The Rolleiflex, a large format camera with extremely sharp, German-made lenses, was new on the market: it had come out in 1929. The photographer had to look into another lens at the top of the camera to frame his subject, so that the Rolleiflex was not as spontaneous as the Leica. But what the image lost in speed it more than made up in intensity and sharpness, and the large square 6 x 6 cm format allowed the photographer to plan his compositions carefully and include more of the background into the picture. It was the perfect complement to the Leica and especially suited for portraits and architecture. Chim would continue using it, in particular in his famous series of Children portraits done just after World War II.

Then Chim and Soria were off to Barcelona (Regards of July 23). Until then Barcelona had felt immune from the conflict. Everyone was busy making the final arrangements for the Olympiad: These Olympic Games had been conceived as a reply to those being held in Germany. All over Europe, there were athletes who wanted to take part in games in a spirit of freedom and racial equality, without the swastika banner floating overhead. Many journalists were coming to cover this symbolic event. Among them were several Spanish press agencies, freelance Spanish photographers such as Agusti Centello, and foreign photojournalists among which two young progressive Germans, Hans Namuth and Georg Reisner. They had come to cover the Olympics but instead, when the Fascist Generals staged their revolt in Barcelona, they stayed to photograph the war. “We did not stay in Spain” Hans Namuth later wrote “because we were press photographers. We stayed because Franco was our enemy and because it was also our war.” (3)

On July 16, secrets orders went out to the Fascist army commanders to strike on the night of July 17. They were hoping that all over Spain the army would be in full command by the middle of morning, seizing power immediately and dramatically. But the Fascists had not anticipated the determination of the Spaniards. Instead of the swift takeover, they wanted they had to contend with a population who broke into barracks and took up arms: by the next day one half of Spain was pitted against the other. The rebellion against the Republicans initially succeeded in Seville, Jerez de la Frontera, Cordoba, Zaragoza and Oviedo, but was resisted by the rest of the country including most major cities such as Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia

The resistance against Fascists was led by radical trade unions that were armed for the occasion. Soon, because it had few professionals, the Republic had to call on common folks to enlist in the militia.

On July 17, in the soft early morning light, the uprising started and Chim was ready to cover it. All the Fascist regiments quartered in town marched out of their barracks and converged, engaged in a full-fledged rebellion. Their goal was to capture the Government buildings and City Hall while other groups would simultaneously take over the Palace of the Civil Governor.Caught in the increasing crossfire, one-horse garbage carts could be seen galloping down Avenida Diagonal while sparrows, chased out of the trees by the racket, spiraled wildly in the summer sky. Soon pandemonium erupted all over as machine-guns entered the fray and their cold crackle resounded through the air. Chim covered the combats, alternating 35mm and square format. For a piece entitled “ In Barcelona with the antifascists heroes”, he photographed fighters armed with submachine guns and cannons, taken back from the Fascists, in front of the Central Powders Warehouse. Leaning against their horses, assault guards were firing back. Soria describes microphones screaming at the street corners, firefighters racing to burning churches, cars speeding through the streets.

Here is how an eyewitness, Lawrence Fernworth, has described Barcelona streets during a lull in the fighting: “Over by the monument I saw dead horses lying about and splotches of blood drying on the pavement where the wounded had been taken away. The stone walls of many buildings were broken and chipped by bullets. Empty cartridges and bandoliers were lying about everywhere.” (4)

In Barcelona Chim recorded the mix of violence and excitement that made up the city’s atmosphere. He did so without idealizing the Republican’s actions, which were often violent and excessive: churches were burnt, artwork and religious statues destroyed. Captured fascist officers, who were held on a freighter anchored outside Barcelona’s harbor, were hastily tried and executed. Among the bang of the mortars and the rattle of machine guns, Chim photographed civilians passing besides barricades of rubble piled up on the streets to stop the fascist tanks and trucks from circulating.

 But even in the middle of war, Chim was sensitive to scenes of everyday life – photographing, for instance, soldiers at the amusement park- a view he would replicate thirteen years later at Vienna’s Prater. He was also attentive to the bizarre: for instance he made a photograph of soldiers lying on the ground of a shelter wearing their weapons and gas masks for a toxic gas bombing drill, an image both menacing and surreal.

After four days of merciless fighting, on July 22, the Canadian Government was able to announce, “The battle for Barcelona has been won by the armed people.”  At that point, the right-wing military realized that they faced a long struggle and they appealed to Fascist dictatorships in Italy, Germany, and Portugal. Soon they began to receive men and supplies from Mussolini, Hitler, and Salazar. On July 26, Hitler agreed to provide aid to the insurgents. The Republic in turn got aid from the Komintern.

On August 6, Chim published a series of photographs of Dolores Ibarruri, “La Passionaria.” In his accompanying text “Une Femme, une Militante” (A Woman, a Militant), Elie Faure, a renowned intellectual who later became an art historian, described her as a sort of Joan of Arc of the Spanish Loyalists. Of peasant origins, this wife of a miner had been elected deputy from Oviedo. She was a fiery orator and became the legendary symbol of the hopes of the Republican cause. She was responsible for many of the slogans that summed it up: “Better die standing than live on your knees”, “Better to be a hero’s widow than a coward’s wife”, and gave a new life to a slogan of World War I’s French soldiers, the Poilus, that became the leitmotiv of the Battle of Madrid: “No Pasaran!” – They will not pass.

Chim had already taken a beautiful portrait of Dolores Ibarruri in Paris earlier that same year. But the portrait in this August publication does not describe the influent political figure, or the public speaker. What makes it special is the intimate, thoughtful expression of a woman dressed in black, her hair severely pulled back in a bun, her shoulders a little hunched over, her knuckles gripping her chin and mouth, eyes gazing at some inner vision.” You need to hear” Elie Faure writes “ this broken voice punctuated by the dance of the hands around the immobile torso, the handkerchief that she clutches in her bony fist as if to cling to herself, while her thought springs from word to burning word.”

Early August Chim was in Saragossa where he photographed a crowd surrounding a Republican plane taken down by the Fascists. In the August 13 issue of Regards,the journalist J.E.Pouterman chose the title “Spain fights for the world’s freedom” .It demonstrates the extent to which the Spanish War was seen in France and in antifascist Europe as the symbol of a common fate.

On August 12, Chim photographed the first International Brigade volunteers arriving in Spain. The first fighting unit was made up of German antifascists, refugees who had come from France and escapees straight from Germany. They named their outfit after Ernst Thaelmann, the Communist leader who was already a prisoner of the Nazi and would later die at Buchenwald. A body of Italians, mainly escapees from fascism, who organized themselves into the Gastone-Sozzi Battalion and the Giustizia e Libertà Column, soon joined the Brigades.

Chim’s photographs are very personal. Even when he photographs a group like the Thaelmann Brigades for symbolic content, there is almost always a main character on which he zooms, such as the young soldier in his metal helmet, slightly turning towards the viewer as he marches on.

By early September, Chim was on the front in the hills near Irun with J.E.Pouterman, a Regards journalist who would later become a photography critic. Irun was a key location because this Basque town was at the point where the main road and rail links with southwestern France. Even though the reorganized resistance of the Republican militias slowed them down, the Fascists were advancing rapidly on their way to Madrid, General Mola ordered Colonel Beorlegui to take the resort town of San Sebastian and nearby Irun. South of Irun, on the Puntza ridge, Chim photographed the Nationalist forces, including a newly arrived Bandera of the Tercio. It was an uneven battle: on the Republican side there were only some elements of the Basque army, some Asturians and Anarchist militianos,part of a volunteer Paris battalion and a few French machine guns.

Critics often oppose Capa’s urgent style to Chim’s more reflective stance. However, in the case of this series, Chim’s pictures of the front resemble some of Capa’s pictures for their sense of urgency and closeness. He has renounced the niceties of composition and has thrown himself into action. Some of the shots are blurry, taken at ground level, bringing us into the middle of the action, amid the smoke and mud. As has been noted by Irme Schaber, Gerda Taro’s biographer (5) “ Capa, Taro and Chim often worked on the same subjects, sometimes even at the same time. It is difficult to distinguish them, in the choice of subjects or the style…And some photos of Basque combatants attending an open air mass, published in Regardswith Chim’s copyright, have been found in Capa’s work notebooks.” It also often happened that Regardspublished their photographs with the wrong copyright; the three photographers did not care much about those mistakes.

As we see on Chim’s pictures, the machine guns and rifles were old, and for the most part the soldiers did not even have helmets, let alone uniforms. On the other hand, the Nationalists were supported by artillery and by Italian planes.

The Fascists advanced, taking heavy casualties, yet were able to clear the ridge. But resistance was fierce and they were taken in hand to hand combat as the Basques and their allies counter attacked. The ridge changed hands more than three times. The Navarese Requetes (recruits from Navarre, in Northern Spain) stormed a hill upon which stood the Convent of San Marcial overlooking Irun; the convent defenders were fierce Asturian miners and dinamiteroswho held out until their ammunition ran out.  Inside the city walls, anarchist militias defending the city and seeing that they were losing the battle burnt or destroyed with dynamite most of the government buildings to prevent their use by the Fascists.

Sadly, two days after Chim’s action-packed coverage was published in Regards on September 3, Irun fell to Colonel Alfonso Beorlegui and a victory march, complete with Fascist salutes, was organized on the city streets just a day after Prime Minister Largo Caballero had presented his new government, a coalition of Socialists, Communists and Left Republicans. Irun’s defenders had to flee across the Bidasoa River into France. Irun was a huge military success for the Fascists, because it meant that they could isolate the Basque country from the French border and the rest of the Republican ground.

Capa and his fiancée Gerda Taro, a thin, intense redhead with beautiful blue eyes whose boundless energy, talent and courage matched Capa’s had also been in Barcelona in August. Taro and Capa had met in September 1934 and since then had been working as a team. They photographed street scenes and, at the railroad station, the soldiers bound for Aragon, which they soon followed there and onto the Huesca front and Saragossa. After spending a week or so on the front they proceeded to Madrid then to Cerro Muriano, on the Cordoba front, where Capa made beautiful pictures of the civilian population but also the picture of the Falling Soldier that was to establish his reputation as a war photographer. “The picture was widely hailed as the most exciting and immediate shot of battle action ever taken,” writes Capa’s biographer Richard Whelan (6):

“Capa and Taro returned to Paris and to political reporting during the last week of September. As for Chim, he remained in Spain and now concentrated on a series of secret missions to depict munitions and aircraft factories. One of his pictures shows a woman working at an ammunitions factory as part of the war effort. The first of these reports was published in Regards on September 10: “In Spanish Warehouses: Canons for Spain, Aircrafts for Spain.”

With the poet and writer José Bergamin, Chim was the only journalist authorized on deck of the Jaime I, the largest destroyer of the Spanish float- Franco’s headquarters had announced that they has sunk it. The Jaime I had played an important role when Franco announced his intention of cutting off supplies to the Republican side. In July 1936, the crew revolted, killed their officers, and put themselves under the command of a petty officer sympathetic to the Loyalists, Thereafter the Jaime I became the government’s chief weapon against Franco. Through Eisner’s good offices, the reportage was then republished after Regards’s October 1 issue in the Illustrated London News(November 28,1936).

Capa and Taro were back in Spain by the third week of September and Capa published “Combats devant Cordoue” (Combats in front of Cordoba) on September 24. They had accompanied supply trucks from the Olmes country in France to Catalonia. Some of the photographs in the reportage must be by Taro but, as often the case in Regards, they are not credited.

By mid October Chim was in Madrid. He photographed La Passionaria’s speech on the defense of Madrid to the Combatants of the Militia’s Fifth Regiment. Una Odira, one of the directors of the Unified Youth movement, had been killed on the Cordoba front, and Chim photographed a parade with young people holding a banner with her name and the inscription “Vinceremos”, soliciting donations for hospitals from the passers-by. His reportage was published in Regardson October 22.

On November 8, Franco and his army reached the outskirts of Madrid right after the arrival of the first units of the International Brigades formed at Albacete. Some 3,000 men, mostly Germans and Italians, marching with precision and singing Revolutionary songs, paraded across the embattled capital. The weather was becoming especially harsh that year and the civilian population, besides suffering from severe food shortages, had almost no coal or wood for heating.

The battle went on for ten days without pause and Madrid was suddenly the center for the news with major international journalists following the fighting at Casa de Campon and the University City through binoculars from their rooms near the Plaza de Espana. All over the world the antifascists who had watched Mussolini and Hitler move from success to success without challenge launched the slogan “Madrid will be the tomb of fascism.” From the trenches and over the radio came the phrase “No Pasaran.” The battle was inconclusive and Madrid remained a principal front until the end of March 1937,with both armies creating a labyrinth of trench and barbed wire defenses fifty feet apart from each other along the Western perimeter of the city.

In the Regardsissue of November 26, Chim published reportage on the Palace of the Duke of Alba. Built in the 18thcentury, the palace housed an art collection reportedly second only to the National Palace, and had been used as Communist headquarters since the beginning of the Civil War, It had been damaged by Franco’s aircrafts earlier in the month: “German airmen dropped incendiary bombs on his palace- not just one but many…Now all these treasures would be burning, if the workers-guards, risking their lives, had not rescued them from the flames and laid them out in the grass: ancient weapons, paintings, medieval armors, costly folios from the Duke’s library. What an image for those who really want to determine which class is defending culture and which class is destroying it!” 

In sharp contrast with photographs he had done in the Spring of Republicans destroying statues of saints, Chim shows here uniformed soldiers and armed men and women, who were trained as Republican soldiers on the grounds, cataloguing and caring for the Palace treasures. Some carry a wooden Christ on their shoulders; others are waxing the floors to a shine. Chim’s reportage was republished in the Illustrated London Newstwo days later. Chim had another reportage in the same issue, on Barcelona’s Monjuich Arena – it was on the cover. He photographed 15,000 refugees from Catalonia and the Basque country, parents, children and grandchildren sleeping in dormitories and eating at long refectory tables in the stadium and did it again for the December 31 issue.

In Madrid, the Royal Palace was taken over by Valentin Gonzales, the son of a miner from Estramadura, who would later become famous as “El Campesino”, a General in command of an army, has recounted how, while in charge of the his brigade, the Forty-Sixth Assault Division, he took over the Royal Palace: “That night, the peasant slept in the bed of Alfonso XIII, the last decadent sovereign of what had once been one of the most powerful empires in the world. He had owned a very comfortable bed.” (7)

In 1937, Chim’s coverage of Spain intensified and he published in seven consecutive issues of Regards. The January 1, 1937 issue has a reportage by Capa and Soria, who are in Madrid: “Asi Vinceremos” and a piece on  “Death in Salamanca” by Jose Bergamin. Chim was traveling through Basque country and published a reportage on three armed fishing boats (bous) that protected the Basque coast against the forays of Franco’s fleet. He made beautiful portraits of the Captains of the Bous. One of them was the Captain of the boat that had captured the German ship “Palos” which had been loaded with supplies for Franco’s forces. Chim also made photographs of the “Palos”, and his reportage was published again in Weekly Illustrated(April 24, 1937).

For the January 14 issue of Regards, Chim did seven photographs and the cover. He traveled to Das, in the Catalan Pyrenees, going thirty meters down into the brown coal, the “lignite” mines with the elderly peasants that had replaced the young miners who were fighting on the Catalan front. Once mined, the coal was then carried on small hand-held, primitive ploughs drawn by oxen.

Chim joined the miners for their outdoor picnic lunch brought by women and children, and made several beautiful portraits. “A ray of sun comes out. We take advantage of it and they align against the shed, sheltered from the north. They agree with simplicity to the demands of the photographer, who is delirious with the beauty of certain types,” writes the reporter, Albert Soulillou.” There is a nice old guy who is all moved to know that his portrait will be published in the paper, just like that of a brave revolutionary fighter. He cannot stop shaking our hands. He has tears in his eyes.”

Meanwhile Capa has arrived in Madrid where the situation is dire. A fifth of the city has been destroyed. In the January 21 issue of Regards, Ilya Ehrenburg wrote:” It was a city; it has been transformed into a front. War has entered, war became a habit, and death, a detail.” By mid January, Chim and J.E.Pouterman were aboard the ship Aya Mendi that left Bordeaux for Bilbao, the Basque capital. They followed an indirect route to avoid Franco’s pirates and Hitler’s crusaders. What was usually a 15-hour trip took them four days and four nights. Chim photographed war cargo seized on the German contraband ship Palos, the Basque ship Soton and the British ship Blackhill.

For the January 28 issue of Regards, Chim traveled all over the Basque Republic, focusing on Bilbao and Vallejo after recent combats. The Catholic Church supported Franco in most of Spain, but Basque country was exceptional: Catholic Basque separatists strongly supported the Republican government in Bilbao. Chim’s photographs stress the unusual alliance of the Catholics, Socialists, and Anarchists against Fascism. One of his most striking pictures shows a group of women walking Bilbao’s streets, clutching Bibles tight against their chests as they would children.

The Basque military plan had been to defend the heights at the provincial border while constructing a belt of fortifications around the city of Bilbao. In late September 1936 the Insurgents had thought that they would walk to Bilbao in three weeks but the Basque held them at the border of Vizcaya until April 1937. Asturian miners and Bilbao building workers constructed the “Iron Ring” but were betrayed by an engineer who crossed over the lines with the blueprints in his pocket. The February 4 issue pursues the same theme, with a Chim cover on the Amorebieta Cloister, about 20km from Bilbao, dating back to the 18thcentury. “In the Spanish Basque country” writes Pouterman “there is no conflict between the population’s Republican aspirations and the Church.” The Cloister’s Brothers have given their old refectory to the militias from the Transmission Battalion. Chim and Pouterman attend a country mass on the front. A full page by Chim shows a Basque priests laughing together with a Republican militia.

In Oviedo where he went next, Chim shot two of his best reportages for the February 18 and February 25 issues of Regards.

Early in February, fighting had erupted in Orviedo, the mining center of the Asturias, as the miners, supporters of the Republican cause, sought to recapture Oviedo from Franco’s troops. Basque troops -the famous “dinamiteros”– under the command of General Aranda joined the miners. Working in the trenches from up close, Chim photographed all the aspects of the miners’ lives, from their assaults against the Fascists to a break taken inside an old barrel or under a makeshift tent. The opening picture in the Regardsspread is a close-up on a dinamitero. He had approached the enemy lines, his dynamite charge in hand, and is about to light it with his cigarette- there was a shortage of matches- taking the risk that the charge could explode in his hands. “Salud y dinamita” was the rallying cry exchanged by the Asturian miners. Other action photographs show the miners shooting through a breach that they just opened with dynamite. Chim’s piece, a classic that made the miners heroes, was republished on March 6 in the Illustrated London News. With a total of ten photographs, it was one of Chim’s longest pieces.

During the spring, there is a hiatus in Chim’s publications, and we do not know where he spent these three months. Meanwhile Capa and Taro were photographing the defense of Madrid, an episode also filmed by Joris Ivens, for a reportage published on March 18, and Taro, who by now had her own byline (Photo Taro) published on April 15 a story on “Spain forging its army.” Capa also published a May 27 piece on the siege of Bilbao.

Back in Paris at the end of May, Chim collaborated with Henri Cartier-Bresson on a June 3 Regardsissue on the Paris World Fair. His most notable photograph was his portrait of Picasso.

In February, colleagues and representatives of the Spanish Democratic Government such as the Catalan Josep Renau, then chief of Antifascist Propaganda, had come to Picasso’s home to ask him to paint a mural for the Fair. He had agreed but did not feel inspired, though he had always supported the Republican Party financially. The concept of political art did not appeal to him, but something happened to drastically change his mind: in the afternoon of April 26, 1937. At the request of Spanish Nationalist General Emilio Mola, Guernica, the Holy City of the Basque in the north of Spain, was destroyed methodically by Nazi aircraft of the Condor Legion. For over three hours, the town was pounded by high explosive and incendiary bombs. Guernica burned for three days. 1,600 civilians were killed or wounded. It was the first time that a civilian center had suffered such a fate on such a scale.

On April 30, eyewitness reports filled the front pages of Ce Soirand all major newspapers in Europe. More than one million protesters filled the streets to voice their outrage in the largest ever May Day demonstration.

Picasso, stunned ever since he had seen the papers, rushed through the crowded streets to his studio and immediately started preparatory drawings on Guernica. In a week, the drawings took on their final scale and design, with the predominant bull, the frenzied horse, and the weeping woman. Picasso worked with surprising speed and on May 11 Dora Maar photographed him drawing the full design on canvas. “In the picture I am now painting,” said Picasso “which I shall call Guernica, and in all my recent work, I am expressing my horror of the military caste that is now plunging Spain in to an ocean of misery and death.” (8)

 In Chim’s photograph, an intense, fiery-eyed Picasso stands with arms crossed, unsmiling. This is no official portrait. In this instance, Chim was taking a personal stance, because the Guernica painting was rarely understood and came under a barrage of partisan, utilitarian criticism. The German fair guide called Guernica “a hodgepodge of body parts that any four-year old could have painted.” The Soviet reacted coolly: they favored realistic imagery. Even the Left, and especially the Communists, the very people who should have understood and supported it, attacked the painting: it did not illustrate a political agenda, and it expressed suffering rather than optimism. In Spain, journalists went as far as declaring it “antisocial and entirely foreign to a healthy proletarian outlook.” This is a time when Regardshad become extremely popular, with100,000 readers that they wanted to expand to 150,000. Chim continues working in Paris and for the July 1 issue of Regards collaborates again with Cartier-Bresson for a reportage on the Cotton Club, one of the new Parisian nightclubs that featured a jazz group, Whyte’s Hopping Maniacs. The magazine’s cover, unaccredited, may be by Chim.

On July 15, Regardspublished a special issue on one year of Civil War in Spain. Along with a group of photographs of Taro, Chim’s pictures on the Duke of Alba palace were republished, and journalist Louis Parrot wrote:” In the middle of war, the Republican Government saves masterpieces and teaches adults and children.” The next week, another special issue of Regardsfeatured the Second Congress for the Defense of Culture, attended by 200 writers from 26 countries. Both Capa and Chim covered the Congress and Chim did beautiful portraits of Tolstoy, Egon Erwin Kisch and Jose Bergamin. Even though they were done in public situations, the portraits do not have an official aspect; it always feels as if the photographer and his models had established an intimate rapport. Taro had returned to Spain and went to the Brunete front: with the war in the Basque territory over, and the battle lines in the rest of Span relatively stable, the Republicans determined to make a frontal attack on the enemy lines at Brunete, near Madrid. The battle of Brunete was fought through most of July 1937, in intense heat, and was savage, with positions changing hands many times over. In the end, the Republicans gained a small advantage at the cost of shattering losses. Taro had sent her pictures to Regards, where they were published on July 22: “In Brunete and Villanieta de la Canada: a sensational photographic reportage by Taro.”

While Taro was at Brunete, Chim was in France reporting on the first Congés Payés (Paid vacation): “In the small beaches of the north, our photographer Chim went to surprise the vacationers, in those small beaches, simple ones without insolent luxury or casinos.”

It is on her last day at Brunete, July 25 that Taro, who wanted one more chance at getting action shots, set out again for Brunete with her colleague Ted Allan. But when they reached General Walters’ headquarters, he asked them to leave the area immediately as heavy combats were expected. Allan wanted to obey but Gerda didn’t and persuaded him to stay. Gerda shot close-ups of Insurgent planes, raining bombs on the dugouts.

On Sunday July 25 Taro, who had found a ride in a Jeep to Madrid, asked Ted Allan to come with her to the front. After terrifying combats where she shot all her films, putting herself in constant danger, Taro and Allan walked towards Villanueva de la Canada and found a large black car that transported the wounded to El Escorial. They were allowed to stand on the footboards. Italian bomber airplanes suddenly appeared. In front of them a tank started swerving madly and the Jeep’s driver tried to pass it, but the tank, sideswiping the car, caused Gerda to fall off the footboard. The tank rode on her stomach and legs, crushing her. Lightly wounded, Allan fell on the other side. Taro and Allan were rushed by ambulance El Goloso, an English hospital, where she was operated on but died early the next morning.

That same day in Paris Capa read in the Communist daily L’Humanité a short report:” A French journalist, Mlle Taro, is reported to have been killed in a combat near Brunete.” That night Capa, Ruth Cerf and Ce Soireditor Paul Nizan left for Toulouse then for Perpignan where Gerda’s body was driven, then took a train back to Paris. Richard Whelan wrote, “Capa was absolutely devastated by grief. Until the funeral he remained in his studio, weeping and refusing all the food and drink that Inouye [a colleague] brought him.” (5)

Thousands of mourners attended the funeral procession that went from the Maison de la Culture to the Père Lachaise cemetery. Pieces dedicated to Taro appeared in Ce Soir, Life, then Regardson August 5 under the title “ Accident in Brunete”: “ Our readers may have remarked the talent of Gerda Taro for her audacity, sometimes her contempt for death, on the fronts of Andalusia, Aragon, Madrid, from where, with our reporters Capa and Chim, she brought back a documentation that Regards since last August had been alone in presenting and that contributed to make vivid the terrible realities of the fight of the Spanish Republic for the world’s freedom” writes journalist Léon Moussinac.

For the September 16 issue of Regards, Chim traveled to Brittany, covering religious processions in ceremonial costumes that took place in Sainte Anne la Palud, in the Douarnenez Bay. It was a nice break from covering the war, and Chim had always loved religious festivals- he would cover many of them in Italy in the 1950s- and he relished photographing the five thousand pilgrims converging, most on foot, some carrying banners, some wooden sculptures of ships as an homage to the Saint, to be brought to her chapel.

Early in October Chim was still in France, this time in the south, in Antibes and Pegomas, for a reportage on a “La Marseillaise” a film shot by Director Jean Renoir, with whom Cartier-Bresson would also collaborate. But by mid-October, he was at the French-Spanish frontier, in Cerbère, covering the arrival of the first Spanish refugees, their anxious faces showing in the train’s windows.

In Spain the war was taking a turn for the worse. Although combats would rage for another 18 months, the Franquist troops, better armed and better trained, were making steady progress. However, the Republicans managed to snatch one last victory in Teruel, covered for Regardsin the December 30 issue by Ilya Ehrenburg.

Perched on the top of a low hill, alone in a desolate terrain, Teruel, although only 60 miles from Valencia and its orange groves, had the lowest temperatures of any other Spanish town in winter. While Franco planned great simultaneous offensives towards Guadalajara and southward to Madrid and a thrust at the Mediterranean coast, the Republicans wanted to drive against Saragossa and break his eastern salient. Their eyes were on Teruel and they managed to bring in 40 or 50,000 troops under the command of Colonel Sarabia, to the front without the Insurgents finding out. The battle of Teruel was the turning point of the war. The fighting in these treacherous chalk hills took place in the dead of winter, the worst winter Spain had endured in twenty years. The snow fell, blizzards raged. Men died of the cold. There were snowdrifts six feet deep. The Republicans attacked on December 15 and by New Year’s Day most of the town was in their hands. He was promoted to general after the capture of Teruel.

In 1938, Chim went back to covering social subjects in France with several consecutive reportages: one on factories (“Folies à la Chaîne”, January 22), one on the Navy (January 29), one on Music Hall (March 3) one on Miners (March 24) and one on Marseille’s Hobos (September 8).

However, he did one of his major picture stories in early August for Regardson the front of Ebro.

Negrin sought a field of battle that would strike at the communications of the Nationalist army, place the fighting in hill country to minimize the enemy’s material superiority and enable the Republic to concentrate its reserves and supplies. He chose the bend of the Ebro River, between Fayon and Benifollet, an area held by only one Nationalist division. North of this bend, they concentrated about 100,000 men, 100 operational planes, over 100 heavy guns and several dozens light anti-aircraft pieces. The Republicans started to cross the Ebro River on the night of July 24. The maneuver achieved complete surprise and in the course of a week, 50,000 men occupied the hills north of the river. The Nationalists opened the dams along the tributaries of the river, and the floodwaters destroyed the pontoons. But Franco rushed reinforcements to the area and by August 1 the Republican advance had been stopped. At Ebro, the performance of the Republican army reminded the world of Verdun and Madrid- but the losses had been incredibly heavy. Among Chim’s best pictures are one, taken up close, Republican soldiers throwing grenades, another of the army crossing the Ebro on pontoons.

On November 1, Chim met again with La Passionaria in Barcelona, and in its melancholy her farewell speech to the International Brigades felt like an acknowledgement that the Civil War had been lost: “A feeling of sorrow, an infinite grief catches in our throat-sorrow for those who are going away, for the soldiers of the highest ideal of human redemption, exiles from their countries, persecuted by the tyrants of all people- grief for those who will stay here forever mingled with the Spanish soil, in the very depth of our heart hallowed by our feeling of eternal gratitude…Those men reached our country as crusaders for freedom, to fight and die for Spain’s liberty and independence threatened by German and Italian fascism.”

Chim did a few more reportages in Spain, among which one on women assembling parts for warplanes in workshops. His last story of the Civil War was published early in 1939.

Between January 27 and February 10, approximately a half million Spaniards retreated into France. Families pushing two-wheeled carts piled high with mattresses, utensils and dolls covered the roads from Barcelona to Port Bou. On Chim’s photographs, long columns of grim refugees bundled up in wool covers against the bitter cold, snake through the Perthus pass, their figures blurred by the fog. Chim’s profound sadness and disenchantment is almost palpable in those images, the last of his 30-months coverage of the Spanish Civil War.

Even though the French régime had supported the Civil War, the French attitude to the refugees was dismal. They had offered refuge but were unprepared for such numbers and did not want to complicate their future relations with the victors- Franco would be in power for the next forty years.

By February 5, the French had counted 170,000 refugees and decided to allow only the civilians to cross, even though staying in Spain amounted to a death sentence for Republicans. From February 5 to 9th,the French allowed 300,000 soldiers on condition of surrendering their weapons at the border- these weapons were then turned back to the Franquists.

The soldiers had expected a warm welcome- and they were indignant when the gendarmes frisked them like criminals. Some peasants watched the refugees with tears in their eyes but other muttered “Sales Rouges” (Dirty Reds) under their breath.

The refugees were hoarded toward improvised camps on the beaches near Argeles and Saint Cyprien. In these internment camps, closed with barbed wires, the refugees were treated like prisoners and the living conditions were horrendous:  in the makeshift tents, the winter cold was bitter. Food and water were scarce, medical help almost inexistent, and many whose resistance was already weakened by two years on the front died that winter of hypothermia or malnutrition. One can only imagine the emotions of those Republicans whose political hopes had been crushed and whose allies had betrayed them when they needed them most. One of those who celebrated the Spanish Civil War and saw reason for hope was Ernest Hemingway: “The dead sleep cold in Spain tonight, and they will sleep cold all winter as the earth sleeps with them. But in the spring the rain will come to make the earth kind again… This spring the dead will feel the earth beginning to live again…” (9)

Finally, the Republican Government in exile arranged for the transfer of 150,000 refugees to Mexico and South America. Soon after, the new French weekly Paris Matchwould assign Chim and George Soria to cover the trip of 1,000 Republicans to Mexico aboard the S.S.Sinaia, bound for Vera Cruz. He did not know that World War II was soon to start, and that he would not be back in Europe for more than a year. He also did not know that his reportage on the S.S Sinaia and a subsequent story on Mexico would be his last until the end of the war.

  • “1937: Letters of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade from the Spanish Civil War” by Cary Nelson and Jefferson Hendricks. New York, Routledge, 1996.
  • TheNew Yorker, December 9, 2002. Susan Sontag was a noted essayist, critic, and novelist 1933-2004).
  • Hans Namuth catalogue, no ed., New York, March 1977.
  • “A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War”, by Gabriel Jackson. New York, John Day, 1974. Fernworth was an American journalist and writer.
  • “Gerda Taro, une photographe révolutionnaire dans la guerre d’Espagne”, by Irme Schaber, Paris, Editions du Rocher, 2006, p.192.
  • “Capa, a Biography”, by Richard Whelan. Alfred Knopf, New York, 1985.
  • “The Civil War in Spain” edited by Robert Payne. Putnam & Sons, New York, 1962, p.129. The quote comes from Mikhail Koltzov’s text Madrid in November.

     (8)  “Picasso the creator” by Pierre Daix, Somogy Publishers, New York, 1964.

     (9)  “On the American Dead in Spain” by Ernest Hemingway 1939, in The American Communist
. Reprinted in “Aura of the Cause: A Photo Album of North American Volunteers in
            the Spanish Civil War” by Cary Nelson, University of Illinois Press, 1997, p.197.