Musée d'art et histoire du Judaïsme-Capa, Taro & Chim, Paris La Valise Mexicaine, The Mexican Suitcase
Exhibitions,  History,  Photos

Treasures in a Mexican Suitcase-Capa, Taro, Chim

Musée d'art et histoire du Judaïsme-Capa, Taro & Chim, Paris La Valise Mexicaine, The Mexican Suitcase
“Spectators at the funeral of General Lukacs, Valencia, June 16, 1937”, by Gerda Taro © International Center of Photography. “Exiled Republicans marching along the beach from one internment camp to another, Le Barcarès, France, March 1939”, by Robert Capa ©International Center of Photography / Magnum

An acquaintance mentioned to me the name of an exhibit she had seen and liked: “La Valise mexicaine, Capa, Taro, Chim-Les négatifs retrouvés de la guerre civile espagnole” . The mysterious name drew me to the exhibit housed in the Paris Jewish museum. “The Mexican Suitcase, rediscovered spanish Civil War negatives” is on display until June 30, 2013 at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme.

During the course of the exhibit, I found out that four photojournalists and friends could support themselves as photographers in Paris, a female was a pioneering war photographer, and that when you have a chance to flee a dangerous situation, you leave valuable things behind. Hard-core evidence of four and a half years in the span of history and the Spanish Civil War disappeared in 1939.

Negatives in the boxes
The valuable things are called “the suitcase”. “The suitcase” is three small boxes containing nearly 45,000 negatives of images shot by Robert Capa (Endre Ernö Friedmann, born in Hungary), Gerda Taro (Gerta Pohorylle, born in Stuttgart), Chim (David Seymour/Dawid Szymin, born in Warsaw).  A side mystery to the war photographs is why a couple of Fred Stein’s (born in Dresden) photos of Taro and Capa were found in the “suitcase” as well as four rolls from Capa’s trip to Belgium. The collection of negatives would not resurface until 1995. Through persistent persuasion, they finally came into the possession of the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York in 2007.

Capa joined many other French and European artists and intellectuals in 1939, leaving Paris and the negatives. He received a visa from the Chilean consul and a commission from Life magazine and took the ship to New York. The negatives stayed with Csiki Weisz in Paris and were then passed from hand to hand for safekeeping.

Negatives to back up the story
The exhibit features the photojournalists in the throes of the daily lives of their subjects. The photos in the displayed magazines are sound bites or snippets verifying the descriptions and stories written in the articles.  The ICP writes that the negatives “provide insight into how a photographer covered a story in its original sequence. This is the largest cache of negatives of such historic value by such major photographers to have ever been found, nearly seventy years after they disappeared.”

The magazines–RegardsVuLifeSchweizer Illustrierte ZeitungVolks-Illustriete, employed Capa, Taro and Chim to document the Spanish Civil War: A war which began with a military coup (Nationalists) after a democratic election (Republicans) in 1936.

Musée d'art et histoire du Judaïsme-Capa, Taro & Chim, Paris La Valise Mexicaine, The Mexican Suitcase
One of three boxes of negatives by Capa, Taro and Chim known as the Mexican suitcase ©Collection ICP

The collection offers an opportunity to bring those snippets to life in 32 chapters. Each chapter focuses on one of the three photographer’s vision of a particular moment in the Spanish Civil War. The exhibit features contact sheets, images of the photographers during “down” time, their notebooks and photo scrapbooks, the Valencian crowds waiting at the fence to enter the morgue after the air raid, the soldiers eating and fighting, daily life of villagers before, during and after raids, the refugees on their way to the French border and their internment — the details behind the sound bites.

The rolls of film in one of the three boxes of “the suitcase” are like round pegs in square holes. Drawn on the lid are squares with a number, a location or a description. Each square matches a roll of film in the box. Bataille de Brunete takes up squares 74, 75 and 76. Those three words leave no hint that Capa will lose his former lover, Taro, during this battle.

The negative journeys
They negatives were in the possession of a Mexican filmmaker who had inherited them from an aunt who was friends with a General who was Mexican ambassador (1941-1942) during the Vichy reign in France. In 2007, the filmmaker, Benjamin Tarver, gave the negatives to curator and filmmaker, Trisha Ziff. She persuaded Tarver to give the “Mexican Suitcase” to the International Center for Photography in New York.

I visited the exhibit on a Wednesday around 11 a.m. in virtual tranquility. Taking my time to study the French magazines on display, trying to find the published photos on the contact sheets made the visit more intense. The doorman provides you with a square, plastic magnifying sheet. The exhibit was very crowded by the time I left.

More Reading and Information
The trailer for the film “The Mexican Suitcase” provides a general idea of the exhibit.
The Story of the “Mexican Suitcase” 
Frequently Asked Questions about the Mexican Suitcase

Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme
Hôtel de Saint-Aignan
71, rue du Temple 75003
Phone: (33) 1 53 01 86 60
Email: write to us info@mahj.org

Metro: Line 11 (Rambuteau), Line 1 and 11 (Hôtel de Ville)
Buses: 29, 38, 47, 75
RER: Châtelet-Les Halles
300 metres from the Pompidou Centre

Open: Mondays to Fridays 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Sundays 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Last ticket sales 5.15 p.m.
Late opening Wednesdays until 9 pm (exhibitions only)
Last ticket sales 8.15 pm
Closed Saturday
Closed May 1

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This Web site and and its blog articles are for travelers to Paris who are looking for advice from someone who lives in Paris. These tips are "for Parisians at heart". Many people would like to visit, some can and some cannot - so I will help you enjoy a glimpse of the city and its surroundings. This project has been ongoing since 2002. Prior to living in Paris (since 1992) my European history began in the early 70s with three years in Wiesbaden, Germany. My next foray onto the Continent was in the mid-80s after graduation from the University of Florida (where I met Erik): traveling around Europe and UK with my friend, Margie, hitchhiking around and working in Ireland. After living and working as a journalist in Sweden for four years, traveling on boats, the Trans-Siberian Railway, local trains and planes took Erik and I around the world. I began working as a flight attendant in 1990 for American Airlines, based in Chicago. We moved to Paris, France in 1992 where I commuted between Paris and Chicago for my flight attendant/stewardess job. Finally my inner voice said "Stop!" and I left American Airlines six weeks shy of 20 years January 1, 2010. Now that is over and I am back working as a journalist and photographer full time on Colleensparis.com - My videos are posted on YouTube on the colleensparis youtube channel. and I am active in Toastmasters 75. Enjoy!