Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Mexican Suitcase

In 1979, the brother of a famous photographer wrote a note about his late brother's work on the occassion of that work being featured in the Venice Bienalle, arguably the world's most famous art show, held every two years in Venice, Italy.

He said
In 1940, before the advance of the German army, my brother gave to one of his friends a suitcase full of documents and negatives. En route to Marseilles, he entrusted the suitcase to a former Spanish Civil War soldier, who was to hide it in the cellar of a Latin-American consulate. The story ends here. The suitcase has never been found despite the searches undertaken. Of course a miracle is possible. Anyone who has information regarding the suitcase should contact me and will be blessed in advance.

Four years earlier, in 1975, a colleague of the photographer wrote the brother and explained that he had taken the negatives out of Paris in advance of the Germans and had entrusted it to a Chilean he had met in the street in Bordeaux who promised to take it to a Latin American consulate. Nothing more was ever heard. It was assumed that the photographs were lost forever and presumably destroyed.

But it turns out that somehow, no one knows how, the suitcase, unopened, ended up in the possession of a the Mexican ambassador to Vichy France in 1941, General Francisco Aguilar Gonzalez. General Gonzalez returned to Mexico with the suitcase in his possession and passed away 30 years later, in 1971, possibly without having ever opened it. The suitcase was in the possessions of a woman who was the aunt of a Mexican documentary filmmaker. He inherited the suitcase, opened it, and reviewed the negatives. He realized that they were of the Spanish Civil War and contacted a professor at Queens College who studied the history of the conflict. The professor realized whose photographs these were, and contacted the brother of the late photographer.

The brother was Cornell Capa, founder of the International Center for Photography, and these were the rumored missing negatives of his brother, Robert Capa, arguably the most famous photographer of war in the history of photography.

But Capa was unable to contact the filmmaker who had found the negative and they were never received. Finally in 2004 a special effort was made to locate the person who had inherited the negatives and in 2007,  at the age of 89, Cornell Capa finally received the contents of the suitcase his brother had packed in Paris when the Germans attacked in 1940.

The 126 rolls of black and white negative are still being scanned and the ICP will hold an exhibition for them when they are prepared.

The guy in the center is a journalist named Ernest Hemingway

We must all be grateful that Capa and his friends had used film, of course. Had they been digital, no doubt they would not have survived. The storage media would have completely disintegrated over 60 years, it would be like trying to read a 1,000 miles of punched paper tape.

The complete story of the history of the Mexican suitcase can be found at the following link, at the International Center of Photography website:

Magnum Photos, the famous international photography agency, has a discussion of Capa at

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