Monday, November 22, 2010


Currently on exhibit at the International Center for Photography (ICP) in New York, 'The Mexican Suitcase' refers to three cardboard boxes smuggled out of France at the beginning of WW2, likely by the Mexican ambassador, containing 126 rolls of film, lost for 70 years, from three of the most important photojournalists to cover the Spanish Civil War; Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, and David 'Chim' Seymour.  These three young and idealistic photographers entered Spain in 1936 to document the terrible struggle between the elected Leftist government, and a half-successful coup organized by General Francisco Franco, backed by a coalition of monarchists, capitalists, the Catholic church, and Fascists.

Hoping to sway international opinion through the use of their photographs, Capa, Taro (Capa's lover, see both above), and Chim took dramatic photos which changed the course of photography, if not the war.  With the mantra 'if the photo isn't interesting, you're not close enough to the battle', these three were intimately involved with the Republican soldiers fighting against the US- and Fascist-backed rebellion.  The three photographers weren't the only foreigners helping the Republicans via media accounts; luminaries such as Ernest Hemingway (below), Paul Robeson, Pablo Neruda, and George Orwell (who actually took up arms, and wrote 'Homage to Catalonia' about his experiences in the war) felt the urgency of fighting the European tide of Fascism which arose in the 1930s in Italy and Germany.
The Republican soldier riding the motorcycle was photographed by Gerda Taro (the nom de plume of  Gerta Pohrylle of Germany), and is hiding in the forest during an aerial attack by German Heinkel He51s, in the battle of Navacerrada Pass, between Madrid and Segovia, early June 1937.  This very battle is the setting for Ernest Hemingway's 'For Whom the Bell Tolls',  in which a journalist/Hemingway stand-in, Robert Jordan, is an American who travels to Spain to fight fascism.  About 2800 Americans (the 'Abraham Lincoln Brigade') did so, although I doubt any brought their motorcycles, as there was an official US embargo on providing any material aid to the Spanish, and some of the Americans were prosecuted after returning to the US.
The Harley Davidson looks to be a 'VLD' model of 1932-'36, their 74cubic inch sidevalve roadster, hardly suited to the kind of off-road work used in a military campaign... but of course, private motorcycles were pressed into service during war in Spain, and shortly after, the rest of Europe.  The Harley has a German Bosch headlamp, which may have been a convenient replacement for the original item, after damage.  No other modifications appear to have been made to the bike; Spain had no time to make specialist war equipment or even paint military machines drab or camouflage.  In his leather jacket and boots, plus beret and goggles, the rider could be any of us on his Harley, out for a spin in the woods.  But the look of anxiety on his face, keeping his hands on the 'bars, means our rider is ready to hightail it at the first sign of an incoming plane...

Thanks to JJ Ward for alerting me to these photos! For more info, please read this article in The Nation.


trent reker said...

when i saw the title, i was sure it was about drug smuggling.


Murfs Spot said...

Incredible !!!
How I would love to peruse through THAT suitcase....

Thanks for sharing Paul


Anonymous said...

Pablo, I love this post! It is close to my hear for the reasons of Capa, Hemingway, motorbikes and Spain.

When I was living in Spain I actually met an old man from Alicante that fought alongside the Americans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade at the horrible battle of Teruel, when they were freezing, undersupplied, cut-off and overwhelmed. Stories of prisoners being pushed off cliffs, shot at point-blank range, etc. Terrible times and very few eye witnesses left to tell the tale.

Anyway, thank you for this post. Please let us know if this exhibit begets a published catalog.

Also, a small inconsequential correction: throughout Spain men wear traditional black berets, called "boinas." If a man were to wear a Basque beret, it would be red and be much larger at the edges by several inches.

Keep up the great work!


Anonymous said...


You've surpassed yourself, and with any extraordinarly short turnaround. More than I, with much greater time, could ever have discovered of this emblematic photograph. Welcome to the top rungs of the (motorcycle) historical profession. All the rest of us, as usual, are in your debt.


James J. Ward
Professor of History
Director, Honors Program
Cedar Crest College

The Vintagent said...

@Trent: by coincidence, that's another story I'm working on, which of course involves motorcycles. Even Brough Superiors. It's a tale of ambitious and amoral characters, government collusion, murderous FBI agents, and prison. And its all true. Stay tuned...

RudgeRudge said...

Hi Paul,
Excellent, Capa and Seymour.
Who, along with Henri Cartier-Bresson and George Roger, founded the greatest picture agency ever --- MAGNUM.

The Vintagent said...

Yes, Magnum was founded by Capa and 'Chim', with Henri Cartier-Bresson - all giants of photography.

I find it strange that Caro, Capa, and Chim were all killed 'at work', doing war photography. Caro was hit by a tank while riding atop a car escaping a Fascist advance in 1937. Capa stepped on a land mine in Vietnam in '54, reporting on the end of French occupation. Chim was killed by an Egyptian sniper in '56, reporting on the Suez crisis.

Dangerous business indeed.

Anonymous said...

Paul, another great item, with wonderful stirring photographs, on the Spanish War. Your evocative story refers to Taro as Capa's "lover," such a romantic term. Today, it'd be just "his girlfriend" because that now usually implies full on intimacy or "hooking up" I suppose they call it. Ah well. The modern world takes romance and turns it into plumbing.

I don't want to take the comments on your blog off topic, so I am sending this as an email.

I found the links to CounterPunch interesting; they have a lot of interesting sounding items. But I was taken aback by the strident tone on that site. I don't know much about the subject, but, for instance, I was scratching my head wondering how Ford, GM and Studebaker "funded" delivery of trucks to Franco. Does that author mean that the auto companies actually donated the trucks? Maybe so, but that sounds unlikely. Maybe they gave him good terms on a lease? Just kidding.

The links on CounterPunch seem determined to tar the U.S. (and other perceived opponents of the Republicans) with every charge and almost any charge. Perhaps the criticism is deserved, but I get uncomfortable when it's shouted like this. CounterPunch seems to wear its agenda on its sleeve. I don't think anyone would argue with the information you present in the item, but linking to CounterPunch makes your perfectly factual statements feel almost partisan.

Just my reaction, for what little it's worth.

Thank you for the item.

All best,

David in Fort Lauderdale

The Vintagent said...

Hi Dave; thanks for your comment - it's not off-topic at all.

Its very difficult to find websites which are not hyperbolic or partisan in exploring US funds for Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco. The truth is always more nuanced, or at least the truth I prefer.

It is a fact that quite a few wealthy individuals and corporations in the US gave substantial sums to aid the Fascist cause: JP Morgan, Henry Ford, Firestone Tires, Standard Oil, etc. Plus, many 'US' companies had subsidiaries in Germany and Italy which directly aided the Nationalist in Spain, against the US embargo, under direction from their Boards in the US.

Philosophically, wealthy Capitalists in the US saw Fascism as the best defense against a rising tide of Communism, and the spectre of a far-left Spain was more frightening than a far-right Europe. In general, the individuals responsible for the hundreds of millions of dollars of support given to Fascist countries worshiped at the altar of Capital, not state control. Although, they clearly were not opposed to authoritarian regimes...a situation repeated over the decades in US foreign policy (eg: Chile, Iraq, Nicaragua, etc).

There were of course famous Americans and Brits who were fully supportive of Fascism in all its racist and oppressive glory; Charles Lindbergh, Henry Ford, Fay Taylour (so sad...), William Morris, etc.

I'll try to find a better link which explains the situation...

Anonymous said...


As you decompress from the Las Vegas high (jinks), this article from _The Nation_ may be of interest and possibly to others.
Here's the link:



James J. Ward
Professor of History
Director, Honors Program
Cedar Crest College
100 College Drive
Allentown, PA 18104-6196 USA