Friday, 15 May 2009

Unpacking the Mexican Suitcase

by Kathryn Hadley

The Mexican Suitcase, three small damaged cardboard boxes, arrived at the International Center of Photography in New York from Mexico City in late December 2007. It contained the Spanish Civil War negatives of Robert Capa, which were presumed lost following their disappearance from his Paris studio at the beginning of the Second World War. Two weeks ago, the International Center of Photography announced the completion of the digitization of the lost negatives, which are now available online.

The suitcase contained a total of 4,300 frames in 126 rolls of film, taken between May 1936 and March 1939. Approximately one third of the rolls were attributed to Capa, but 46 rolls were also attributed to David Seymour and 32 are believed to have been taken by Gerda Taro. They reveal Taro and Capa’s full coverage of important stories such as the Battle of Teruel, from late December 1937 to early January 1938, and Capa’s photographs of the internment camps for Spanish refugees in the south of France, taken in March 1939. The Taro film includes rolls of her final days shooting in Spain before she was killed during the Battle of Brunete in July 1937. Many of Seymour’s photos were also previously unknown. They include images of daily life and republican parades, as well as portraits of important figures of the republican cause, such as President Manuel Azana and Federico Garcia Lorca. They also reveal his coverage of the Basque area, which he visited in January 1937.

Capa, Seymour and Taro were Jewish immigrants from Hungary, Poland and Germany, who were all working in Paris in the 1930s. In October 1939, however, as German forces were advancing towards Paris, Capa fled to New York. It is believed that he left all his negatives in his Paris studio with his dark room manager Imre "Csiki" Weiss (1911–2006). The story of the rolls and their journey from France, to Mexico, to New York is extraordinary.

Weiss was also a Jewish Hungarian émigré. He did not manage to flee from Paris, however, and was interned in Morocco. He was released by Robert Capa and his brother Cornell Capa (the founder of ICP), in 1941, and thereafter travelled to Mexico. In July 1975, Weiss wrote a letter to Cornell Capa in which he described what he had done with the negatives at the time of the German invasion in 1939:
‘In 1939, when the Germans approached Paris, I put all Bob's negatives in a
rucksack and bicycled it to Bordeaux to try to get it on a ship to Mexico. I met
a Chilean in the street and asked him to take my film packages to his consulate
for safekeeping. He agreed.’

It is now also known that the suitcase was given to the Mexican ambassador to the Vichy government, General Francisco Aguilar González, in 1941-42. How this happened remains a mystery, however. Where were the negatives between 1939 and 1941 and who gave them to the Mexican ambassador? Did González ever know that he was the receiver of the negatives? If he did, was he aware of their significance? González died in 1971.

The negatives only eventually resurfaced in 1995, when they were discovered by the Mexican film producer Benjamin Traver. Traver’s aunt was a close friend of General Francisco Aguilar González and, following the death of his aunt, Traver inherited the negatives. In 1995, he contacted Professor Jerald R. Green from Queens College in New York asking for advice on how to catalogue the negatives and make them available to the public. Green was a friend of Cornell Capa and informed him of the letter. In 2003, in preparation for two exhibitions on Capa and Taro scheduled for 2007, chief curator Brian Wallis contacted Traver to ask him to return the negatives. He was, however, unsuccessful and in early 2007 he employed an independent curator and filmmaker, Trisha Ziff, based in Mexico City to help him to persuade Traver. Ziff first met Traver in May 2007. On December 19th 2007, Ziff arrived at the ICP with the suitcase.

Following the successful scanning and digitization of the rolls, the ICP is currently pursuing research on the negatives in preparation for an exhibition and publication planned for the autumn of 2010.

The ICP launched a website devoted to the mysterious story of the Mexican suitcase and to its conservation work to preserve the suitcase and scan its contents. For further information, visit
For further information on the Spanish Civil War, visit our Spanish History focus page.


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Daniela said...

Interesting post. I have been wondering about this issue,so thanks for posting. I’ll likely be coming back to your blog. Keep up great writing.

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John said...


an interesting article but I was wondering if there is documented proof that General Aguilar was given these cases during 1941-42. I know it is a common thought but could he not have received them later upon his return to Mexico? If there is proof perhaps it also indicates who gave it to him and where. I would be incredibly interested to know

thanks, John

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