Contact Sheets, The Mexican Suitcase, and the Ruining of Three Photographers
As any self-respecting photographer or film maker knows, capturing the scene is really only about one third of the job. The other two thirds are dedicated to carefully selecting and then editing the available material to turn it into a viewable presentation. Within the industry it is also known as killing your darlings.
This makes it all the more astonishing that the exhibition The Mexican Suitcase, organized by the ICP and currently on show at the photography festival Les Rencontres d’Arles, almost exclusively relies on showing contact sheets of films shot by Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David ‘Chim’ Seymour. The premise of the exhibition is the discovery of three cardboard boxes in Mexico City in 1995 and their recovery by the ICP in 2007. These cardboard boxes dubbed The Mexican Suitcase, contain over 4.500 lost negatives of aforementioned photographers. Considering the importance, and in the case of Capa, the notoriety of the photographers involved, this is indeed a treasure trove for photography enthusiasts. It fills in gaps in our knowledge of their coverage of the Spanish civil war, it sheds more light onto the mutually beneficial and creative relationship between Taro and Capa, as well as adding to the visual record of important historical events.
Just as releasing an album with lost tracks and b-sides is only of marginal interest to a select group of devout fans, The Mexican Suitcase exhibition is not particularly interesting to a larger audience. It smells of cashing in on the name of especially Robert Capa, without providing good content to go with it.
The Mexican Suitcase incidentally reinforces what the This is War! exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery in London in 2008 postulates: that Taro was the better and more interesting photographer at the time, and that up until recently she had been overshadowed by Capa. But I digress here. I suppose the point of showing contact sheets of the films is to show how the editing process takes place and why certain pictures are preferred over others and subsequently become icons. However, since quite a few of these images have not been seen before since they were lost for such an extensive period of time, this argument does not wash. And for those that have somehow made their way into publications, whose edit was it anyway? The editors of various magazines? The photographers? After Taro’s untimely demise during the Spanish civil war, Capa?
So what role do these contact sheets fulfill then? In my opinion they spoil the myth of three excellent photographers. Looking at their contact sheets I gleefully think to myself that Capa, Taro and Chim have also struggled with high contrasts, with finding the right composition and exposing film correctly. Cheerfully I muse that there is hope for me yet as a photographer. But equally I recognise that, although studying all the available photographic material is important from an academic point of view, showing the results in an exhibition is simply not the right strategy. If I can provide an analogy with the music industry, just as releasing an album with lost tracks and b-sides is only of marginal interest to a select group of devout fans, The Mexican Suitcase exhibition is not particularly interesting to a larger audience. It smells of cashing in on the name of especially Robert Capa, without providing good content to go with it.
It would have been better to simply publish the results in a book¹ only, accompanied by informative and in-depth articles to contextualise the work and forego the exhibition. Now the latter just destroys the myth of art and craftsmanship of three otherwise excellent photographers.
¹ Cynthia Young & David Balsells: The Mexican Suitcase. The Legendary Spanish Civil War Negatives of Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, and David Seymour. Steidl. ISBN: 978-3869301419