Gerda Taro was only in her mid-twenties when she travelled to Spain to cover the outbreak of the country’s civil war in 1936. Born Gerta Pohorylle into a Jewish family in Stuttgart in 1910, she fled to Paris when the Nazis came to power and soon found work there at the city’s Alliance Photo agency.
Through photography, she encountered Endre Friedmann, who became her colleague and romantic partner, and with whom she later travelled to Spain. Professionally, he went by the name of Robert Capa. But the two actually shared the pseudonym, and much of the early work credited to ‘Robert Capa’ was in fact produced by Taro.
It is this idea of women erased by history that underlines a new exhibition running at the Musée de la Libération de Paris – Musée du Général Leclerc – Musée Jean Moulin until the end of the year. Taro is one of eight female war photographers whose work the exhibition puts on show.
As Taro’s life demonstrates, women had been doing the job as long as men, and no less bravely or tenaciously. In fact, unlike their male counterparts, they often had access to areas of conflicts men could not reach, such as hospitals and the homes of families shattered by war.
This exhibition also seeks to emphasise that no two of these photographers had the same style. Whereas the French photographer Christine Spengler chose to depict architectural ruins rather than dead bodies, figures like Taro and Carolyn Cole showed no reluctance to photograph corpses, even charred or dismembered ones.
Each of these women had to fight personal battles with their agencies and editors, who often baulked at publishing such stark and vivid work. Françoise Demulder’s iconic 1976 image of a devastated Beirut neighbourhood was almost refused publication by her superiors.
Though the pictures come from many eras and places, most of them share a common theme: the imbalance of warfare. Lee Miller captured shattered German soldiers, outnumbered and outgunned, at the end of the Second World War, while Catherine Leroy depicted the sharp disparity between Vietcong fighters and American marines in the 1960s.
Taro, too, in her pictures from Spain, showed the Spanish People’s Republican Army in civilian clothes, often forced to fight without proper weaponry or armour against a much more formidable and well-prepared enemy.
At least the Republicans could boast of their diversity. On the Córdoba front, Taro accompanied a famous unit, the Chapaev Battalion, whose soldiers proudly came from 21 separate countries.
In July 1937, just a year into the war, Taro was mortally wounded in a collision between a tank and a car during fighting at Brunete, near Madrid. She died the following day, making her the first female war photographer to be killed in the course of her work.
TEXT: CALUM HENDERSON
Femmes Photographes de Guerre (Women War Photographers) is at the Musée de la Libération de Paris – Musée du Général Leclerc – Musée Jean Moulin until 31 December 2022. It was co-organised with the Kunstpalast Düsseldorf and is open 10am-6pm Tue-Sun.
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