What's In Your Mexican Suitcase?

From Robert Capa to Ray Charles, a personal search for a lost negative

Originally published on our blog The Dark Slide on January 29, 2008.

Okay, so it isn't exactly Robert Capa's "Falling Soldier," but my discovery this week of a long lost negative of Ray Charles performing in 1983, located only after searching for a completely different lost negative, a frame of a legendary news photographer who passed away a few days ago, underscores just how tenuous our collective hold is on the past and just how likely we are to continue to lose valuable moments of history. And needless to say, my lost and found experience was just slightly overshadowed by some other news.

For anyone living under a rock, the bombshell in the Sunday New York Times regarding the discovery of Robert Capa's long lost Spanish Civil War negatives-historically dubbed "the Mexican Suitcase"-is already being described in terms one normally would reserve for, say, a holy grail or Rosetta Stone. The negatives, which are not actually all contained in one suitcase but rather three different valises, have the potential to answer some of modern photojournalism's oldest and nagging questions, certainly the greatest of which surround the taking of Capa's most famous single photograph.

Said to show a Republican soldier at the moment of death, arms outstretched and rifle in mid-air, "The Falling Soldier" has always been looked at as a cornerstone of modern photojournalism, the most decisive of all decisive moments. But a shroud of controversy has always followed it--not unlike Joe Rosenthal's Iwo Jima flag raising -- questions of staging and partisanship. In fact, one would really have to go back into the nineteenth century, to Alexander Gardner and Mathew Brady's photographs of the Civil War, or perhaps to 1917, when the world, including celebrities like Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle was gripped by the furor surrounding the Cottingley Fairies, to find a more deeply rooted controversy surrounding the authenticity of a single image. But fairies are, in the end, just fairies; "The Falling Soldier" was nothing less than a gauntlet being thrown down in a very bloody conflict.

One simply cannot underscore the importance of this cache. It's hard to imagine that something could render last November's big discovery of a collection of Diane Arbus prints into a mere appetizer. Moreover, it promises to do for the International Center of Photography what Howard Carter did for a certain boy king back in 1923. Can you imagine the blockbuster show that ICP is going to stage in the coming years? It's no wonder they're not letting out whether "The Falling Soldier" negative is among the finds just yet. Even without the images, the story of the cases' globetrotting journey-from Paris to Marseilles and then to Mexico, where they have been hidden for decades-is fascinating.

For all the shock and awe of its Capa scoop, and there is plenty, believe me, the Times did miss at least one tangential opportunity to connect even a few more dots. I Googled, of course, but someone at the Times could have been able to leaf through a stack of two-week old issues lying on a desk to find an obituary for Milton Wolff, the last American commander of volunteers during the Spanish Civil War. He died on January 14, 2008 at the age of 92. According to the Times obituary, Wolff was just 22 when he left his home in Brooklyn to take up the cause of the Republic, eventually taking command of the some 3,000 American volunteer forces in Spain fighting against the Nationalist troops of General Francisco Franco.

And even more intriguing, as far as our caper is concerned, is the fact that the Times obit of Wolff makes specific mention, among other things, to his comically strained relationship with Ernest Hemingway. Wolff's mother apparently found out her son was fighting in Spain when a photo of he and Hemingway, taken by Capa appeared in a New York Jewish newspaper. Hemingway, according to the story, was simply miffed that Wolff had no idea who he was. One wonders if the negatives to these images and more are waiting to be uncurled out of their decades long resting place.

Leaving the mystery of just what is and isn't in the Mexican suitcase to the archivists and photo historians, let's focus for a moment on how this impacts the rest of us photographers, each of us with a suitcase or two of our own. Because for me, the amazing part of this story isn't simply what age-old historical debates might finally be resolved through this discovery, but that there was anything to discover in the first place. That these three valises aren't biodegrading in a ditch in France right now is a marvel in its own right.

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