Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Cataluña´s Agusti Centelles' Spanish Civil War photos shown in New York

Republican militiaman: Photograph by Agusti Centelles

Gerda Taro, Crowd at the gate of the morgue after the air raid, Valencia, May 1937, negative

“You know that in the quiet of the night you can hear the death rattle from the front? The chattering machine guns, the rifles coughing, the dull sound of a grenade and a trench mortar?

“Madrid, a beautiful, modern city carrying on right at the front lines! Cafes, wine, and many lovely women, no music and dimmed lights, no tobacco, and food in minute quantities….Madrid lives its lie of gaiety.” 

Milton Wolff, U.S. volunteer with the Abraham Lincoln International Brigade fighting for the Republicans against Francisco Franco´s Loyalist forces. Madrid, 14 August 1937.
Manning the barricades in Barcelona: Photograph by Agusti Centelles
Armed with his Leica, Catalan photojournalist Agusti Centelles (1909 – 1985) fought for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War.

Passion and compassion, an instinct for shutter-framing history, the moments and images, when added to together, record the best and worst of humankind.

This was to be Centelles' three years of hell as he took his Leica into action, recorded 10,000 photographs, most in the Barcelona area, including the July 1936 uprising.

His works speak for themselves, and 40 of his images are on display for the first time in the United States, at the New York University's King Juan Carols I of Spain Center.

Curated by Joaquin D. Gasea and Michael Nash (NYU Tamient Library) and organized with the Centro Documental de la Memoria Historica in Salamanca, Spain, the photographs, like those of Robert Capa and his photog mates, speak volumes about the horrors of war.

This was his war, Centelles´personal war.

The three Jewish European idealogs, all famous photojournalists—Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour (Chim)—may have captured more headlines, but Centelles of Cataluña, captured the Catalun soul in his works.

“The Spanish Civil War Photographs of Agusti Centelles ("The French Suitcase"), which opened 5 October, continues through 15 December.

More photographer than writer, Centelles kept a detailed diary that has become a significant part of the collective memory of this war that took the lives of about 1 million Spaniards.

The war is still fought, in its own way, in villages like mine, Canillas de Albaida, tucked in the mountains 19 kilometers from the sea near Torre del Mar. 

The psychological scar tissue is palpable, visible.

The Abraham Lincoln Brigade (USA): Photograph by Agusti Centelles

The tragic part of Cantelles' story is his exile to southwest France and return to Spain after the start of WW II. 

When he, like so many thousands of Republican fighters and families fled across the Pyrenees  to France, Centelles brought with him a suitcase, now called “The French Suitcase.”

In it, more than 6,000 negatives of his 1936 – 39 work as war photojournalist. He found a secret place to stash it in France.

He fled back to Spain, a choice between two evils.

Centelles had aided the French partisans and again, feared for his life and running from the Gestapo.

And in Spain, during Franco´s reign as dictator, these negatives remained in this suitcase. 

Spanish fascists in 1939 had seized another 4,000 negatives and various documents, using them to persecute and likely imprison and/or execute former Republican fighters or sympathizers and families.

Centelles would not take the chance that Franco would persecute and repress others he pictured during the civil war. So they remained in hiding.

In 1976, after Franco´s demise, Centelles retrieved the negatives.

In 2009, the Spanish government bought the French Suitcase negatives from Centelles´two sons for a reported 700,000 Euros. 

They are now part of Salamanca archives of the civil war.

Santos Yubero Photograph by Agusti Centelles

Various assemblages of his works have shown throughout Europe, and now the United States.

Robert Capa, Gerda Taro & David Seymour (Chim)

In another exhibition of Spanish Civil War photographs, “The Mexican Suitcase,” we see the works by Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour (Chim)  in Barcelona where it started 6 October at the Museu Nacional d´Art de Cataluña (MNAC)
The show first opened at the International Center of Photography (ICP), New York: 24 September 2010 – 8 May 2011.

The Spanish Civil War was a good fit for these self-branded European Jewish intellectuals and artists.
The trio—Hungarian Endre Friedmann (Robert Capa), German Gerta Pohorylle (Gerda Taro) and Polish Dawid Szymin (David Seymour aka Chim)—if not carrying hand-held 35 mm cameras, would have gripped rifles.

They embraced the Republican, anti-fascist cause and were the first embedded photojournalists with any standing army.

Most of the American and British idealogs fighting with the Republican International Brigades came from privileged backgrounds, many Jewish left-wing intellectuals, artists, writers, philosophers and teachers.
40 photographs from the Agust Centelles collection now on show at New York University´s King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center
Capa, Taro, his girlfriend, and Chim found comfort with other European political refugees and dissidents.

This was their fight, too.

The hand-held 35 mm camera, the Nikon and the Leica, were their weapons of choice, using black and white film.

In 1939, Capa entrusted someone with about 4,500 35 mm negatives, images taken by the trio during the Spanish Civil War.

For 68 years they went underground, presumed gone, missing. A Mexican who inherited them returned them to the ICP in late 2007.
Agustí Centelles, trinxera a Belchite
In the trenches at the Battle of Belchite Photograph by Augusi Centelles
The rest is recent history.

“The Mexican Suitcase” embraces 100 contact sheets, 70 framed 8 x 10-inch photographs, 60 periodicals and two films.

Just as wireless communications may symbolize the Egyptian revolution of 2011, the hand-held camera revolutionized combat journalism and made it intimate and very dangerous.

All three of these photojournalists were killed covering foreign wars. 
The French Suitcase: Photograph by Agusti Centelles
Each presented a different style or approach, curator Young said in our interview. 

“I wanted the show as much as possible to represent a cross-section of each photographer´s work.” 

Young said each of the trio contributed about a third of the recovered negatives, providing new insights into Taro´s role, as some of her work was later attributed to Capa´s.

“There are so many ways to look at this work…I have many favorites but wanted to bring out their individual perspectives,” Young added.

The curator has lived intimately with these images for about four years. “Anyone who works with historical material feels the weight and intensity of observing the lives of these people so closely, being concerned with their plight.”

What impact will they have in Spain?

Young and ICP selected an ideal time to test the memory identity of the Spanish and their willingness to recall the bloodbath of their civil war that pitted village against village, family against family, brother against brother in a take-no-prisoners war immersed in the blood of vengeance.

Author-historian Hugh Thomas in his authoritative 1,100-page, "The Spanish Civil War," estimates political and revenge murders after and during the war at 100,000 people.

The ferocious guerrilla war in the mountains where I live ended only in 1964, the same year Franco ceased political executions. 

Since the trio of photographers were Republican partisans, probably those with such leanings and age to remember stories from their parents, dead or alive, will experience the sudden plunge into painful and often repressed collective memory.

Where I live the Spanish Civil (cold) War continues.

Outside of Cómpeta, Spain, memorial where Loyalist (Franco) soldier was executed in 1937, photograph by Stefan van Drake (2011)
As you approach Cómpeta a couple kilometers out, you drive by a monument at the very edge of the road. 

Sometimes the glass protecting the Virgin Mary statue is broken, then a few days later, restored.

Other times someone has painted obscenities on it. Then they´re painted over, and on it goes. 

A cold war where memories enervate the nerve tissues of old and painful wounds.

On this very spot, the memorial reads in Spanish, 18-year-old Victoriano Ruiz Fernandez of Velez-Malaga was “murdered by a horde of Marxists.”

The engraved text concludes, “Arriba España!!” (Arise Spain!!) the battle cry of Franco´s Loyalist army.
Barcelona, Via Layetana 1936: Photograph by Agusti Centelles
There are many such stories. 

Most Spanish reviews of "The Mexican Suitcase” will likely be positive or muted. Digging up mass graves and the past is tricky business in Spain.

Women more than men will probably view "The Mexican Suitcase."

To help introduce a very limited selection of Capa, Taro and Chim images, I asked former Vietnam War correspondent, Lance R. Woodruff, a free-lance photojournalist living in Bangkok, to provide context exclusively for this story:

“Photojournalists as witnesses to war, revolution, violence, pain, and their aftermath are part of what´s happening embedded or not.
“Caesar´s dispatches chronicled his wars and supported his agenda.
Death & Futility of War: Photograph by Augusi Centelles

“Traditional travelers were tourists with itineraries, students or pilgrims to such places as Chaucer´s Canterbury, Washington Irving´s Alhambra in Granada or Santiago de Compostela.

"Letters and dispatches of the past provided image equivalents but civil war in the 20th Century Spain became an object of passionate reportage and interpretation with the camera. 

“Image makers such as Capa, Taro and Chim were in a sense ideological pilgrims, as Francisco Goya in The Third of May1808 or Picasso tormented by Guernica.
“Those documenting violence with cameras might have in an earlier day been on a spiritual pilgrimage to Canterbury and being there at the killing of Thomas Becket.
Barcelona Uprising 1936: Photograph by Agusti Centelles
“In Vietnam, I was given the title of correspondent, war correspondent (there were no peace correspondents), and information officer, a military public relations title accepting connection with ´the effort’ rather than impartiality.”

(Note: All quotations from members of the Lincoln International Brigades come from “Madrid 1937: Letters of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade from the Spanish Civil War,” edited by Cary Nelson & Jefferson Hendricks, Routledge, NY, 1996.
Agusti Centelles' Leica: 10,000 images of the Spanish Civil War
(All black and white images from "The Mexican Suitcase" courtesy of and copyrighted by the International Center of Photography Collection / Magnum and Estate of David Seymour.)

Robert Capa, Man carrying a wounded boy, Teruel, Spain, late December 1937, negative

“On February 20, Franco assault troops broke through to the first line of houses (in Teruel) and bayoneted all in sight,” James A. Michener wrote in his 1968 epic, "Iberia."

“The Republican attack continued for 24 gruesome days, during which frightful crimes were perpetrated by both sides. Prisoners were shot. Bystanders were executed. Dead bodies were mutilated. Buildings were wantonly destroyed and vengeance was exacted on any enemy at hand," the author added.

Michener said the 69-day battle for Teruel cost 28,000 Republican and 10,000 Loyalist soldier´s lives plus thousands of civilians dead, assassinated in reprisals.

Robert Capa, Republican officer and Gerda Taro, University City, Madrid, February 1937, negative

19 Feb. 1937:

“Numbers small and enemy heavily armed with machine guns. Tough run and long retreat (2 kilometers). Capture of English section has not helped in general.

“We tried to advance but many killed, and returned. The second time they refused to go forward. Seacord had been killed and no one left to take command.”

Robert Merriman, Lincoln Brigade.


Chim (David Seymour), Two Republican soldiers carrying a crucifix, Madrid, October - November 1936, negative
22 Feb. 1937:

“Just saw a wagon of Spaniards traveling along the road. Everywhere one sees these miserable people leaving their homes & everything they have known. Last night when we went to eat supper they were crowded in their doorways watching us—some apparently in mourning, some weeping, some in frightened expectation of another air raid." 

Dr. John Simon, M.D., Lincoln Brigade.

March 2:
“Boys were crying because they didn´t know how to use their rifles. The machine-gunner broke into tears as he explained how the guns wouldn´t work, how they were not properly equipped. One soldier explained how a boy went over the top with full equipment—and died. Another built a mud wall between himself & our trenches—he didn´t know which side the fascists were on."  

Dr. John Simon.

Chim (David Seymour), Outdoor mass for Republican soldiers, near Lekeitio, Basque region, Spain, January--February 1937, negative
“A little girl was brought in here yesterday—all shot full of holes—both her eyes blown out. It seems that she and a few others found a hand grenade and decided to play with it.

"It´s a pretty horrible thing—she´s got plenty of guts and certainly can take it—you never hear a whimper out of her. She´s about 10 years old. It´s the same sort of thing you see in places that have been bombed, only more of it. It´s a stinking business.”

Toby Jensky, Lincoln Brigade, Madrid, 21 June 1937.


Gerda Taro, Republican soldier on a motorcyle, Navacerrada Pass, Segovia front, Spain, late May - early June 1937

Rock on and practice peace and love.
Stefan, the ArtTraveler(TM)

Experience a week-long mosaics or sculpture workshop or a walking holiday in our mountains above the Med. See: and

Contact me at stefanvandrake@gmail. com or by calling (34) 951 067 703 or from the UK at BT landline rates, 0844 774 8349.

Bangkok-based free-lance writer, editor and photographer Lance R. Woodruff may be reached at

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