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A militia member training on the beach outside Barcelona © Gerda Taro photo 1936
A militia member training on the beach outside Barcelona © Gerda Taro photo 1936

Gerda Taro

Gerta Pohorylle 1910 – 1937), known professionally as Gerda Taro, was a German Jewish war photographer whose brief career consisted almost exclusively of dramatic photographs from the front lines of the Spanish Civil War. She is regarded as the first woman photojournalist to have died while covering the frontline in a war. Taro was the companion and professional partner of photographer Robert Capa. The name “Robert Capa” was originally an alias that Taro and Capa (born Endre Friedmann) shared, an invention meant to mitigate the increasing political intolerance in Europe and to attract the lucrative American market. A significant amount of what is credited as Robert Capa’s early work was actually made by Taro.

Gerta was born to a middle-class Jewish family in Stuttgart, Germany. To escape anti-Semitism, she moved to Paris in 1934, where she met a young Hungarian political exile named Andre Friedmann. Both had been involved in anti-fascist activism; Taro was arrested the year before for passing out anti-Nazi propaganda, and Andre was being pursued by the Hungarian police. The two began a professional collaboration that quickly became a love affair. In the climate of escalating anti-Semitic hostility, neither could afford to keep their Jewish surnames. Together, they invented Robert Capa, a wealthy American news photographer in Europe for the first time, and both took photos under his name. They renamed themselves Gerda Taro and Robert Capa — Taro chose her name both as an homage to Japanese avant-garde painter Taro Okamoto. When war broke out in Spain in 1936, the two decided to travel there to photograph it. Taro began covering the civil war for Vu magazine and Ce Soir, a Communist-sympathizing French newspaper. They also documented the war in South of Córdoba and in the Northeast of Aragon. Eventually Taro started practicing independently and was beginning to gain a name for herself.

Gerda Taro spent the last day of her life in the trenches of Brunete, west of Madrid, holed up with Republican fighters. It was a critical moment in the Spanish Civil War – Gen Franco’s forces had just retaken the town, inflicting heavy losses on the Republicans’ best troops, who were now under fire as they retreated. As bombs fell and planes strafed the ground with machine-gun fire, Taro kept taking photographs. She was due to return to France the next day and only left the trenches when she ran out of film, making her way to a nearby town. She jumped onto the running boards of a car transporting wounded soldiers, but it collided with an out-of-control tank and she was crushed. She died in hospital from her injuries early the following morning. Her photographs from that day, 25 July 1937, were never found.

Her photographs were widely reproduced in the French leftist press, and incorporated the dynamic camera angles of New Vision photography as well as a physical and emotional closeness to her subject. In chronicling the Spanish Civil War with particular emphasis on and empathy for the Republican forces, Taro became something of a hero to the left. She was buried in Paris’s famous Père Lachaise cemetery.

Published on January 9, 2021
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