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Gerda Taro: Pioneering War Photographer
July 26, 2012
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Gerda Taro, the first female photojournalist to cover the front lines of a war, and the first to die doing so, passed away 75 years ago today. Taro (who was born Gerta Pohorylle) was also one half of what the Guardian calls "the most iconic relationship in the history of photography" - she was romantically and professionally involved with photographer Robert Capa, and together, they helped change the way people take pictures of war.

Taro and Capa in 1935

In 1934, Gerta Pohorylle was living in Paris, having fled Germany to escape the anti-Semitism of Hitler's Germany. She met Endre Friedmann, a photographer in exile from his native Hungary, and they became romantically involved. He trained her in the basics of photography and found her a job at Alliance Photo, a picture agency. Then they came up with a bold idea to sell their photographs: they invented a "famous American photographer" named Robert Capa, and told Alliance that their pictures were his.

One of Taro's iconic images of the Spanish civil war

Because American photographers had a higher status than Europeans at the time, the pair was able to charge three times as much for "Robert Capa" photos. The trick was discovered pretty quickly, but the name remained: Endre became Robert Capa, and Gerta took the name Gerda Taro, a combination of the names of Japanese artist Taro Okamoto and actress Greta Garbo. In an essay about the pair, Irme Schaber says the name change wasn't just about money: "They were responding as well to the anti-Semitism of Germany and the increasing apathy towards foreigners in France".


In 1936, the pair went to Spain to photograph the civil war, putting themselves on the front lines and taking enormous risks to capture imagery of the conflict. They took photographs side by side, but always sold them under the pseudonym Robert Capa. For many years, it was unknown which photos were taken by Robert and which by Gerda, but photographic historians have now distinguished between their early war photographs because they used distinctly different types of camera. Capa himself created one of the most iconic images of war ever with his 'Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death' (popularly known as 'The Falling Soldier', the picture has been subject to controversy over whether it was staged or not):

Capa's 'Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, September 5, 1936'

The following year, 1937, Taro returned to Spain without Capa to cover the war once more. At the battle of Brunette on July 25, Taro found herself trapped in a foxhole with her Canadian friend and lover Ted Allan (he went on to write the Academy Award-nominated 1960 film 'Lies My Father Told Me'). She continued photographing throughout the fighting. As Republican troops pulled out of the area, she and Allan jumped out of the foxhole and onto the running board of a car. In the chaos, an out-of-control Republican tank accidentally rammed the car, badly injuring Taro. She died the following morning at the age of 26. According to the nurse on duty at the field hospital, Taro's last words were "Did they take care of my camera?"

A burning truck, taken by Taro the day she was fatally injured

Taro at work, beside a Republican soldier, in 1936

Taro's photo of a wounded Republican soldier

Although she was a well-known figure during her life, Taro's work was overshadowed by Capa's after her death - he went on to photograph the D-Day landings on Normandy beach, and was eventually killed in a warzone himself, in Indochina in 1954. But in 2007, the first major North American exhibition of her work was held at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York.

And in late December 2007, three tattered cardboard boxes arrived at the ICP. They contained negatives of photographs taken by Gerda Taro, Robert Capa and David Seymour during the Spanish civil war. Filmmaker Trisha Ziff has created a feature-length documentary about those photographs and the story behind them. Check out the trailer for that film below:

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