jueves, 20 de octubre de 2011


Text and Indicated Photos: José Manuel Serrano Esparza. LHSA

Friday July 30th 1937. Gare d´Austerlitz, Paris. 20:30 h in the night. An old Jewish man born in Eastern Galitzia (Austro-Hungarian Poland) and arrived from Stuttgart (Germany) a few hours ago with his two sons Oskar (25 years old) and Karl (23 years old), is utterly downhearted and begins reciting Kaddish before a coffin covered with flowers, which has lain in state in Madrid and Valencia between July 26 and 29. A young photographer born in Budapest is near, watching the scene, but this time he doesn´t dare approach enough. His soul is broken and he doesn´t even want to have a look. Within only a year he´s already seen a lot of death and suffering. With the elapse of time he will become one of the war photographers present in more armed conflicts in history. But this time the sea of tears is himself.

Seichi Inoue (a photographer of the Japanese Mainichi editorial and a friend of the young photohournalist) and Else Triolet (Louis Aragon´s woman) have to take him to his Parisian studio in rue de Fondrevaux 37, where he will be without eating or drink anything until the day in which the aforementioned casket is buried on August 1, 1937 in the Cemetery of Père-Lachaise, after a funeral cortege that leaves at 10:30 h in the morning from the Maison de la Culture (where the body which is inside it has been exposed on July 30 and 31, 1937).

When the spade starts throwing sand on the coffin, the old Jewish man begins to recite some passages of the Torah and the young photographer, feeling guilty about the death of the just buried person, the great love of his life, collapses again and cries sorrowfully. The old Jewish man, whose named is Hersch Pohorylle, married to Ghittel Boral, finishes pronouncing his words and experiences a great grief, also beginning to sob tearfully. The person who has just been buried is his daughter, who only four weeks before has been here:

Photo: José Manuel Serrano Esparza

Photo: Gerda Taro. © ICP New York

Photo: José Manuel Serrano Esparza

It´s 7:00 a.m in the morning. 74 years later.

It dawns in Valsequillo. Huge fields of wheat surround the area on the left of the stretch of the railways Córdoba-Almorchón going on the west of the village of Valsequillo.

Gerda Taro and Robert Capa were here, in early July 1937. She photographed the village peasants while they reaped the wheat while he filmed with a motion picture camera. Gerds Taro used a chromed Leica III camera with Summar 5 cm f/2 lens (which Capa had lent her in late May 1936 - Taro had already been using a black lacquered Leica II D with Elmar 5 cm f/3.5 lens updated to Leica III- , while Capa used a Bell & Howell 35 mm movie camera with a Taylor-Hobson Cooke 47 mm f/2.5 lens.

The 136 negatives exposed in Valsequillo (Córdoba) by Gerda Taro in the beginning of 1937 and found inside The Mexican Suitcase have enabled the discovery by elrectanguloenlamano.blogspot.com of the places where Gerda Taro (who was accompanied by Capa, that shot with his cinematographic Bell & Howell Eyemo 35 mm camera) made the pictures of the peasants harvesting the wheat those days, along with the identification of the German photojournalist of Jewish ascendant in one of the images.

Gerda Taro and Robert Capa make a comprehensive photojournalistic coverage of different areas, photographing and filming above all peasants working at full-swing reaping the wheat harvest, and they walk across a wide range of places located near the stretches of the Córdoba-Almorchón going on the north and west of the village of Valsequillo, between Sierra Trapera - in the north - and the Sierras of La Morala and del Castillo - in the west -, including some areas of Malagana, El Llano, Los Cuartones, Arroyo de la Fuente, Casa de Valdematas, Monterrubio, Cortijo de Garlo, El Cañazo, and the Cortijo de La Fundición.

Photo: Gerda Taro. © ICP New York

Photo: José Manuel Serrano Esparza

Photo: Gerda Taro. © ICP New York

Photo: José Manuel Serrano Esparza

Photo: Gerda Taro. © ICP New York

Photo: José Manuel Serrano Esparza

Photo: Gerda Taro. © ICP New York

Photo: José Manuel Serrano Esparza

Since the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936, Valsequillo had been a village hardly fought by the Republican and Francoist forces. On November 3, 1936, the village fell in the hands of the Francoist troops, and they held a sway over it until the night of April 4 1937, when it was captured by the Chapaiev Battalion of the XIII International Brigade, made up above all by Polish, Czech and French combatants, taking 32 prisoners.

In early April 1937, the Republican high commanders had as a top priority in this zone of Córdoba the occupation of a triangle made up by Valsequillo, Los Blázquez and La Granjuela in a first stage and Fuenteobejuna in a second phase, with aim of launching subsequently an attack trying to capture Peñarroya-Pueblo Nuevo, whose very rich mine basin was an important strategic and industrial target.

Therefore, when Taro and Capa visit Valsequillo during the first week of July 1937, they probably do it with the original aim of depicting the Republican foreign volunteer combatants of the XIII International Brigade who have occupied the village since the first week of April.

And as a matter of fact, they make two pictures of French international brigadists inside a house of Valsequillo (three of them being standing and one sitting, around a table), two pictures to three militiamen walking across the road in the outskirts of the village (in joyful attitude, aplauding and with their rifles on their shoulders or grabbed in hand), a photograph of an international brigadist on horseback also in the outskirsts, three group pictures in which a lot of grandmothers and mothers of the village are posing with their sons/daughters and grandsons/grandduaghters (including some babies being held in arms), seven pictures of a sow feeding her suckling pigs and three pictures taken in a street of Valsequillo and in which appear two little girls (one of them is wearing a white shirt with round patterns and the other one is clad in a dark shirt) who are sitting on a big wooden beam lying on the floor by a car wheel.

But what happens is that the arrival of both photojournalists at Valsequillo, coincide with the peak of the wheat harvest made by the village farmers, which sets up a remarkable photographic and cinematographic chance, to such an extent that vast majority of the pictures made by Taro and the 35 mm footage shot by Capa correspond to such agricultural toils developed by the village inhabitants. 

Photo: Gerda Taro. © ICP New York


The images made by Gerda Taro in Valsequillo clearly reveal a high level of effort by her, during some days, looking for the most various taking angles and distances, with a distinct predominance of rectangular images (only 17 of the 136 pictures are vertical ones), in a context ruled by a scorching sun, with a temperature around 40º C and groups of peasants equipped with rakes, brooms and pitchforks who make the tasks of winnowing and sieving, after the previous threshing with classical threshers (ancient tool which exerts an outstanding fascination in Gerda Taro, as we´ll see later) drawn by mules, it all being photographed by the German photojournalist from Jewish descent.

Photo: Gerda Taro. © ICP New York

Photo: Gerda Taro. © ICP New York

Photo: Gerda Taro. © ICP New York

This reportage by Taro is a highly significant graphic and historical testimony, because during thirties the quoted stages of wheat reaping were made in a wholly manual way, with high levels of weariness, sweat and very hard working days from dawn to dusk, in which around 70 people working for 15 or 20 days were needed to harvest what is currently made by two people and a machine in one or two days.

Gerda Taro gets her pictures during the turning point of the wheat reaping, because during the previous months there has been its sowing and a series of previous labours aiming at the preparation of the ground, including the fertilizer spreading, the plowing and the levelling, essential for an adequate harvest and which are made with plows pulled by mules or oxen and featuring large wooden planks on which the peasants went, strenuous tasks that are nowadays also mechanized.

Usually - and Valsequillo is not an exception in this regard -, late June, July and August are the optimal periods for wheat reaping, since exceedingly high temperatures have dried the plant and the humidity levels are very low, which enables a very good preservation of the seed or straw.

During thirties, the harvesting was manually made by means of a sickle, in the shortest possible time, and as the wheat was cut, they made sheaves that remained on the land.

Photo: Gerda Taro. © ICP New York


elrectanguloenlamano.blogspot.com has been able to identify Gerda Taro in this photograph in which Robert Capa captures her filming with a Bell & Howell Eyemo 35 mm motion picture camera with a Taylor-Hobson Cooke 47 mm f/2.5 lens, while some peasants of Valsequillo winnow the wheat.

Photo: Robert Capa. © ICP New York

This image made by Robert Capa is an exception from the global viewpoint of the photographic reportage made in Valsequillo, since 134 of the 136 photographs were made by Gerda Taro, while Capa shot with the Bell & Howell Eyemo 35 mm movie camera and only made two pictures, both of them being vertical ones, in which Gerda Taro appears: one with Gerda Taro being standing, full body, on the left border of the frame (on these lines) holding the Bell & Howell Eyemo 35 mm cine camera between her hands and filming the peasants winnowing the wheat; and another one in which only around a third of her standing body can be glimpsed and in which because of the suffocating heat, she is wiping her forehead sweat with her left hand.

Those images are consecutive pictures and Gerda Taro is wearing a white shirt, dark skirt and clear slippers.

Bell & Howell Eyemo 71-A 35 mm format movie camera with Taylor-Hobson Cooke f/2.5 lens and whose production started in 1925. It was the model used by Capa to film scenes in Valsequillo, though Gerda Taro shot with it at some moments.

Its weight was 7 pounds and the shooting mechanism began on pressing a trigger, with the film moving from the first frame exactly at the chosen speed, and stopping when the trigger is released.

With the standard inner 100 ft magazine it was possible to film a bit more than one minute.

Both 35 mm and 16 mm Bell & Howell cameras with Taylor-Hobson Cooke lenses were one of the top-notch flagships for handheld filimg during second half of twenties, thirties and forties, with the added bonus of a virtually unbeatable quality/price ratio, very high standard of manufacture and components and a huge endurance to the hardest professional use under every kind of location and atmospheric condition, which became it a favourite choice by cinema directors like Stanley Kubrick, which took advantage of it to shoot specially risky scenes in which the integrity of the Arriflex or Mitchell cameras had been much more jeopardizing.

Built like a tank, featuring components made with noble metals and a great level of machining,

the Bell & Howell Eyemo 35 mm movie camera was also through many decades of the Twentieth Century the motion picture camera par excellence used not only during the Spanish Civil War, but also during Second World War and the conflicts of Korea and Vietnam,

thanks to its huge sturdiness and a guaranteed reliability even under the most extreme conditions, since its working is entirely mechanical, with an accuracy comparable to a Swiss watch and it didn´t depend on any battery, being wound with a crank located on the right side of the camera.

Probably the cinema director having taken more advantage of the Bell & Howell 35 mm camera was Stanley Kubrick, who became a great specialist in its handling, using it to shoot his 16 minute short film Day of the Fight (1951) - filming handheld by himself with a unit of this model, while his assistant director Alexander Singer shot with a second Eyemo 35 mm camera on a tripod-, along with two important thrillers: Killer´s Kiss (1955) and The Killing (1956), and his feature film Lolita (1962).

Another side of seminal significance shown by these images is that Gerda Taro has evolved from a good photographer using medium format 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 square inch Rolleiflex Old Standard (featuring high technical and aesthetic standards, following to great extent the precepts of the New Vision School and its departure from the old tradition of visual perception and depicting (using compositions with extreme taking angles, often oblique and surprising for the time, fragmented close-ups, skylines oriented in strange ways and abstracts forms) into an agile action photojournalist, using a 35 mm Leica rangefinder camera, moving much faster, and over aesthetic and compositive concepts, now she tries to approach as much as she can and pay a lot of attention to capture the most decisive moments.

The images taken by Gerda Taro in Valsequillo are for example very different to the pictures got by her almost a year before of militiawomen in Barcelona during August 1936, and whose focusing in shapes, proportions and style sometimes resemble abstract images belonging to fashion sphere.

The pictures taken by Taro in Valsequillo are much more photojournalistic and boast tangible dynamism, particularly those ones in which it is very apparent the effort made by the photojournalist to capture the movements of the farmers carrying out the phases of sweeping the thrashed grain heaps( the one in which the dwindled and without grain underbrush of the thrashed grain heaps -id est, the almost clean grain- was separated on the ground intended for it ) and the subsequent winnowing for its cleaning.

Photo: Gerda Taro. © ICP New York

They are peasants from all ages, teenagers, grown up men and old men, which gives a notion of the harshness of life in countryside during thirties, in which almost every production stage was manually made.

Taro photographs them mainly in group, immersed in full toil of the wheat harvest, although there are some images in which four, three, two and even one people (picture of the old man clad in dark trousers, white shirt, clear jacket and black cap with eye shade, who is holding a big wooden pitchfork with his left hand, grabbing it on its upper area, with the shadow of half of the head of Gerda Taro visible on the left of the middle of the left lower border of the image).

There are some framing errors because of the fatigue and sweat, since Gerda Taro fights to her limit striving after getting the best feasible pictures, in a difficult context, with very high temperature.

She has to quickly move to and fro, and besides, she has been for a lot of minutes inhaling the inevitable tamo, that´s to say, the very thin dust originated after the threshing (on cleaning the threshing floor, firstly with the rake, to move what was heavier, and then, with strong brushes made with ternilla bush), which penetrates the breathing tract and sticks to the throat, specially during the sweeping, enhancing thirst and fatigue.


Inevitably, a question arises: Why this level of effort to get the pictures of as many peasants as possible in different places, with a number of taking angles, depicting a wide range of countryside toils, under a scorching sun, and breathing the tamo?

Photo: Gerda Taro. © ICP New York

Even, to get some of the pictures Taro approaches almost at point blank range, sweating very much, photographing from a very low angle with one knee on the ground, swallowing a lot of dust and little straw pieces and placed under the trajectory of the cereal while it is being winnowed.

Photo: Gerda Taro. © ICP New York

What is the reason for which Gerda Taro is so interested in photographing all of these peasants in the turning point of the wheat harvest, under the a suffocating heat and walking across different areas in the west and north of Valsequillo (Córdoba) ?

Photo: Gerda Taro. © ICP New York

Photo: Gerda Taro. © ICP New York

Photo: Gerda Taro. © ICP New York

There are several reasons for which Gerda Taro fights to the utmost to get the best possible pictures (some of them almost at point-blank range), but along with the desire to publish in different graphic magazines of the time and be well paid, the main one is linked to her initial photographic background, inspired in two different scopes: on one hand, the New Vision School as a surmounting of the traditional visual perception, complemented in Taro with influences of the Bauhaus, the Soviet Constructivism and Rodchenko´s diagonal compositions; and on the other hand, her conceptual and social embracement of the workers photography embodied by the great illustrated magazine AIZ (Arbeiter Illustrierter Zeitung) from mid twenties, belonging to Willi Münzenberg´s editorial group, in which also existed Der Arbeiter Fotograf, the organ of the German workers photographers, without forgetting the fact that through the Soviet-German exchanges of Münzenberg and Koltsov´s editorial conglomerates in late twenties and early thirties, Gerda Taro knew well the magazine Sovetskoe Foto, then the organ of the Soviet photojournalism.

What happens is that the excellent photographic reportage made by Taro to the peasants of Valsequillo reaping the wheat crop features unique traits, since the Movemement of Workers Photography had as a priority to show the ugliness and horror of the misery, the impoverishment of the masses and the exploitation suffered by the workers, highly worsened by the downswing 1929 Wall Street and the deep economical crisis in Germany during the Weimar Republic, so the images taken by the most prominent photographers of the movemement like Edwin Hoernle, Max Alpert, Arkady Shaikhet, Eugen Henning, Ernst Thormann, Erich Rinka, Peter Zimmermann and Albert Henning (whom Gerda Taro had personally met in Leipzig), without forgetting some great independent photographers like Walter Reuter who also made reportages for AIZ and follow that trend, with a strong component of social improvement and struggle of classes.

Gerda Taro shares all of those criteria and and yearning for betterment in a number of regards, but besides it, she unfolds her compromise and social convictions in Valsequillo giving priority to the concept of land as a source of food and life and ownership by those working it, conferring prestige both to the hard work of the peasants in the countryside and the concept of life on it, likewise endeavouring to photograph and highlight the wide assortment of tools used by the farmers to fulfill the wheat harvest, of which the one most powerfully draws her attention is the classical thresher.

This approach, leaving an opportunity for hope, is conceptually related to the reportage called 24 Hours in the Life of a Working Family in Moscow, published in the September 1931 Number of AIZ magazine, in which the photographers Semion Tules, Arkady Shaikhet y Max Alpert try to document with their cameras the conditions of the dialy working activity of the members of the Filipov family in Moscow and the overcoming of the exploitation, unlike the Family Fournes Reportage, published by AIZ in December 1931, in which the focus is above all on the misery of the living conditions of the workers in that time, with a vision sadly more accurate regarding the usual reality of those moments.


The classical thresher appears in many of the images taken by Gerda Taro in Valsequillo, specifically in a total of 28 pictures.

Generally, the thresher was a thick wooden plank featuring a rectangular shape, made with several boards, and whose lower surface had a great quantity of sharp little stones inlaid, often silex chips, and its front bent upwards like a sledge.

Notwithstanding, the peasants photographed by Gerda Taro in Valsequillo use above all the typical Andalusian classic thresher, in which the system of cutting by means of sharp stones was replaced by stainless-steel blades. 

Photo: Gerda Taro. © ICP New York

The classical thresher is a very ancient countryside tool, sporting thousands of year of antiquity and which is drawn by mules or oxen on the parva (the heaps of unthreshed or unwinnowed grain) spread on a threshing floor, managing to separate the grain from the straw, because on moving in circles on the spread harvest, the silex chips or the metallic blades cut the straw and the spike (which remained between the thresher and the floor of the threshing floor), separating the seed without damaging it, with the threshed parva being piled together and prepared for its cleaning through the winnowing technique.

Gerda Taro moves to and fro, as quickly as possible, photographing the stages of threshing with the classical threshers (some different kinds of them appear in the images): the previous putting of the sheaves in the threshing floor, some of them crammed together in stacks, waiting for their turn, and other ones untied and spread out in circles, making up the parva which heated in the sun; the first shift of turns in circles and torcidas with the thresher, several times, pounding the harvest and turning the parva over with the tornaderas (pitchforks made from an only wooden piece with some horns).

Photo: Gerda Taro. © ICP New York

In some of the photographs made by Gerda Taro we can also see how in some areas the models of threshers used are the ones known as ´featuring wheels´ or ´cutting ones´, sporting a series of rollers with transversal metallic blades, to make the first passing with the threshers, separating the bálago (long straw of the cereal) of the granzas (cut straw and unpeeled off grain, along with the rest of brushwood, everything mixed and uncleaned) and how after each passing the parva is turned taking out the bálago to the borders, raking it and sweeping it often to prevent it from scattering, keeping the circle of the threshing, and if possible simultaneously eliminating all the feasible bálago.

Photo: Gerda Taro. © ICP New York

Likewise, Gerda Taro makes pictures of the second shift of turns and torcidas (turns with the shape of eight number) with threshers featuring silex or flintstone chips, which finish to remove the grain from the parva, which is heaped with rakes, brooms and winnowing forks. In the same way, Taro captures with detail how the thressers drawn by mules are linked with a chain or rawhide belting to a hook located on the forward cleat, and above all, she pays great attention to the movements and orders made by the trillique, id est, the driver of the thresher, who is sitting on it, guiding the mules and also making functions of weight.

The images made in Valsequillo show clearly that Gerda taro´s style and way of making pictures have evolved from a working method with remarkable affinities with Eva Besnyö (use of a 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 square inch medium format Rolleiflex Old Standard camera with compositions following the modern aesthetics of twenties, avant-garde movement, Soviet cinema, together with an influence of the New Vision set forth by Albert Renger-Paztsch in 1928) until turning into a dynamic and agile photojournalist, defending her convictions with her camera - in the same way as Capa-, using a very little and light for the time 35 mm Leica RF camera, working with two main premises previous: trying to be in the adequate place in the adequate moment and getting the picture, as well as creating photographic essays.

Obviously, Taro knows the works by Capa, David Seymour "Chim", Agustí Centelles and other outstanding photographers of the time, exerting influence in her from early 1937, specially Capa, with whom she has worked for two years, one in Paris (France) and another one in Spain, but the images prove that Gerda Taro had already been totally independent for a lot of months, that she had developed her own style of documentalist photojournalism made with two Leica cameras with two 5 cm lenses, and above all, the reportage in Valsequillo, along with other ones made by Taro from mid February 1936, undoubtedly verify that her significance in both her photographic yield and her quality as a photojournalist were far superior to what was believed until recent years.

Copyright Text and Indicated Photos: José Manuel Serrano Esparza. LHSA
Incribed in the Territorial Registry of the Intellectual Property of Madrid

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