The itinerant exhibition The Mexican Suitcase, the most important photographic display in the XXI Century hitherto, has been a part of the XV Córdoba International Biennal of Photography, six years and a half after its premiere at the ICP of New York in September 2010, which makes up an unprecedented success, since the city has curretnly a population of 325,000 inhabitants, in comparison to other large European and United States metropolitan hubs with a much bigger size, millions of residents and available resources galore.
Once more, the many thousands of visitors have been able to watch live a comprehensive assortment of the images setting up this priceless historical treasure and which includes 4,500 original negatives in superb preservation condition of pictures made during the Spanish Civil War by Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour Chim (in addition to a few ones made in Paris by Fred Stein) in Barcelona, Madrid, Córdoba, Bilbao, Valencia, Guadalajara, Asturias, Brunete, El Jarama, Río Segre, etc, with a wide showing of contact sheets, framed enlargements of the most representative photographs, vintage original magazines, original press cards, etc.
But the Jewel of the Crown of this The Mexican Suitcase exhibition in Córdoba have been the two huge mural enlargements — for the first time ever — of two contact sheets (one in approximately 3 x 2 meter size with 12 frames and another one with the same height and four frames made from the original negatives of Eastman Kodak II Nitrate Panchromatic b & w film of pictures made by Gerda Taro in La Granjuela (Córdoba province) throughout the last week of June 1937
with a 35 mm format Leica III (Model F) rangefinder camera coupled to a Leitz Summar 5 cm f/2.
A real treat for any lover of classic black and white photography, because the viewing of those mega contacts from a very near distance revealed plenty of visible grain inherent to the bulk loaded cinematographic black and white film Eastman Kodak II Panchromatic Nitrate featuring very low sensitivity and lavish quantity of silver, though the beholding from a suitable observation distance was a true relish for the tenths of thousands of visitors who could verify on the spot the stunning acutance of this 24 x 36 mm format chemical emulsion (also used by Capa and David Seymour " Chim " during the Spanish Civil War, along with the Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens to shoot that same year his documentary movie Spanish Earth and a year later The 400 Million in China — coinciding with Capa, who likewise made use of this b & w film with his mirrorless with rangefinder Contax II camera and Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 5 cm f/2 during his stay in the Asiatic country in 1938 — ) enhanced by the excellent development made in Paris by Csiki Weisz (Capa and Gerda Taro´s darkroom man) using Agfa Rodinal, which greatly fosters the visual feeling of sharpness and the quality of image 80 years after the pictures were made, with the very high doses of thrill it brings about.
Selective reframing of the photograph made by Guillermo Zúñiga to Gerda Taro throughout the first week of July 1937 in Valencia and in which she appears with a mirrorless with rangefinder chromed Leica III (Model F) camera with a non coated Leitz Summar 5 cm f/2 lens, roughly three weeks prior to her death on July 26, 1937.
It is the same camera and lens with which the German photojournalist from Jewish descent made one week before at La Granjuela (Córdoba) in late June 1937 the images shown in the gigantic contact sheets of The Mexican Suitcase that has been held in Córdoba within the XV International Biennal of Photography, between March 23 and May 21, 2017, thanks to the collaboration between the International Center of Photography of New York and the Córdoba City Council.
The king size enlargements of these contacts from original 24 x 36 mm negatives indicate that the delicate front element of the non coated 6 elements in 4 groups Leitz Summar 5 cm f/2 lens used by Gerda Taro had some cleaning marks and scratches.
In spite of it, the ICP of New York has fulfilled a great work through the top-notch Picto Laboratory in Paris (France) making these 3 meters high x 2 meters wide contact sheets oozing beauty and a unique vintage image aesthetics springing from the original Eastman Kodak Panchromatic Nitrate 35 mm b & w negatives with a Weston 32 sensitivity (equivalent to ISO 40) which have enraptured the great quantity of visitors who have attended to this pivotal itinerant photographic exhibition having gone round the most important cities in the world.
These contact sheets of the reportage made by Gerda Taro in La Granjuela during the last week of 1937 had already been previously displayed in other venues of The Mexican Suitcase exhibition in Europe, United States and Mexico, but in s slightly bigger size than the original ones and never in so colossal dimensions.
Nine years and a half ago, after the arrival in New York on December 19, 2007 of the 126 rolls of 35 mm black and white film making up The Mexican Suitcase, with great professionality and humbleness the ICP New York left the difficult digitization of the original nitrate 35 mm films of The Mexican Suitcase in the hands of a team of experts of the Key Whitmore Conservation Center of the George Eastman Kodak Museum in Rochester, directed by Grant B. Romer (Director of the Advanced Residency Program in Photograph Conservation of the George Eastman House Museum of Rochester), Mirasol Estrada ( Andrew W. Mellon Fellow of the Advanced Residency Program in Photograph Conservation at George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film and brought up in the ECRO of Guadalajara, Jalisco), Inés Toharia Terán (a Specialist in the Preservation of Cinematographic Stuff) and Arnold VanDenburgh (Designer), who managed to create the Planar Film Duplicating Device (PFD2) made with glass, teflon and aluminum which carried out simultaneously a great quality of professional scanning with the maximum reduction of the risks inherent to unfold 35 mm nitrate film rolls which had been very wrapped around for approximately 68 years, because it is an ingenious contrivance holding photographic film and working as a copy stand with which each and every one of the original nitrate 35 mm film roll was photographed with a Canon ESO DS Mark III digital reflex camera, so avoiding any possible frictions of the emulsions exposed by Capa, Chim and Taro and developed by Chiki Weisz on any kind of physical support, greatly attaining the access to the images without unrolling or cutting the films and with the minimum feasible manipulation of them.
This has meant in practice a momentous feat, since they have been able to solve the conundrum which implied to flat the 35 mm nitrate roll films in such a way that there wasn´t any image distortion or harm to them, with the simultaneous need to avoid the built-in typical risks in this sort of highly inflammable emulsion.
And at the same time, thanks to the good preservation condition of them, they have managed to get excellent results, in my opinion comparable in terms of image quality to the ones which would have been achieved with a professional 35 mm Nikon Coolscan 5000 ED scanner reaching the 4,000 dpi of optical definition, with a 4.8 DMAX, though this kind of scanners were far from being the most appropriate to digitize the very warped 4,500 negatives of the 126 rolls of 35 mm film of The Mexican Suitcase and wouldn´t have enabled a safe handling and keeping up of the delicate nitrate 24 x 36 mm negatives, which was the most important side.
Neither was possible the use of the photographic domain state-of-the-art reference-class Hasselblad Imacon Flextight X1 and X5 scanners or the benchmark scanners of the cinematographic industry with 35 mm films like the ARRISCANS 3K and 6K searching for the concept of integral digital replica of the original 35 mm negative (with exceptional levels of sharpness and dynamic range), since a high percentage of the sprocket holes of the 35 mm film rolls of The Mexican Suitcase are broken.
Therefore, it was necessary to find the best feasible compromise solution enabling to attain a top-notch quality digitization, and the George Eastman House Museum team did it with high marks using the PFD2, because the 40 megabytes DNG archives obtained from the RAW of each one of the 4,500 negatives made with the Canon EOS 1DS Mark III at f/16 and 1/6 sec are more than enough to any desired application and size.
In a truly incredible way, the modern digital technology has been a key factor in this story for the definitive preservation of this historical and hugely important photographic heritage of images created almost three quarters of a year ago, with spectacular image quality and a total preservation of the special image aesthetics typical in the black and white chemical emulsions of the time which included high quantities of silver.
The visit of Gerda Taro and Robert Capa to La Granjuela had its origin in the assignment that Richard de Rochemond, Director of the European Section of Henry Luc´es newsreeel The March of Time made Capa during his stay in Paris in mid May 1937, asking him and Gerda Taro to photograph and film a reenactment ( that´s to say, as faithful recreation of the facts as possible) of the very harsh fight in La Granjuela between the Francoist troops and the combatants of the Chapaiev Battalion (belonging to the XIII International Brigade and integrated by 389 men from 21 different countries — above all Germans, Polish, Austrian, Swiss, Dutch, Hungarian, Czech, Swedes, Danes, Yugoeslavian, French, Italian, Luxembourg, Ukrainian, Belgian, Russian, Greek, Brasilian and Spaniards, though the main core was set up by 79 Germans, 67 Poles, 59 Spaniards and 41 Austrians) who had captured the village three months before, on April 5, 1937.
And this time it wasn´t Capa but Gera Taro who made the pictures, with a Leica III, joining the reduced group of photojournalist women (in a professional environment in which men were an overwhelming majority at the time) that used 35 mm rangefinder cameras like Jeanne Mandello (who made some reportages in Berlin in 1927 and 1928 with a Leica 1 Model A, being taught by Paul Wolff, and subsequently devoting herself to fashion photography in Paris between 1935 and 1938), Ilse Bing (who had been using a Leica 1 Model C Standard Mount since 1931), Gerti Deutsch (who had photographed Vienna in mid thirties with a Leica III and would get pictures of London from 1938 onwards) and Margaret Bourke-White (who had begun to use a Contax II since late 1936, in adition to her large format cameras she had as photographic tools since early thirties).
The image aesthetics of the cinematographic black and white 35 mm Eastman Kodak Nitrate Panchromatic is unique, since in spite of being a chemical emulsion generating pictures featuring abundant visible grain, it is greatly made up for by its outstanding acutance, its very special visual texture and its deep and rich black and grey tones, glorious traits linked to a comprehensive array of mythical movies which were shot during twenties, thirties, forties and early fifties with nitrate pnachromatic films, among which can be highlighted:
- King of Kings (Cecil B. Demille, 1927).
- Alexandr Nevsky (Sergei M. Eisenstein abd Dmitry Vsilev, URSS, 1938).
- The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hittchcock, 1934).
- Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940).
- Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942).
- Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944).
- Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock, 1945).
- Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio de Sica, 1948).
- Bakûshu The Early Summer (Yasuhiro Ozu´ s masterpiece, Japan, 1951).
And many others.
On the other hand, it shouldn´t be fotgotten that being able to savour these wonderful giant contacts of the images made by Gerda Taro inside La Granjuela (Córdoba) in 1937, as well as being a once in a lifetime visual experience, has been fruit of virtually irrepeteable circumstances, because nitrate films are unstable and degrade over time because of the deterioration of plastic film support and if storage conditions are not adequate.
That´s why the 1992 finding in Mexico D.F of the three chocolate boxes in red, green and beige colours with small cardboard compartments, in which Csiki Weisz (a man with great manual dexterity) had introduced in 1939, one by one, the 126 rolls of 35 mm film painstakingly classified and making up what is known as The Mexican Suitcase with the 4,500 negatives in perfect preservation condition after 53 years, was something amazing which has made possible to revel in these contacts enlarged to huge size which have catalyzed the enthralment of the abundant attending audience, with the exceedingly genuine features inherent to the old chemical cinematographic nitrate films (used often during thirties in 24 x 36 mm format cameras, particularly Leica and Contax rangefinders), above all the excellent range of clear details even in the areas of dark shadows and high keys and a reference-class depth of field (highly visible in the images of La Granjuela made by Gerda Taro and which enhance even more the shaprness zones attained by choosing f/8 and f/11 diaphragms, taking advantage of the powerful sunlight available in the village in late June 1937) providing these images a great and very pronounced dimensional effect fostering the sense of layered planes of space, with an intensity superior to the " safety film " chemical emulsions that replaced them in early fifties as a consequence of their very flammable nature.
Moreover, the 24 x 36 mm format Eastman Kodak Nitrate Panchromatic black and white film grants the observer an unutterable tactile feeling catalyzing his immersion in the pictures, the instants captured and the time, with a very beautiful and vivid image in which stand out its superb tonal gradation and edge definition yielding an almost 3-D depth.
Photographic alchemy in pure state which more than eighty years ago resulted in the nitrate cinematographic films becoming the benchmark thanks to their second to none luminosity, richness and depth of blacks, whites whiter than ever (mythical in movies like Vredens Dag by Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1943) and the utter synergy with the exceddingly high quality standard of the cinematographic industry laboratories of the period.
In this frame enlarged to a size of approximately 40 x 65 cm and visible inside the Vimcorsa Room of Córdoba (in the same way as all the ones making up the two mural size panels with two contact sheets and identical size of images made by Gerda Taro within La Granjuela in 1937) you can clearly observe the remarkable timing of the photojournalist on pressing the shutter release button of her Leica III camera, capturing the movement of her subjects, as happens in this picture, particularly on the two voluntary combatants of the Chapaiev Battalion most on the left, who had their left legs leaned on the ground, captured in full run.
It´s likewise visible the very eclectic nature of this unity as to the origin of its men (the one in the middle, slightly on the left, is wearing a French helmet on his head, while others have Polish and German caps) and the firearms they use (Mosin-Nagant M1891 7,62 x 54R caliber rifles and Mauser 7 x 57 mm Mauser rifles).
Text and Photos: José Manuel Serrano Esparza