Book Review: Out of the Shadows. A Life of Gerda Taro by Francois Maspero


Since her death at the age of 26 in the midst of the Spanish civil war, Gerda Taro has been in the shadow of her lover and fellow photojournalist Robert Capa, who is generally considered to be the greatest practitioner of his craft in the 20th century. Francois Maspero’s Out of the Shadows, along with the current exhibition of her work at the Barbican Art Gallery, will hopefully bring Taro the belated recognition that her life and work deserve.

Born in 1910 to a middle-class Jewish family in Stuttgart as Gerta Pohorylle, she was imprisoned in her early twenties in an attempt to flush out her anti-nazi brothers, who belonged to a trade union with ties to the Communist Party. After this brush with the authorities, she fled to Paris, where she met fellow anti-fascist exile Andre Friedmann in the summer of 1935. Quickly learning the skills needed to take and process photographs from the swarthy Hungarian, it was Pohorylle who came up with the clever ruse of changing their names, transforming them into the more glamorous and employable Robert Capa and Gerda Taro.

With the couple firmly supporting the Republicans in their fight against Franco’s German and Italian-backed forces, they headed to the front in Spain in 1936, supplying pictures of the fratricidal conflict to the communist-affiliated Parisian newspapers Ce Soir and Regards. Interestingly, Maspero points out that, for several months, both Taro’s and Capa’s photographs appeared under the byline Capa and it was only just before her death that Taro’s own name appeared on her pictures.

Today, approximately 300 of Taro’s photographs survive, a lasting testament to one of the first women to photograph combat from the front line and almost certainly the first to die covering warfare. Unfortunately, Maspero’s slim volume – more a lengthy essay than a book – fails to do Taro justice. The leftist French author and journalist certainly treats his subject with a great deal of sympathy – at one point, he even admits to falling in love with her – and he also does an impressive job of locating her life within the political, social and intellectual circles of inter-war Paris.

However, overall, this circuitous biography is a strange bag of unsubstantiated claims, awkward translation from French and intrusive narration. Frustratingly, although Taro was very much a female pioneer in the male-dominated worlds of photojournalism and war, Maspero chooses to only mention issues relating to her gender in passing.

At best an introduction to an extraordinary life, Out Of The Shadows will hopefully be a precursor to a more accessible and comprehensive biography of Taro.

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