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Out of the Shadows: A Life of Gerda Taro

The reader feels the injustice of Gerda Taro's exclusion from history, says Jess Vyvyan-Robinson in her review of Francois Maspero's biography. Taro is all but forgotten, only mentioned in conjunction with Robert Capa

March 7, 2009
4 min read

Born a Polish Jew in Stuttgart, in 1910, the rise of Hitler in 1933 meant that Gerta Pohorylle, later Gerda Taro, was never a stranger to discrimination. In this account of her prematurely shortened life, Francois Maspero strives to rectify perhaps the greatest unfairness against Taro – not one of race, but gender.

Ask anyone with even the vaguest interest in history or photography if they have heard of Robert Capa and the answer will almost certainly be yes. But ask the same of Gerda Taro and people are far less knowledgeable. Maspero repeatedly points out this irony, given Robert Capa was not one photographer, but a pseudonym for two.

One of those photographers was Gerda Taro, the other was Andre Friedmann, Taro’s lover and fellow photographer on the front lines of the Spanish Civil War. The pair adopted the name as a defence against the ‘French xenophobia’ that their surnames generated in Paris, the city they fled to and harboured many of Europe’s anti-fascist émigrés.

This biography will leave you better informed about the world’s first-known female war photographer, but Maspero’s writing style uses much hypothetical narrative, flitting in and out of ‘the territory of legend’. The politics of the era Gerda lived in is a significant issue and yet Maspero cannot commit Taro to any specific political persuasion, despite her life and photography centering around her political belief.

In the first chapter, an interview is described between Maspero and Taro that never happened; it’s fantastical scenario and could never have happened. Taro of the illusory interview is an old woman, as the real Gerda was killed on the Spanish front in 1937. Neither does the author write objectively about Gerda Taro – portraying her as a somewhat tragic heroine. Maspero writes that he ‘should welcome it … if every woman had something of Gerda about her’. There is nothing that he is prepared to criticise and Maspero was undoubtedly smitten by Taro.

It is a biography split very definitely into two parts, with Gerda’s life taking up only the first half of the book, while the second is devoted to the camera techniques and the discrepancies between the photos accredited to Robert Capa that have enabled experts to discern if they were taken by Taro or Friedmann.

Spanish militiaman at moment of death

The story of the woman becomes lost in the technicalities of photographic theory, while in-depth analysis of Gerda’s photographs is constantly undermined by the author’s admission that there is no definitive way of guaranteeing that they were taken by her and not Friedmann.

Having said that, ‘Out of the Shadows‘ succeeds in its goal, leaving the reader in awe of Taro and her achievements; jealous of the freedom and vitality with which she approached her life – experiencing ‘a longing, however slight, to have been Gerda Taro’. The reader feels the injustice of her exclusion from history acutely having read her story – her bravery is something that doesn’t need enhancement with supposition – the facts are enough.

Perhaps the strongest part of Maspero’s biography is observations of Gerda from the people who knew her, lived with her and loved her. It is from them that we can form an idea of who this remarkable woman truly was. One of the most interesting accounts is by Taro’s friend David ‘Chim’ Seymour. Seymour states, he could not recall whether the photograph accredited to Robert Capa of a Spanish militiaman falling to the ground having just been shot (perhaps his most famous) was taken ‘by Capa [Friedmann] or Gerda’, because both had been in the trenches at the time.

Gerda Taro was a woman who exemplified freedom – ‘freedom as a woman, physical freedom, freedom of spirit’, and her biography conveys this magnificently. Although at times, the bombastic writing and obscure tangents can be distracting, this is a book that nevertheless should be read. Not only does the life of Gerda Taro deserve to be known – she is also an inspiration to anyone seeking to end injustice through a determination to expose it wherever it is found.

Out of the Shadows: A Life of Gerda Taro can be purchased here.

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