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.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Grenfell Tower residents evicted from hotel with just hours’ notice
An urgent call for support from the Radical Housing Network

Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker

In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing

After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry

Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again

Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood

7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.

After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani

If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945

On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.

Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow

The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change