Meet Gerda Taro, the First Female Photojournalist to Die on the Front Lines

Gerda Taro by Anonymous, via Wikimedia Commons

We may know a few names of historic women photographers, like Julia Margaret Cameron, Dorothea Lange, or Diane Arbus, but the significant presence of women in photography from its very beginnings doesn’t get much attention in the usual narrative, despite the fact that “by 1900,” as photographer Dawn Oosterhoff writes, census records in Britain and the U.S. showed that “there were more than 7000 professional women photographers,” a number that only grew as decades passed.

As photographic equipment became smaller, lighter, and more portable, photographers moved out into more challenging and dangerous situations. Among them were women who “fought tradition and were among the pioneer photojournalists,” working alongside men on the front lines of war zones around the world.

War photographers like Lee Miller—former Vogue model, Man Ray muse, and Surrealist artist—showed a side of war most people didn’t see, one in which women warriors, medical personnel, support staff, and workers, played significant roles and bore witness to mass suffering and acts of heroism.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons


Before Miller captured the devastation at the European front, the horrors of Dachau, and Hitler’s bathtub, another female war photographer, Gerda Taro, documented the front lines of the Spanish Civil War. “One of the world’s first and greatest war photographers,” writes Giles Trent at The Guardian, Taro “died while photographing a chaotic retreat after the Battle of Brunete, shortly after Franco’s troops had one a major victory,” just days away from her 27th birthday. She was the first female photojournalist to be killed in action on the frontline and a major star in France at the time of her death.

Woman Training for a Republican Militia, by Gerda Taro, via Wikimedia Commons

“On 1 August 1937,” notes a Magnum Photos bio, “thousands of people lined the streets of Paris to mourn the death” of Taro. The “26-year-old Jewish émigré from Leipzig… was eulogized as a courageous reporter who had sacrificed her life to bear witness to the suffering of civilians and troops…. The media proclaimed her a left-wing heroine, a martyr of the anti-fascist cause and a role model for young women everywhere.” Taro had fled to France in in 1933, after being arrested by the Nazis for distributing anti-fascist leaflets in Germany. She was determined to continue the fight in her new country.

Republican Soldiers at the Navacerrada Pass, by Gerda Taro, via Wikimedia Commons

Taro met another Jewish émigré, well-known Hungarian photographer Robert Capa, just getting his start at the time. The two became partners and lovers, arriving in Barcelona in 1936, “two-and-a-half weeks after the outbreak of the war.” Like Miller, Taro was drawn to women on the battlefield. In one of her first assignments, she documented militiawomen of the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia training on a beach. “Motivated by a desire to raise awareness of the plight of Spanish civilians and the soldiers fighting for liberty,” her clear sympathies give her work depth and immediacy.

Republican Dinamiteros, in the Carabanchel Neighborhood of Madrid, by Gerda Taro, via Wikimedia Commons

Taro’s photographs “were widely reproduced in the French leftist press,” points out the International Center of Photography. She “incorporated the dynamic camera angles of New Vision photography as well as a physical and emotional closeness to her subject.” After she was crushed by a tank in 1937, many of her photographs were incorrectly credited to Capa, and she sank into obscurity. She has achieved renewed recognition in recent years, especially after a trove of 4,500 negatives containing work by her and Capa was discovered in Mexico City.

Although she had been warned away from the front, Taro “got into this conviction that she had to bear witness,” says biographer Jane Rogoyska, “The troops loved her and she kept pushing.” She paid with her life, died a hero, and was forgotten until recently. Her legacy is celebrated in Rogoyska’s book, a novel about her and Capa by Susana Fortes, an International Center of Photography exhibition, film projects in the works, and a Google Doodle last August on her birthday. Learn more about Taro’s life and see many more of her captivating images, at Magnum Photos.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Take a Visual Journey Through 181 Years of Street Photography (1838-2019)

All of us here in the 2010s have, at one time or another, been street photographers. But up until 1838, nobody had ever been a street photographer. In that year when camera phones were well beyond even the ken of science fiction, Louis Daguerre, the inventor of the daguerreotype process and one of the fathers of photography itself, took the first photo of a human being. In so doing he also became the first street photographer, capturing as his picture did not just a human being but the urban environment inhabited by that human being, in this case Paris' Boulevard du Temple. Daguerre's picture begins the historical journey through 181 years of street photography, one street photo per year all soundtracked with period-appropriate songs, in the video above.

From the dawn of the practice, street photography (unlike smile-free early photographic portraiture) has shown life as it's actually lived. Like the lone Parisian who happened to be standing still long enough for Daguerre's camera to capture, the people populating these images go about their business with no concern for, or even awareness of, being photographed.

The earliest street photographs come mostly from Europe — London's Trafalgar Square, Copenhagen's former Ulfeldts Plads (now Gråbrødretorv), Rome's Via di Ripetta — but as photography spread, so spread street photography. Rapidly industrializing cities in America and elsewhere in the former British Empire soon get in on the action, and a few decades later scenes from the cities of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East begin to appear.

Each of these 181 street photographs was taken for a reason, though most of those reasons are now unknown to us. But some pictures make it obvious, especially in the case of the startlingly common subgenre of post-disaster street photography: we see the aftermath of an 1858 brewery fire in Montreal, an 1866 explosion in Sydney, an 1874 flood in Pittsburgh, a 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, and a 1920 bombing in New York. Each of these pictures tells a story of a moment in the life of a particular city, but together they tell the story of the city itself, as it has over the past two centuries grown outward, upward, and in every other way necessary to accommodate growing populations; transportation technologies like bicycles, streetcars, automobiles; spaces like squares, cinemas, and cafés; and above all, the ever-diversifying forms of human life lived within them.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Creative Commons Officially Launches a Search Engine That Indexes 300+ Million Public Domain Images

Heads up: Creative Commons has officially launched CC Search, a search engine that indexes over 300 million images from 19 image collections, "including cultural works from museums (the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cleveland Museum of Art), graphic designs and art works (Behance, DeviantArt), photos from Flickr, and an initial set of CC0 3D designs from Thingiverse." All of the indexed images are in the public domain and released under Creative Commons licenses--meaning the images are generally free to use in a non-commercial setting.

Head here to start searching.

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Paris in Beautiful Color Images from 1890: The Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, The Panthéon, and More (1890)

The 17th and 18th centuries in England marked a period of ostentation for a growing, and increasingly wealthy, landowning class. These were also times of internal religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, a period that saw the regicide of Charles I, the restoration of Charles II to the throne, and William and Mary’s “Glorious Revolution,” deposing his successor, James II. All of this over the span of 28 years. Anti-Catholic sentiment ran high among the people, and it made a particularly convenient political tool.

But there are two groups you might not have found at anti-Catholic rallies during the most heated of political times, not, at least, during the final, formative years of their education. Both young scions of gentry and nobility on a gap year, and artists and poets seeking out the finest training, took the European Grand Tour, for several months or several years, a sojourn through the mostly-Catholic continent. No classical education was complete without a visit to Florence, Milan, Rome, Vienna, and, of course, Paris.

Here, gentleman picked up the latest fashions and dance steps, budding architects studied cathedrals and Catholic art, and everyone, Catholic and Protestant alike, gawked at the towering Notre Dame. The importance of the Grand Tour, remarked historian E.P. Thompson, “showed that ruling class control in the 18th century was located primarily in cultural hegemony.” Touring gentlemen wrote memoirs and guidebooks and commissioned paintings. Artists sent back drawings and poems, as both souvenirs and proof of their cultural mastery.

Through these aristocratic tourists the rest of the world came to see Europe as a succession of monuments, like the Greek and Roman cities of antiquity. At the same time, an imperialist craze for Neoclassical architecture began to make Europe’s biggest cities resemble classical models more and more.

The last half of the 18th century saw the construction of the Panthéon, La Madeline—the Catholic church first dedicated as a temple to Napoleonand the Louvre, all monuments to classical architecture.

The Grand Tour approach to looking at cities and the corresponding Neoclassical wave of building came together in the age of photography, when prints of the great places could give their viewers a sense of having been there, or at least hit all the major entries in the guidebook. Wandering gentry and artists became entrepreneurs, using the new technology to not only simulate a Grand Tour, but to sell prints for postcards and the rare photographic book.

By 1890, when the photos of Paris here were taken, such prints were commonplace. They represented a democratization, in a way, of Europe’s great landmarks, and of the literary and fine arts techniques once primarily used to record them. No doubt some few people saw the development as a vulgar one, but art historians today can be grateful that Paris at the end of the 19th century was so well-documented. In this digital collection from the Library of Congress, Beaux-Arts masterpieces like the Paris Opera House sit beside the Gothic Notre Dame and Neo-Classical Panthéon.

It is a shame these photos do not let viewers go inside to experience firsthand the buildings that inspired The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and in which are buried such literary royalty as Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile Zola, and Victor Hugo himself. But this rich archive of early color photographs from just before the turn of the century does capture—for all time, perhaps, now that they are online—the greatest feats of architectural engineering from the old Medieval  order, the Ancien Régime, the Republic, and the Empire.

The collection represents yet another way of digitally preserving the memories of these grand buildings should they one day be lost, as Notre Dame nearly was just a few days ago. It also shows the state of photography at the dawn of the postcard boom, when Photochrom prints like these could be purchased cheaply and mailed for a few cents or centimes. See many more of these stunning photos at the Library of Congress Digital Collections here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Why Nobody Smiles in Old Photos: The Technological & Cultural Reasons Behind All those Black-and-White Frowns

We've all heard stories of kids who ask their parents if the world was really black-and-white in the 1950s, or maybe even been those kids ourselves. With that matter cleared up, children who've seen even older colorless photographs — say, from around the turn of the 20th century — may follow up with another question: hadn't they invented smiling back then? If they ask you (or if you've wondered about it yourself), you can take care of it in just three minutes by pulling up this Vox explainer on why people never smiled in old photos. Why, in the words of Phil Edwards writing on the video's accompanying page, "did people in old photos look like they'd just heard the worst news of their life?"

"We can't know for sure, but a few theories help us guess what was behind all that black-and-white frowning." The first, and the one you may already know, has to do with the camera technology of the day, whose "long exposure times — the time a camera needs to take a picture — made it important for the subject of a picture to stay as still as possible. That way, the picture wouldn't look blurry." But by the year 1900 that problem was more or less solved "with the introduction of the Brownie and other cameras," which were "still slow by today's standards, but not so slow that it was impossible to smile."

Other theories explaining the smile-free photographs of old include the lingering influence of the painted portrait on the photographic portrait; the dominant idea of photography as a "passage to immortality" that "meant the medium was predisposed to seriousness over the ephemeral"; and that Victorian and Edwardian culture itself took a dim view of smiling, supported by a survey of smiling in portraits conducted by Nicholas Jeeves at the Public Domain Review that "came to the conclusion that there was a centuries-long history of viewing smiling as something only buffoons did." Yet late 19th-century and early 20th-century photography isn't a completely smile-free zone, as the Flickr group The Smiling Victorian proves.

Edwards includes a picture, taken circa 1904, of a man smiling not just unmistakably but hugely. He does so as he prepares to dig into a bowl of rice, that being an important part of the cuisine of China, where Asian-language scholar Berthold Laufer took an expedition to capture the everyday life of the Chinese people on film. "His rice-loving subject may have been willing to grin because he was from a different culture with its own sensibility concerning photography and public behavior," Edwards writes. Whatever the reasons for the smile on that Chinese face or the lack of one on all those Victorians and Edwardians, we must prepare ourselves to answer an even more difficult question from posterity: one about why, exactly, we're doing what we're doing in the billions of photos we now take of ourselves every day.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Beautiful Hand-Colored Japanese Flowers Created by the Pioneering Photographer Ogawa Kazumasa (1896)

Ogawa Kazumasa lived from the 1860s to almost the 1930s, surely one of the most fascinating 70-year stretches in Japanese history. Ogawa's homeland "opened" to the world when he was a boy, and for the rest of his life he bore witness to the sometimes beautiful, sometimes strange, sometimes exhilarating results of a once-isolated culture assimilating seemingly everything foreign — art, technology, customs — all at once. Naturally he picked up a camera to document it all, and history now remembers him as a pioneer of his art.

At the Getty's web site you can see a few examples of the sort of pictures Ogawa took of Japanese life in the mid-1890s. During that same period he published Some Japanese Flowers, a book containing his pictures of just that.

The following year, Ogawa's hand-colored photographs of Japanese flowers also appeared in the American books Japan, Described and Illustrated by the Japanese, edited by the renowned Anglo-Irish expatriate Japanese culture scholar Francis Brinkley and published in Boston, the city where Ogawa had spent a couple of years studying portrait photography and processing.

Ogawa's varied life in Japan included working as an editor at Shashin Shinpō (写真新報), the only photography journal in the country at the time, as well as at the flower magazine Kokka (国華), which would certainly have given him the experience he needed to produce photographic specimens such as these. Though Ogawa invested a great deal in learning and employing the highest photographic technologies, they were the highest photographic technologies of the 1890s, when color photography necessitated adding colors — of particular importance in the case of flowers — after the fact.

Some Japanese Flowers was re-issued a few years ago, but you can still see 20 striking examples of Ogawa's flower photography at the Public Domain Review. They've also made several of his works available as prints of several different sizes in their online shop, a selection that includes not just his flowers but the Bronze Buddha at Kamakura and a man locked in battle with an octopus as well. Even as everything changed so rapidly all around him, as he mastered the just-as-rapidly developing tools of his craft, Ogawa nevertheless kept his eye for the natural and cultural aspects of his homeland that seemed never to have changed at all.

via Public Domain Review

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Cringe-Inducing Humor of The Office Explained with Philosophical Theories of Mind

"I'm a friend first and a boss second," says David Brent, middle manager at the Slough branch of paper company Wernham-Hogg. "Probably an entertainer third." Those of us who've watched the original British run of The Office — and especially those of us who still watch it regularly — will remember that and many other of Brent's pitiable declarations besides. As portrayed by the show's co-creator Ricky Gervais, Brent constitutes both The Office's comedic and emotional core, at once a fully realized character and someone we've all known in real life. His distinctive combination of social incompetence and an aggressive desperation to be liked provokes in us not just laughter but a more complex set of emotions as well, resulting in one expression above all others: the cringe.

"In David Brent, we have a character so invested in the performance of himself that he's blocked his own access to others' feelings." So goes the analysis of Evan Puschak, a.k.a. the Nerdwriter, in his video interpreting the humor of The Office through philosophical theories of mind.

The elaborate friend-boss-entertainer song-and-dance Brent constantly puts on for his co-workers so occupies him that he lacks the ability or even the inclination to have any sense of what they're thinking. "The irony is that Brent can't see that a weak theory of mind always makes for a weak self-performance. You can't brute force your preferred personality onto another's consciousness: it takes two to build an identity."

Central though Brent is to The Office, we laugh not just at what he says and does, but how the other characters (which Puschak places across a spectrum of ability to understand the minds of others) react — or fail to react — to what he says and does, how he reacts to their reactions, and so on. Mastery of the comedic effects of all this has kept the original Office effective more than fifteen years later, though its effect may not be entirely pleasurable: "A lot of people say that cringe humor like this is hard to watch," says Puschak, "but in the same way that under our confidence, in theory of mind, lies an anxiety, I think that under our cringing there's actually a deep feeling of relief." When Brent and others fail to connect, their "body language speaks in a way that is totally transparent: in that moment the embarrassment is not only palpable, it's palpably honest." And it reminds us that — if we're being honest — none of us are exactly mind-readers ourselves.

You can get the complete British run of The Office on Amazon here.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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