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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Vis­it a New Dig­i­tal Archive of 2.2 Mil­lion Images from the First Hun­dred Years of Pho­tog­ra­phy

1,600 Rare Col­or Pho­tographs Depict Life in the U.S Dur­ing the Great Depres­sion & World War II

Annie Lei­bovitz Teach­es Pho­tog­ra­phy in Her First Online Course

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

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Comments (4)
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  • Ewa says:

    Many thanks for this mate­r­i­al!

  • Jack Hirschfeld says:

    This was news to me. Long­time admir­er of Capa. You do good work.

  • Joan Úbeda says:

    In 2011 there was an exhi­bi­tion in Barcelona of the “Mex­i­can suit­case”, a recent­ly found col­lec­tion of pho­tos by Capa, Chim and Ger­da Taro. Ibeas impressed by a telegram exhib­it­ed there, sent by Ger­da from Valen­cia to Capa in Paris, a few weeks before she died. It read as fol­lows:


    All but the three last words are high­ly pro­fes­sion­al notes about a batch of images she was send­ing via a jour­nal­ist called Wind­ing: instruc­tions on how to devel­op the neg­a­tives, and a list of mate­ri­als she need­ed brought from Paris for her work. The last three words say: COFFEE CHOCOLATE TOO. I found it high­ly telling of the every­day, grit­ty, exis­tence of the war cor­re­spon­dant. In short, extreme­ly mov­ing.

  • Carlos Silva says:

    Very very beau­ti­full!

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