Portrait of a Photographer on Fire

Searching for Gerda Taro Documentary - 2021 Camille Ménager Film

The last surviving images of Gerda Taro show a woman in love. Born Gerta Pohorylle, the Jewish war photographer fled Nazi Germany for Paris in 1933 and met a then-unknown Hungarian journalist named Endre Friedmann. Together, the refugees changed their names and revolutionized their craft while observing the frontlines of the Spanish Civil War. Searching for Gerda Taro, a 2021 documentary by Camille Ménager, investigates the subject’s relationship with Endre, aka Robert Capa, and that Mona Lisa smile; a confident visage that implies she’d already won a personal battle before tragically passing away at age 26.

When I look at Taro, I see a woman energized by what could be. Her smile reflects satisfaction, confidence and natural charisma. Without any context, one might attribute such a demeanor to her partner Capa. As Ménager’s documentary so poignantly demonstrates, though, Taro blazed her own path and enjoyed the perks of being a fearless female photographer. She complemented Capa, and vice versa. Taro didn’t follow her male partner but rather showed him a path to enlightenment, and thus helped the world better understand the realities of war. A significant reveal in Searching for Gerda Taro is that the subject had moved on from Capa by July 1937, shortly before her death, so that she could focus entirely on documenting the Battle of Brunete. Sadly, most of Taro’s photographs were subsequently attributed to her male companion for several decades. In 2007, a suitcase full of negatives turned up in Mexico and provided clarity about the German photographer’s work. Searching for Gerda Taro clears up pop culture misconceptions about the subject, whether it’s how she died or why she chose to chase after war.

Searching for Gerda Taro Documentary - 2021 Camille Ménager Film

When I look at Taro, I see a woman who knew that life would be painful if she didn’t scratch that itch, if she didn’t follow her heart. Over the years, I somehow associated her with Pablo Picasso’s 1937 painting “Guernica” — explosions, surrealism and death. But Searching for Gerda Taro taught me a few things about the subject’s life, most notably about how she lived and died. In the astonishing first minute, a man explains how he discovered a photo of his father, a physician, with Taro on her deathbed in 1937. It’s a telling moment, one that establishes a central theme in Searching for Gerda Taro, as the ID on the back of the image identifies the woman as “Mrs. Frank Capa.” In 1937, Taro’s name had appeared alongside her partner’s in various media publications, but the photographer’s untimely death and the passing of time led to factual inaccuracies about her 26 years on Earth. In Ménager’s doc, Cynthia Young — a curator at the International Center of Photography in New York — makes a sharp observation about Taro’s legacy in pop culture:

“I’ve read so many articles about Taro proposals, and I’ve been shocked and struck by the fact that they wanna do a project on ‘Gerda’ and ‘Capa.’ And there’s this real imbalance of how they approach the people, that there’s this intimacy, you know, immediate intimacy, with Taro as a woman, and that they can immediately call her by her first name. With Capa, he’s sort of the the respected man whose name you’re only going to refer to by the last. It’s an interesting difference in the way that we approach male historical figures and female historical figures.”

Searching for Gerda Taro Documentary - 2021 Camille Ménager Film

During a first watch, I felt that Searching for Gerda Taro glossed over moments that could’ve benefitted from extra context. Upon reflection, though, the filmmaking decisions make sense. For example, the narrator (Céline Sallette, who does wonderful work) briefly mentions that Robert Capa’s famous photo of a dying soldier might’ve been staged. As an amateur photographer, I hoped for a little more information; however, Ménager wisely keeps the focus on her subject. I also wanted to know more about Taro’s formative years, but the fact remains that her entire family died during World War II, which is indeed acknowledged by the aforementioned Young of the ICP and explains why Ménager prioritized second-hand accounts.

When I look at Taro, I see a woman who was probably grateful to be alive. She had a Leica and an education that can’t be taught. Searching for Gerda Taro shows a photographer on fire, a fearless woman who knew that she could do anything by focusing on the present rather than the past.

Searching for Gerda Taro is available to stream at OVID.

Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.