Accidental heroine

Gerda Taro was a fearless, pioneering chronicler of the Spanish Civil War. Robin Stummer uncovers ev

On the afternoon of 25 July 1937, at the climax of one of the fiercest battles in the Spanish Civil War, a 26-year-old photographer named Gerda Taro methodically squeezed off shot after shot with her Leica. For miles around the village of Brunete, west of Madrid, lay the detritus of the Republican army, in retreat from a counter-attack by Franco's fascist forces.

Corpses, twisted metal, flames, smoke and explosions marked the failure of an advance intended to push Nationalist troops back from the capital's outskirts. Amid the mayhem that had begun two weeks earlier with the Brunete offensive, Taro was seen darting about, refusing to take cover when machine-gunned from the air, and framing picture upon picture. She was, according to a witness, smiling in the heat. "My best pictures yet!" she said, before beginning the journey back to her villa in Madrid for a break that was overdue, taking her films with her.

Taro was the first female war photographer. She created some of the most moving studies ever made of people in conflict. Now, as her work gets its first major European exhibition, at the Barbican Art Gallery in London, we can see how exceptional it was.

Gifted with a fast eye, an intuitive understanding of camerawork and, just as importantly, the ability to charm those around her, Taro made pictures that were acutely intimate. She encountered hopeful young militiamen and women; troops under fire; mothers and babies; dead children, the victims of fascist air raids, laid out at the morgue; civilians relaxing in the sun. She photographed them all, honestly and compassionately.

Yet, only 18 months before Brunete, Taro had been a part-time secretary, living far from Spain, a young woman who knew nothing about photography. One of thousands of left-wing exiles from Nazi Germany struggling to get by in Paris, she had been jailed briefly in 1933 for suspected anti-Nazi activities before fleeing to France. By the time of Brunete, her career as a war photographer - her pictures appeared in leading magazines across Europe and, ultimately, in the United States - had lasted only 11 months and encompassed just one conflict.

Taro never made it back to Madrid. She was fatally injured when a Republican tank, reportedly out of control, struck the car in which she had hitched a ride to escape from the battlefront. The details of what happened that afternoon remain obscure, and the accepted version of events has been stitched together from several accounts, some reliable, others less so.

It seems that Taro was standing on the running-board. Her equipment (she had also been using a movie camera) was slung inside the car, next to three wounded Republican soldiers. The tank, probably a Soviet-made T-26, struck her a glancing blow as it hit the car, crushing her abdomen. Still conscious, she was taken to hospital in Madrid but died early the next morning. One of her first questions after the crash was, "Can I have my cameras?"

Gerda Taro was extraordinarily attractive. At just over five feet tall, she was much admired in Paris for her chic clothes and immaculate make-up. The Republican troops called her "La Pequeña Rubia", the little blonde. She was, by all accounts, vivacious, intelligent and well read. She was also the girlfriend of the man who would become the most acclaimed war photographer of the 20th century, Robert Capa.

Capa met Taro in Paris in 1934, when he was 20 and she 24. He was a struggling Hungarian photographer called Endre Friedmann - and, like Gerda, was a left-sympathising Jewish refugee from the Nazis. Friedmann found her a job with a photography agency. To boost sales of his work, Gerda came up with the idea of shedding his name and adopting a shorter, more American-sounding one. She, too, changed her name, from Gerda Pohorylle. He in turn showed her how to use a Leica.

Capa and Taro arrived in Barcelona in August 1936. They worked on most of the war's fronts, from Aragón to Toledo and Córdoba. Here, on the Córdoba front, on 5 September, Capa took his photograph of a Republican militiaman falling, dead, at the very instant he was struck by a bullet. That one picture secured his reputation. Soon the pair's work, individually or collaboratively, began to appear in prominent international news magazines - Regards, Ce Soir, Life, Illustrated London News, Vu, Photo-History, the Volks Illustrierte, Zürcher Illustrierte and Picture Post. Ce Soir, edited by the poet Louis Aragon, became the main outlet for Taro's pictures. It was Communist-funded, perhaps by Moscow, though she and Capa never joined the party.

The couple's confidence grew rapidly in Spain. By spring 1937, however, they had split as a team, and Taro began to find her own assignments. As the Republican cause faltered on the battlefield, their pictures became a vital weapon in galvanising support abroad.

The Spanish Civil War was no place for free spirits. As the fighting dragged on, Stalin's control over the Republican war machine grew. Equally ruthless was Stalin's indirect control over its propaganda effort. Photographers and reporters in Spain found themselves subject to a certain level of "management" and censorship. Battle zones were out of bounds to journalists without consent from the Republican foreign press bureau, managed by an aristocrat-turned-Marxist called Constancia de la Mora. De la Mora was a favourite of Moscow, and had dutifully banned the Spanish Republican press from reporting the purges in the Soviet Union.

The Republic's Brunete offensive opened on 6 July 1937. Taro was soon in the thick of it - but, dangerously so, without official consent. Brunete was a de facto Soviet operation: Stalin-friendly officers commanded, or shadowed, every attacking unit. As the offensive gave way to the scramble to retreat, Taro was warned by the senior commander in the field, General Walter, to get away fast, because he could not guarantee her safety.

Walter - a Polish-born Red Army commander whose real name was Karol Swierczewski - was not a man to disobey. As the Republican forces fell back, he set up machine-guns to deal with any deserters, authorising the execution of officers and troops he believed guilty of treachery. Hundreds of Republicans were murdered in the last days of fighting on this front, which had already cost them more than 25,000 casualties and 80 per cent of their tanks. Stalinist paranoia ran rife. All the while, in the middle of the mess, Taro was clicking away with her Leica.

Faced with such a grim failure as Brunete, the Republic's foreign press bureau did what any totalitarian media organisation would do: it declared the battle a victory. Taro's photographs and film footage from the last two days of the battle might have told something of the reality - but we will never know. The cameras and the footage disappeared soon after the collision that eventually claimed her life.

What did she photograph and film that day? What did the Stalinists think she had photo graphed and filmed? Perhaps it was crime enough to have recorded, in detail, a military humiliation for Stalin.

One last hint that Taro's accident may not have been all it seems comes from an unlikely source. Willy Brandt, later chancellor of West Germany, was a young socialist volunteer in Spain. Fearing the Stalinist purges of those leftist Republican groups that were not aligned to Moscow, Brandt had warned Taro against working in Spain during the summer of 1937.

According to the German academic Irme Schaber, who has written two studies of the photo grapher, Taro had close personal links to the Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands - or Socialist Workers' Party of Germany - itself on Stalin's hit list. This would have been known to the Soviet leader's agents. Indeed, one of Taro's close circle in Madrid was the Pravda correspondent Mikhail Koltsov, a Soviet secret police officer. Brandt, says Schaber, was convinced Taro had been targeted because of her perceived lack of loyalty to Moscow. The "accident", he always maintained, was no such thing.

Tens of thousands turned out for Gerda Taro's funeral in Paris on 1 August 1937. It would have been her 27th birthday. Years later, behind the Iron Curtain, she would be hailed as a martyr of the worldwide anti-fascist struggle. Streets in the German Democratic Republic were named in her honour. Her grave in Père Lachaise cemetery, sculpted by Alberto Giacometti, was paid for by the French Communist Party. It is now neglected and has been part-vandalised.

"On the Subject of War" opens alongside "This Is War! Robert Capa at Work" at the Barbican Art Gallery, London EC2, from 17 October until 25 January 2009 (www.barbican.org.uk)

"Out of the Shadows: a Life of Gerda Taro" by François Maspero is published on 13 October by Souvenir Press (£12)

Gerda Taro: a life

Research by Annie McDermott

  • 1910 Born Gerda Pohorylle into a middle-class Jewish-Polish family in Stuttgart
  • 1929 The family moves to Leipzig for safety as Hitler rises to power, and Taro becomes involved in local leftist organisations
  • 1933 Arrested for distributing anti-Nazi propaganda, she escapes the following year and flees to Paris
  • 1935 Meets the Hungarian photojournalist Endre Friedmann (later Robert Capa)
  • 1936 Changes her surname to Taro, after the avant-garde Japanese artist Taro Okamoto. Obtains her first press card and goes to Barcelona with Capa at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War
  • 1937 Refuses Capa's proposal of marriage and stays in Spain, taking pictures for the French leftist press. Shortly before her death at the Battle of Brunete, Taro tells a friend: "When you think of all the fine people we both know who have been killed even in one offensive, you get an absurd feeling that somehow it's unfair still to be alive." Huge crowds attend her funeral in Paris
  • 1980 Two hundred of Taro's prints are found among Capa's papers at his brother's apartment in New York, sparking renewed interest in her work