History’s rebel girls – Gerda Taro

In today’s post I thought I’d try something a bit different and instead of talking about myself all the time, I’ll talk about an interesting woman from history. I’m hoping to make this a regular feature with posts about once a month or so introducing women, alive or dead, who have made a great contribution to society and have just been all round kickass ladies.

Taking inspiration from the Bikini Kill song ‘Rebel Girl’, history’s rebel girls should serve as a reminder of how awesome women are. So without further ado, let me introduce you to our first rebel girl. Photographer and reporter Gerda Taro (1910-1937) was the first female photojournalist to be killed while reporting from the frontline.

Woman training for republican militia, Spain 1936. By Gerda Taro.
Woman training for republican militia, Spain 1936. By Gerda Taro.

Gerta Pohorylle, Taro’s real name, was born in Stuttgart Germany into a Jewish family. Soon after the Nazi take-over of power in 1933, Pohorylle joined a Communist group and became active in distributing anti-Nazi propaganda. This led to her arrest and she soon had to flee Germany, seeking refuge in Paris in 1934. There she met André Friedmann, a fellow Jewish refugee who had arrived in his French exile from Hungary. Friedmann taught her how to use a camera and together they began their work as photojournalists, selling their pictures to agencies under the pseudonym of Robert Capa. The two had invented the alias of a fictitious American photographer not only to charge higher prices for their photographs but also to conceal their identities as Jewish refugees in a climate of growing antisemitism in Europe. Although their scheme was eventually uncovered, Friedmann kept the name Robert Capa and Pohorylle began working under the name Gerda Taro.

Gerda Taro in 1937
Gerda Taro in 1937
Robert Capa by Gerda Taro
Robert Capa by Gerda Taro

It was the outbreak of civil war that compelled Taro to go to Spain in 1936 where she reported from the frontline documenting the republican resistance against General Franco’s nationalist forces. During a retreat of the republican army at the battle of Brunete, Taro was fatally wounded and died on 26 July 1937 at the age of 26. Although her photographs from Spain form an important record of the conflict, Taro’s contribution to war photography was long forgotten. Her achievements were overshadowed by those of Robert Capa who became one of the most celebrated war photographers of the twentieth century.

Republican soldiers at the Navacerrada Pass in Spain, 1937 by Gerda Taro.
Republican soldiers at the Navacerrada Pass in Spain, 1937 by Gerda Taro.
Republican sailors on board the battleship Jaime I, Almería, Spain. February 1937. By Gerda Taro.
Republican sailors on board the battleship Jaime I, Almería, Spain. February 1937. By Gerda Taro.

Since Taro and Capa often worked together and shared the credit for both their photographs under the alias of Capa, it was not always clear which pictures had been taken by Taro herself. Many works previously attributed to Robert Capa have now been recognised as Taro’s. As a photojournalist on the frontline she displayed the same bravery and fearlessness as Capa and both risked their lives in the pursuit of a great picture which they believed could change the world.

Gerda Taro and soldier, Córdoba front, 1936. By Robert Capa.
Gerda Taro and soldier, Córdoba front, 1936. By Robert Capa.

Many popular accounts of the two photographers have focussed on their romantic relationship which probably contributed to Taro’s image as the tragic lover of the great Robert Capa. Filmmaker Trisha Ziff, who directed the documentary The Mexican Suitcase about the life and work of Gerda Taro, Robert Capa and David Seymour, described Taro as a pioneering and liberated woman who put her work first.

Gerda Taro & Robert Capa in Paris.
Gerda Taro & Robert Capa in Paris.
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