By François Maspero (Trans: Geoffrey Strachan)
Souvenir Press, £12
Gerda Taro died while photographing a battle during the Spanish Civil War in 1937, just days short of her 27th birthday. Celebrated as the first woman to photograph a battle from the front lines and the first to die covering a war, within a short period her name had been all but forgotten, only mentioned in conjunction with her partner and lover, Robert Capa.
As most of their photographs were stamped with both of their names, there were problems of attribution surrounding her work. But, after the successful exhibition at the Barbican which concluded last week, she has well and truly emerged from the shadows.
François Maspero’s slim biography of Taro is heavily dependent upon his novelist credentials, which reveal themselves in the first chapter, in which he imagines that Taro did not die in Spain and that he meets her as an old woman in Paris. His invented future for her includes a status as a famed photographer of cats. He decided on cats, “perhaps because they are reputed to have nine lives. I owed her that at least”.
Given this strangest of biographical techniques, it is not surprising to discover that Maspero had previously written a fictitious short story based on Taro’s life.
He is obviously very smitten with his subject and dwells on her beauty, charm and intelligence. He finds it difficult to be objective and more than once goes out of his way to rescue her reputation.
She was an undeniably fascinating figure; the problem is that, in just under 27 years, not that much happened and Maspero exhausts the biographical details by the end of the second chapter.
The admission, after three pages describing Kremlin agent Willi Münzenberg, that “there is no record of any encounter between Gerda and Münzenberg” is unfortunately typical.
Even her work is under-represented. There are only 15 photographs included, and just nine of them were taken by Taro. In one particularly irritating section, Maspero compares and contrasts two similar works, one by Capa and one by Taro — but they are not reproduced in the book.
Having said that, there are plenty of interesting episodes in the life of the woman born Gerta Pohorylle, colourfully related here. She served a term in jail in Germany for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets, died because she wanted to get as close as she could to the action during the battle of Brunete, and had streets named after her in the German Democratic Republic after the war.