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|| SportsShooter.com: News Item: Posted 2008-01-29

From Robert Capa to Ray Charles: What's in your Mexican Suitcase?
Matt Mendelsohn found some priceless negatives in a tub in his garage.

By Matt Mendelsohn

Photo by Matt Mendelsohn

Photo by Matt Mendelsohn

Matt Mendelsohn photographed Ray Charles while he was in college in 1983. This lost strip of negatives was recently found while searching for a completely different lost negative.
Okay, so it isn't exactly Robert Capa's "Falling Soldier," but my discovery this week of a long lost negative of Ray Charles performing in 1983, located only after searching for a completely different lost negative, a frame of a legendary news photographer who passed away a few days ago, underscores just how tenuous our collective hold is on the past and just how likely we are to continue to lose valuable moments of history. And needless to say, my lost and found experience was just slightly overshadowed by some other news.

For anyone living under a rock, the bombshell in the Sunday New York Times regarding the discovery of Robert Capa's long lost Spanish Civil War negatives-historically dubbed "the Mexican Suitcase"-is already being described in terms one normally would reserve for, say, a holy grail or Rosetta Stone (http://tinyurl.com/2fzm6c). The negatives, which are not actually all contained in one suitcase but rather three different valises, have the potential to answer some of modern photojournalism's oldest and nagging questions, certainly the greatest of which surround the taking of Capa's most famous single photograph.

Said to show a Republican soldier at the moment of death, arms outstretched and rifle in mid-air, "The Falling Soldier" has always been looked at as a cornerstone of modern photojournalism, the most decisive of all decisive moments. But a shroud of controversy has always followed it--not unlike Joe Rosenthal's Iwo Jima flag raising -- questions of staging and partisanship. In fact, one would really have to go back into the nineteenth century, to Alexander Gardner and Mathew Brady's photographs of the Civil War, or perhaps to 1917, when the world, including celebrities like Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle was gripped by the furor surrounding the Cottingley Fairies, to find a more deeply rooted controversy surrounding the authenticity of a single image. But fairies are, in the end, just fairies; "The Falling Soldier" was nothing less than a gauntlet being thrown down in a very bloody conflict.

One simply cannot underscore the importance of this cache. It's hard to imagine that something could render last November's big discovery of a collection of Diane Arbus prints into a mere appetizer. Moreover, it promises to do for the International Center of Photography what Howard Carter did for a certain boy king back in 1923. Can you imagine the blockbuster show that ICP is going to stage in the coming years? It's no wonder they're not letting out whether "The Falling Soldier" negative is among the finds just yet. Even without the images, the story of the cases' globetrotting journey-from Paris to Marseilles and then to Mexico, where they have been hidden for decades-is fascinating.

For all the shock and awe of its Capa scoop, and there is plenty, believe me, the Times did miss at least one tangential opportunity to connect even a few more dots. I Googled, of course, but someone at the Times could have been able to leaf through a stack of two-week old issues lying on a desk to find an obituary for Milton Wolff, the last American commander of volunteers during the Spanish Civil War. He died on January 14, 2008 at the age of 92. According to the Times obituary, Wolff was just 22 when he left his home in Brooklyn to take up the cause of the Republic, eventually taking command of the some 3,000 American volunteer forces in Spain fighting against the Nationalist troops of General Francisco Franco.

And even more intriguing, as far as our caper is concerned, is the fact that the Times obit of Wolff makes specific mention, among other things, to his comically strained relationship with Ernest Hemingway. Wolff's mother apparently found out her son was fighting in Spain when a photo of he and Hemingway, taken by Capa appeared in a New York Jewish newspaper. Hemingway, according to the story, was simply miffed that Wolff had no idea who he was. One wonders if the negatives to these images and more are waiting to be uncurled out of their decades long resting place.

Leaving the mystery of just what is and isn't in the Mexican suitcase to the archivists and photo historians, let's focus for a moment on how this impacts the rest of us photographers, each of us with a suitcase or two of our own. Because for me, the amazing part of this story isn't simply what age-old historical debates might finally be resolved through this discovery, but that there was anything to discover in the first place. That these three valises aren't biodegrading in a ditch in France right now is a marvel in its own right.

Take a look at the Times photograph of the suitcase itself and you can't help but smile at the fastidiousness of it all, each roll of negatives in its little partition, the microscopic handwritten details on the inside cover. It's quite a thing of beauty, something any of us would scoop up at a yard sale in an instant without ever caring what was inside. We're drawn to this case because it represents everything we've now lost in a digital age--the three-dimensionality, the yellowed, stained cardboard, and even, one can assume, the smell. (Can you just imagine the mustiness of it all?) The general who kept the Mexican suitcase, as well as his descendants who safeguarded it in the years since, knew it had value without ever needing to unroll a single negative strip. It exudes both gravitas and elegance before it ever hits you with its actual historical importance.

Photo by Matt Mendelsohn

Photo by Matt Mendelsohn

Men dressed in snappy suits scoop tea from row upon row of ancient tins at Mariage Frères, a Mecca for tea connoisseurs in Paris.
Two weeks ago I was in Paris and, with my wife, a tea fanatic, we made our annual pilgrimage to Mariage Frères, a Mecca for tea connoisseurs. As I watched the men dressed in snappy suits scoop tea from row upon row of ancient tins, as if I was caught in a time warp, I couldn't help be mesmerized. One doesn't drink the tin, of course, but it seemed to me then that the experience just wouldn't be the same without it.

This is not the position of a Luddite, mind you. I fully enjoy shooting digitally and appreciate the ability to delve into a subject's eye in Photoshop. But like the tea experience at Mariage Frères, I am reminded me that there is value in the container. I do miss my grease-penciled contact sheets, my caption envelopes, my light table. And most of all, I miss my negatives, not because those images cannot be replicated in a digital age-they can-- but because there is a beauty in the tactile sensation of holding a negative up to light that can never be duplicated by looking at thousand neatly stacked and numbered files on a laptop.

All of this got me instantly thinking (and worrying): What kind of Mexican suitcase will we leave to our future generations to find? A SyQuest cartridge from the early 1990's? A floppy disk? A Zip drive? I've always laughed at the prospect of one of the great ironies of the digital era: In the end, only paper will survive. Our grandchildren might venture into an attic sixty years from now and find a stack of gorgeous prints--made from digital cameras and film cameras alike--and then again, they might find the original files to those prints on a CD with faded Sharpie writing. The prints, of course, will be treasured while the CD will get thrown into the trash faster than one can say, "what's a SCSI drive?"

(To be fair, there are plenty of atrocities on both sides of the fence. Back in the late eighties, someone at a major Washington newspaper, looking to clear some space, threw away negatives from a 16 year period, including many of those belonging to a minor political dust-up called Watergate.)

Last year, I was in the middle of a fun IM exchange with my friend and former USA TODAY colleague, Alex Korab. I was talking about some photos I had sent her of my daughter and Alex was talking about some photos of her father, legendary architectural photographer Balthazar Korab. In one of those moments that might lead a ten-year-old to shout, "jinx," we both typed the following IM at the exact same instant.
Photomat: I have to make prints 'cause God knows these digital files won't survive twenty years.
Photokorab: I keep meaning to send those off to be digitized before the color entirely disappears.

Photo by Matt Mendelsohn

Photo by Matt Mendelsohn

Here is an example of some of the fun items Matt found in his "Mexican Suitcase."
That we would reach the opposite conclusion at the exact same moment gave us both a good laugh.

All of this leads me back to my own personal Mexican Suitcase and the search for my long-lost Ray Charles negatives. (Ray Charles. Robert Capa. Hmmmm.)

A few years back, during the height of the frenzy over the Jamie Foxx biopic Ray, I started looking once more for the one contact sheet of negatives I shot of Ray Charles when I was still in college. Charles had come to SUNY-Binghamton in the early eighties and I photographed the concert for the college paper. (I remember it well: my fellow students were boycotting the show because Charles had performed in South Africa, a misguided protest if ever, I thought.) And even though I only had about thirty seconds to make my pictures in the SUNY-B West Gym, I always had the recollection of making a nice image. One nice image that hasn't seen the light of day ever since.

Like everything else from those early days, the Ray Charles shoot got dumped into a box, then a few years later a different box, then a tub, then perhaps even a puffy envelope, and finally a completely different tub to replace a previously cracked one. Like so many photographers, my tubs of obsolete camera equipment are matched only by my tubs of ancient negs and prints. It all starts to resemble the old game show Concentration: Arafat/Rabin handshake? I believe that's in tub #7, Jack.

In fact, one of the few contact sheets from that time that I could always find was one of Ronald Reagan's trip to Binghamton in 1984, only because it happened to always sit on the top of the pile in its respective tub. So each time I would look for some other lost negative I would see that sheet first. Well, this week, after I heard that Bernie Boston, the man behind the iconic Vietnam flowers-in-the rifle picture had passed away, I went in search of those Reagan negs. Being young
Photo by Matt Mendelsohn

Photo by Matt Mendelsohn

Bernie Boston covers Ronald Reagan's trip to Binghamton in 1984 in his trademark cowboy hat.
and full of dreams, I remember spending way too much time making photographs during Reagan's speech of the traveling White House press corps on the stage, more than I did of Reagan himself, and Boston, in his trademark cowboy hat, was unmistakable. I thought I'd write something about Bernie on my blog and the picture would be a great addition.

(Also on the stage that day, standing next to Boston, was Dirck Halstead, whose own Mexican suitcase would yield, years and years later, the only smoking gun in the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewisnky scandal.)

As I reached into the tub to pull the Reagan negs, what did I come across instead but my long lost Ray Charles frames. There he was, the legend himself, laughing and rocking, arms extended and singing like only he could. After all these years of thinking they were gone, they had finally resurfaced in a flash. And while they may not be as valuable as "the Falling Soldier," to me, they're priceless.

So what's in your Mexican suitcase??


(Matt Mendelsohn is a Washington, D.C. photographer who writes about photography on his blog, "The Dark Slide." www.mattmendelsohn.net)

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