Today there is a lot of mystery still surrounding what exactly happened to the Mexican Suitcase and how it actually survived for over 70 years and turned up in Mexico city.
But here’s what we do know:
In 1939, Robert Capa fled from his home in Paris to avoid capture by the Germans. Upon leaving, he left the negatives at his apartment with his darkroom manager Imre Weiss. Years later Weiss wrote a letter that stands as the first historical document in this story. In it he stated that he put the negatives in a rucksack and travelled by bicycle to Bordeaux to try get them on a ship to Mexico. He asked a Chilean man in the street to get them to the the Chilean consulate. Weiss never made it out and was interned in Morocco until 1941.
Interestingly enough, none of Capa’s Magnum colleagues ever remember him mentioning the lost negatives or that many of his famous images had disappeared.
Years later, in 1979, Robert’s brother Cornell Capa reached out to the photography community looking for any information on the lost negatives. Based on the letter and story by Weiss, a plea was made for any information and even the consulate itself even seemed a mystery. At one point there was a dig in the French country side to no avail.
Over the years the negatives somehow made it to General Fancisco Aguilar Gonzalez who was the Mexican ambassador to the Vichy government. It is not clear how they came into his possession, but it is assumed that in Weiss’s hurry he passed the negatives to someone who could either bring the negatives to safety or put them in hiding. Judging by the excellent condition of the negatives we assume that Aguilar understood there was some value of significance however they remained packed away. Aguilar later returned to Mexico City and we assume the negatives were in his belongings. He died in 1971.
As a side bar – in the 1970’s a series of notebooks related to the missing pictures began to be discovered. These notebooks were collections of small versions of the images that functioned as contact sheets. The notebooks were 8×10 and contained some 2,500 tiny images from 1936 to 1939. These notebooks were used to keep track of which images were used by publications. Some of the images are annotated with numbers, publication information another markings.
The notebooks have record numbers that indicate that they are part of the collection from the French Ministry of the Interior and Security of the State. These were enterred into the archives in 1952 without any indication of where they were found. Richard Whelan, Capa’s biographer suggest that since the notebooks were used in selling pictures to publications – its possible that they had been borrowed and possible never returned though there are suggestions of more dramatic findings including a german arrested by the French police in 1939 and a communist agency that distributed news and photos about the Spanish Civil War which may have been raided around the same time.
The actual Mexican Suitcase was finally discovered in the 90’s by Mexican filmmaker Benjamin Tarver. He inherited them from his aunt who was a friend of General Aguilar. Again this suggests at least some knowledge of the importance of the work in the suitcase but does not explain why it was still hidden.
Cornell Capa made several attempts to contact Tarver and get the film and unfortunately Tarver seemed somewhat disinterested.
In the fall of 2003, the ICP began preparations for its 2007 exhibitions on the work of Capa and Taro. Capa’s biographer Richard Whelan and curator Brian Wallis started an effort to get the negatives returned to Cornell Capa. They worked with independent curator and film maker named Trisha Ziff who was based in Mexico. She was finally able to meet Tarver and convince him that the negatives belonged at the ICP with the rest of the Capa and Taro archives. On December 19, 2007 – Ziff arrived at the ICP with the Mexican Suitcase. No money was exchanged.
The Mexican Suitcase microsite:
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