Faces of ALBA: Photography Curator Cynthia Young

August 27, 2020
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Cynthia Young recently joined ALBA’s Board of Governors.  She is the curator of the Robert Capa and Cornell Capa Archive at the International Center of Photography.  Cynthia has also curated exhibits and published several books on Capa and other leading contemporary photographers.

For many people Robert Capa’s photographs, especially Death of a Loyalist Soldier, are how they visualize the Spanish Civil war. What does the work of the curator of the Robert Capa and Cornell Capa Archive entail?

The most important work of the archive is preserving the materials and making the work available to the public. There are about 8,000 vintage Capa prints in the collection. Nearly all are digitized on the collection database, and are accessible from the ICP website. The entries are constantly updated with new information about each print, from the location to the date and even the maker. So much new research on the Spanish Civil War has surfaced in the past ten years. We have done a lot in house with contemporaneous magazines and our own research, but we also receive emails from researchers from various parts of Spain who can confirm an exact location of an image. But the Capa archive is very entwined with the archives of Gerda Taro and Chim at ICP. The three of them were the most prominent and important foreign photographers working in Spain during the war, so requests regarding Capa’s work often include images by Taro and Chim. ICP loans prints for exhibitions internationally and help provide images for educational projects. I also curate shows and publish essays about Capa’s work, which enables the research we are doing internally to make its way into the public.

Do you remember when you “discovered” Robert Capa for the first time? How has your understanding of Capa’s photography changed and can you tell us what you think makes Capa’s photography so captivating?

I am not sure I remember when I first saw Capa’s work, but I certainly remember, after having worked on the archive for several years, thinking how genuinely interesting his work was, and how I neither disliked nor distrusted him as a person, which can happen after too much time working on any one artist. He is obviously celebrated for the subjects he covered, but there is less appreciation for his sense of composition, which, if you have to work quickly under pressure as he did, was quite sophisticated. The continued appeal of his work comes from several directions. First is the commitment to the stories he was telling. He was partisan, he had political positions, and he understood and cared about the subjects he covered. The images are imbued with information, but also with emotion. He worked hard to bring the viewer with him into the story he photographed. There is a physical energy in many of the images. He was deeply serious about making images that could engage magazine readers and sway opinion, and that intention still translates today.

You have spent the last twenty years as a curator in the ICP while curating exhibits and editing several books on photography. Are you a photographer yourself?

I studied photography years ago and worked with several amazing artists and photographers, but I no longer make my own photographs, other than what we all do with our phones. After working in the archive, I got a new perspective on the effort required to preserve even one print, so I became a little too conscious about adding more.

How did you feel going through the rediscovered images from the three boxes of film by Capa, Gerda Taro and Chim that arrived at the ICP in December 2007?

Going through the rediscovered negatives from the Spanish Civil War was the most exciting project that I ever have done, possibly the most interesting that I will ever do. I really did not know what to expect before looking through the rolls of film. Opening up each film for the first time, carefully unspooling the rolls, was like watching an image come to life. Maybe I knew one image, but now I could see the five frames before and after that one. People in one frame moved in another frame. Two incredible images I could now understand were taken on the same roll of film. Seeing the negatives is incredibly instructive to understand how a photographer works. I have often compared it to looking at sketches or drawings for a larger painting. You see how the photographer is framing and reframing the subject to get the composition they want. Or, particularly at the start of the Spanish Civil War, when the three photographers had little resources, you can see how carefully they used their film so as not to waste frames. Each frame was almost a new subject in that period, and that is not something you can understand if you only have a pile of prints. So when I see Chim working over several frames to get the best image of the Republican soldiers helping with the art inventory at the Descalzas Reales Monastery in Madrid, I know that he understood that this story was important for the international press to counter arguments that the Republicans were destroyers of cultural heritage.

How do you think we can teach the Spanish Civil War, and the legacy of the Spanish Civil War, through Capa’s photographs?

One of my favorite parts of my work is speaking about Capa’s work in Spain to students, in part because it is not taught with much depth in courses of Twentieth Century European History. I know ALBA is working to help change this through the educator’s programs and curriculum guides. I often speak to Spanish language or history students, so Capa’s perspective of the war may be new to them or generally falls in the category of other artists and writers who dedicated themselves to the Republican cause. I think it is always valuable to look at how the war was covered in the magazines that published his images and what captions were used. His, Chim’s and Taro’s work can certainly be used to simply illustrate the general history of the war, but there is also tremendous value in the details of what is in the pictures, that is, what history the photographs tell. My friend once teased me for the espadrilles I was wearing for a strenuous walk up an alpine path, and I retorted that espadrilles were worn throughout the war, so I had nothing to complain about. But more seriously, so many of Capa’s images look like they could have been published in yesterday’s papers because cycles of civil war and violence continue and hundreds of thousands are forced from their homes and across borders. How are the conditions in those countries similar or different from Spain in the 1930s? How are artists and writers today responding to the rise of the far right in democratic societies? Rather than just descriptors of the past, the images can be a point of departure for conversations about society today.

Aaron Retish teaches at Wayne State University.

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