Two Graphic Biographies Showcase Photographers Robert Capa and Graciela Iturbide

Robert Capa: A Graphic Biography and Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide offer insights into the challenges of 20th century photography.

Robert Capa: A Graphic Biography
Florent Silloray
Sep 2017
Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide
Isabel Quintero, Zeke Peña
J. Paul Getty Trust/Harry N. Abrams
Mar 2018

The struggles of women photographers to overcome professional barriers and the sexism which denies many of them the credit they deserve are beautifully and poignantly illustrated by two comic bio-pics which take some of the world’s premiere photojournalists as their subjects.

Florent Silloray’s Robert Capa: A Graphic Biography tells the story of the Hungarian photographer who has been called the greatest war photographer in history. But the most interesting part of this story is that of the woman with whom he might vie for the title: his partner (both romantically and professionally), Gerda Taro. She was the genius that created Capa, both literally and professionally. While he was still Endre Friedmann, an aspiring Jewish photographer whose career seemed blocked in part by anti-semitism in the ’30s, she came up with the idea of rebranding him as Robert Capa, a fake cover purporting to be a famous American photographer. The trick worked: his photos sold and he began to get commissions. The cover was eventually blown, but by then he’d sold enough photos and gained sufficient recognition to continue getting work.

At first, Gerda (her real name was Gerda Pohorylle; also a Jewish refugee) shared the Capa pseudonym, selling her photos through his cover as well (with him taking much of the credit). Eventually she came out on her own professionally, leaving him the Capa identity and adopting instead the pseudonym of Gerda Taro. The two continued their close partnership; she rejected his marriage proposal but they remained together and journeyed as a team to the front lines of the Spanish Civil War. She remained there while he returned to Europe; soon thereafter tragedy struck, and the woman who has been called the first front-line female war photojournalist was killed after reportedly being struck by a tank.

Their story comprises the first third of the biography, but is certainly the most powerful and poignant component. It’s presented as the defining period in Capa’s life; he himself is portrayed as lost, impetuous and dithering without her, while she is portrayed as determined, courageous and the genius behind their joint careers. His biography is as much the story of her short-lived career as of his, and of the many ways in which she deserves credit for the world renown he was to eventually achieve.

Robert Capa: A Graphic Biography (source: Firefly Books)

The remainder of his story is rather hurriedly told in this short but passionately presented graphic narrative: his relationship with famed Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman; his wrestling with the desire to leave the combat photography field which perpetually drew him back in; his efforts to start a freelance photographers’ co-operative to ensure photographers started to get the credit (and pay) they deserved; and finally his death in 1954 while photographing the early days of revolutionary combat in Indochina.

Silloray’s sketchy, cartoon-like line drawings are appealing and appropriately presented; there are no efforts to insert or realistically portray Capa’s photographs, and it’s probably for the best. Artistically the most powerful sequence is the one that Capa is probably most famous for shooting: he photographed the Allies’ D-Day landings toward the end of the Second World War. Only 11 of the more than 100 photos he originally took of D-Day survived the war, but the sequence is beautifully presented in a darker shade than the rest of the book, exquisitely echoing the blurry images taken by Capa as he joined the Allied soldiers in storming the beach, clicking his photos as he dodged bullets and heaving waves while struggling to operate the camera with wet, numb fingers.

from Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide (Getty Books)

Isabel Quintero and Zeke Peña’s Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide is less a biography and more an appreciation of the work of Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide. Iturbide too faced challenges and barriers on her road to achieving artistic renown: a conservative family that stifled her childhood literary leanings and then marriage and motherhood. Things changed when she made the decision to return to university to study film in her late 20s; she suffered the tragic death of a daughter, left her husband, and embarked on the photographic career that has since propelled her to international renown.

There’s not much in the way of details of her life in this graphic narrative; it’s an impressionistic survey of her creative work, which moves back and forth through time. The highly stylized prose is inspired and poetic; speaking through Iturbide’s voice one gains a sense of the creative passions that drive her (birds; the plight of Indigenous peoples and women; and above all a firm sense of respect for her photographic subjects, from whom she sought consent long before it was fashionable to do so). Quintero’s text almost reads as a long, narrative first-person poem, weaving back and forth through the chronology of Iturbide’s life; seeking parallels and themes and following them through Iturbide’s travels in Mexico, the United States, India, and beyond.

There’s a sense of poignancy and haunting sadness to the narrative, but also a firm feeling of artistic and creative perseverance. Quintero’s previous work has been in the field of Young Adult literature and there is indeed a sense of that stick-to-it-ness which pervades much of the genre; a stylized motif of artistic dedication rising above the world-weariness of Indigenous poverty, oppressive conservatism, and disciplinary convention alike. One doesn’t really get a sense of who Iturbide is, and yet at the same time she seems elusively intimate, whispering her creative visions and photographic methods in the reader’s ear. It’s a glimpse at the artist whose subject the book takes, but more of a taster to inspire further study.

Peña’s art is gorgeous, and the book both includes several reproductions of Iturbide’s own photographs worked seamlessly into the narrative, as well as stylized comic panels based on or inspired by her broader oeuvre.

Two sequences in the book are particularly striking. The first is the moment in 2004 when Iturbide was chosen to photograph Frida Kahlo’s bathroom. Frida’s partner Diego Rivera had ordered it sealed following her death in 1954. Fifty years later it was opened for the first time, and Iturbide was among the first to witness it. She studied and photographed it; caused scandal by rearranging parts of it in line with her own artistic vision. But one truly senses the kinship between these two artists who never met, and the poignancy and pathos of their vision; generations apart, the one armed with paintbrush and the other with a camera.

The second sequence of interest is the one which opens and closes the book: Iturbide in the Sonoran desert in 1979, an ascetic space in which the sparse beauty and dignity of two of her most characteristic subjects — Indigenous women, and birds — come together. There are other moments of interest in this very short book; the effect is one of snapshots from the creative life of its subject.

Graphic narratives exploring the lives of photographers offer a uniquely valuable approach to their subjects; an often superior one to that of prose biography. When an artist interprets a photographer’s work through art and prose together, there’s a deeper level of insight to be gained, and that strength is superbly achieved in both of these books. Their joint weakness lies in their brevity, and the resultant abbreviation of the fullness of their subjects’ lives and creative oeuvre. Nevertheless, they offer inspiring tributes to their subjects, as well as a powerful reminder of the pervasive sexism which has denied far too many women photographers the credit they deserve.

RATING 8 / 10