The Mexican Suitcase (La Maleta Mexicana). Directed by Trisha Ziff. Vienna: Autolook Films, 2011. 86 minutes.
Life in Stills. Directed by Tamar Tal. Tel Aviv: Heymann Brothers Films, 2011. 58 minutes.
Lives: Visible. Directed by Michelle Citron. New York: Women Make Movies, 2017. 35 minutes.
Finding Vivian Maier. Directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel. New York: IFC, 2013. 84 minutes.
The Importance of Historical Context When Considering the Photographic Archive
The notion that images have the power to “speak” on their own, free from the burden of additional information, is actively fostered by popular culture, where critical analysis of visual information is all too seldom pursued or encouraged. For educators of photography, history, various branches of cultural studies, or any field in which imagery is studied or produced, this romanticized version of photography presents a formidable problem. It can be difficult to convince students, at entry level in particular but often beyond, that while photographs may have the power to move and provoke, they can also be easily misunderstood or even misused, especially when crossing borders of race, class, gender, sexual identity, national origin, or time, all of which applies to the four films considered in this review. While an important photographic archive is the focus of each film, it becomes clear that the imagery might be misinterpreted or dismissed without the critical and historical framework that the keepers of the archive and the filmmakers provide. Together, the films emphasize the essential inclusion of context if photographs are to fully harness their potential power to make our histories more accurate and resist the possibility of misrepresentation.
Trisha Ziff's epic documentary, The Mexican Suitcase (La Maleta Mexicana),follows the intriguing journey of three boxes containing more than 4,500 negatives of the Spanish Civil War.1 The documentation was the work of three brave young photographers dedicated to the cause of the Spanish Republic, who were later credited with the invention of modern photojournalism for their endeavor: Robert Capa, David Seymore (“Chim”), and Gerda Taro. The negatives were lost for seventy years and then found in a closet in Mexico City by filmmaker Ben Tarver, with whom Ziff collaborated to ensure their delivery to the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York in 2007.2 Using the archive’s journey as a vehicle, Ziff traces the negatives from creation to discovery, offering a valuable history lesson on the Spanish Civil War along the way.
The film is made up of a series of interviews interspersed with imagery from the archive. Noted historians, artists, writers, photographers, war survivors, and young descendants of Spanish republicans, as well as curators and staff of the ICP, contribute to a compelling narrative, weaving the activities of photographers documenting the war with the history that inspired and necessitated this work. Elder Spanish exiles, still children during the war, preserve their ephemeral firsthand accounts within the film and remind us of the heroic role Mexico played as a safe haven for refugees when virtually every other nation, aside from the Soviet Union, abandoned them. Scenes of an archeological dig and interviews with archeologists and Spanish descendants hoping to find the bodies of their ancestors within potential mass graves serve as a powerful metaphor for unearthing the past—while providing a reflection on the erasure risked if documentation (written, photographic, testimonial) is absent.
Additional historical information about the photographers themselves could strengthen the film. While it credits Taro, killed in 1937, as the first woman war correspondent to die in action, it does not mention that Robert Capa was a pseudonym, created by both Taro and Capa, under which both photographed for a time at the start of their business partnership/romance.3 Moreover, as exiles, all three rebranded themselves in an attempt to escape the prejudice and risk attached to their Jewish names.4 A deeper discussion of these personal and political dimensions would have complicated the Capa veneer and revealed additional forms of injustice that dominated the early twentieth century. Nevertheless, the multifaceted historical value offered by The Mexican Suitcase far outweighs any shortcomings, making it a worthwhile inclusion in an educational setting.
Life in Stills is a complex film that explores the intricacies of family relationships while interrogating the competing value of history and progress.5 Miriam Weissenstein and her grown grandson, Ben Peter, run the PhotoHouse (established 1936) in Tel Aviv, Israel, which now stands in the way of city plans to construct a high rise on the site. From their archive of over one million negatives taken by famed photographer Rudi Weissenstein—also Miriam's late husband—they sell prints to sustain the studio. These images lead us through the changing face of Tel Aviv, emphasizing the historical significance of his work.
Miriam, keenly observant, strong-willed, and with an admirably dry sense of humor, is also pessimistic and critical, making her a challenge to appreciate early on. Over time we come to recognize that she herself embodies a potent historical archive. When Ben shares a newly designed PhotoHouse website, Miriam notes exactly what has been cropped out of background photos, implying that her memory contains detailed knowledge of the entire collection. However, when a terrible personal loss is disclosed midway through the film, it becomes clear that Miriam and Ben have constructed different narratives around their shared memories. A turning point occurs when the two attend a celebratory opening reception in Germany featuring a selection of the photographs from their archive. We witness a heart-to-heart discussion during which they reach an understanding, if not agreement, about the events of their past. Through these two senses of an archive—photographic images and personal memories—Life in Stills prompts viewers to consider how archival meaning and value are continually constructed and reconstructed. It is important to note that the firm resolve of Miriam and Ben, their insistence upon the worth of their archive, ultimately leads to its preservation, rather than the inherent value of the imagery on its own.
Of the four films, Michelle Citron's Lives: Visible, differs most in form, merging elements of art film with documentary.6 At first it seems the piece might follow a traditional narrative about Norma Roos (Norm) and Virginia Kaitchuck (Virgie), who shared their lives together in Chicago for almost fifty years. Gradually, it becomes clear that the over two thousand snapshots, casually collected by the couple, are the focus—and their archive is far more important than Norm and Virgie might have ever imagined. The film is divided into seven sections, each named after photographic terminology: Image, The Viewfinder, The Frame, Exposure, Develop, The Snapshot, and The Archive. Transition points, marked with silent scenes of couples interacting, shot in the style of vintage home movie footage complete with projector sound effect, add color to the black and white palette.
Norm and Virgie came of age during the pre-Stonewall 1940s, when many lesbians identified as either butch or femme, and the film explains the context for these forms of self-presentation using various strategies, including Citron's narrative in voiceover and letters from the archive read by contemporary women from the LGBTQ community. Young and vital, they serve as living counterparts to those imaged in the collection, creating a direct lineage between the generations.7 Snapshots of Norm and Virgie, along with their friends, swimming at the lake, dressed up for events, gathered at parties, are carefully analyzed. Dispersed throughout the film, three historically significant stories (written and voiced by women other than Citron) offer testimony of a time when same sex relationships were far less acceptable and inherently risky. These women were “hidden” in plain view, and without collections like Norm and Virgie’s their erasures would be even more profound. Citron notes, “By the end of the 1940s, two billion snapshots were taken annually in the US. . . . Without the Brownie Camera, I couldn't see this: an image of a community.” Yet, Citron observes, “Lesbians, being implausible, were invisible.” And this invisibility could, perhaps paradoxically, be exacerbated through images: had the images been separated, they would have lost their significance. Citron explains, “If I had only this one snapshot, if I had found it at a bin in a thrift store, I may think they were sisters or best friends. . . . It's the box of snapshots, the sheer number that gives them meaning.”
The importance of this film lies not only in the revelation of an incredible archive but also in Citron's careful situating of the images within the history and culture of the period. Lives: Visible serves as a sort of revisionist history; the photos prove that a community thrived during a time when its very existence was deemed unacceptable. Photographing their lives normalized them. Using their Brownie cameras, these women were simply documenting their experience, just like everyone else, yet, in retrospect, the mere taking of these snapshots feels like an act of defiance.
As a point of comparison, Finding Vivian Maier offers an example of what can go wrong when opinion and conjecture take the place of in-depth research and historical analysis. At a 2007 auction, filmmaker John Maloof purchased the contents of a storage locker that contained the negatives of the previously unknown Vivian Maier. He found her obituary in 2009, became intrigued, and purchased more of her collection. Gradually, he built fame for the work that the deeply private Maier was unable (or perhaps had no desire) to achieve.8 Because Maier’s archive roughly coincides historically with two of the three previously discussed, screening the first three films, then following up with Finding Vivian Maier would provide students with an interesting opportunity to analyze the different stylistic choices used by the filmmakers.
Despite the compelling storyline, the film’s narrative and historical framing raises some concerns. First, it implies that Maloof is the subject of an outside filmmaker's interest when in fact he is the cowriter and codirector. He casts himself in the role of “investigator,” tracing clues to reveal the woman behind the 150,000-photograph archive, ultimately emerging as the “hero” who rescues Maier's work from obscurity. Completely absent are the historians, gender studies scholars, and/or sociologists who might have shed light on both the contrived mystery surrounding Maier's lack of fame and economic success and have offered context for the images’ significance. An entirely different narrative might have been spun with the inclusion of these voices. Instead, Maloof incorporates interviews with a seemingly random entourage of Maier’s passing acquaintances as well as the parents and grown children for whom she served as nanny. All provide “testimony” of Maier's supposed strangeness, to which the film attributes her obscurity. They, along with Maloof, also repeatedly express astonishment that a driven, prolific artist spent most of her life working as a nanny for wealthy families. Such a view ignores the reality that, as a working class woman in the 1950s, Maier lacked the leisure time and disposable income that Maloof, a well-connected white male from a privileged background, experiences more than sixty years later. As a result, one is left with the uneasy sense that self-promotion and entertainment value drive this endeavor, rather than any sincere desire to contextualize Maier's truly outstanding work.9
The films reviewed here all reflect on the important role that images play when considered within a larger archive and a broader historical context. The crucial role of the archivist is also emphasized in addition to the fact that all photographs have the potential to gain cultural value, even if their significance remains unrealized until years after the moment the image was captured. Considering all of this, it seems important to ask what, if anything, will remain of our contemporary image archives? Negatives have become a rarity. Digital files are only as durable as the devices onto which they are stored. What important documentation, necessary for the health and progress of future generations, might be preserved. . . or lost? What sort of histories might become attached to them? Will those histories be accurate? With the very nature of truth and facts in question, who will become the keeper of our image archives? And is there one accurate version, or are there just different versions of history? The selections discussed here, along with the questions they raise, have the potential to foster a wealth of vital discussion in the classroom.
1 An article by Dan Kaufman focuses on the history of the Spanish Civil War as revealed by these photographs: “A Secret Archive: On the Mexican Suitcase,” The Nation, January 5, 2011.
2 The two-volume catalogue that accompanied the exhibition The Mexican Suitcase at the ICP features high-quality reproductions of all 4,500 negatives plus copious supplemental information. It would be useful for both historical and photographic research and teaching. It is out of print but can be purchased secondhand through outlets such as eBay (Cynthia Young, ed., The Mexican Suitcase: The Rediscovered Spanish Civil War Negatives of Capa, Chim, and Taro [New York: International Center of Photography, 2010]). If a copy of the catalogue cannot be obtained, I recommend the following review: Rachel Verbin, “Book Review: The Mexican Suitcase: The Rediscovered Spanish Civil War Negatives of Capa, Chim, and Taro,” Notes de Lecture, December 2011.
3 For an excellent resource on Gerda Taro, see Jane Rogoyska, Gerda Taro: Inventing Robert Capa (London: Jonathan Cape, 2013).
4 Rogoska, Gerder Taro.
5 Nirit Anderman, “Through a Lens, Gently,” Haaretz, May 20, 2011; Patricia Golan, “Passing Down a Visual Legacy,” Jerusalem Post, October 12, 2020; Jessica Steinbert, “Huge Pre-state Photo Collection Gets New Life with Third-Generation Owner,” Times of Israel, September 5, 2020.
6 Lives: Visible is a companion piece to Michelle Citron’s 2014 film, Leftovers, which provides more in-depth information on the final years of Norma Roos (Norm) and Virginia Kaitchuck (Virgie). Both films can be purchased as a set through Women Make Movies.
7 Tim Fawn’s thoughtful article “Photography and the Disruption of Memory and Meaning” addresses photographs as they impact experience and memory (Ubiquity: The Journal of Pervasive Media 3, no. 1-2 ). It could supplement Lives: Visible and also encourage discourse for either a beginning photography or a photography theory course, or as a primer for non-image-based majors dealing with photographic material.
8 For more on the life of Vivian Maier, see Pamela Bannos, Vivian Maier: A Photographer's Life and Afterlife (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017). Bannos uses images from Maier’s entire archive, along with exhaustive historical research, to trace her history. Her book stands in direct opposition to the conclusions Maloof and Siskel present.
9 Rose Lichter-Marck examines Finding Vivian Maier and offers different conclusions from those expressed in the film. She notes that it isn’t clear that Maier was ever seeking fame and suggests that perhaps Maier was just fine with her life the way it was. Maier appeared to find pleasure in the process of taking the images and chose a lifestyle, albeit a precarious one, that allowed her to pursue her practice. See “Vivian Maier and the Problem of Difficult Women,” New Yorker, May 9, 2014.