Documenting the Spanish Civil War | Part One

A conversation with Raffaella Morini, picture researcher

Earlier this week I caught up with Italian-born picture researcher Raffaella Morini to discuss the sterling work she performed for our upcoming edition of Hugh Thomas’s The Spanish Civil War. First published in 1961 and significantly revised in 1977, Hugh Thomas’s narrative history is a masterpiece, and it remains one of the definitive accounts of this traumatic period in European history.

Raffaella’s job was to source the images for our edition – no easy task, given the broad timescale, complicated sequence of events and variety of key individuals discussed in the book – and the end result is more than 100 excellent photographs, presented in a sensitive and engaging manner. The images not only help lead the reader through the story, but are, in many cases, important historical documents in their own right.

For my part, Raffaella was an absolute pleasure to work with. Her enthusiasm for the subject is a key factor behind the success of her selection. On Monday evening we discussed the project over tea and cake at a coffee bar in St Martin’s Lane, Trafalgar Square. What follows is based on the notes I took of our conversation.

Republican soldiers resting against a wall covered in right-wing slogans and symbols during the battle of Brunete, July 1937. Photograph by Gerda Taro, July 1937. (© Gerda Taro/International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos)

So, Raffaella ... it’s been a while since we completed our work on the book. Would you mind telling me how you first approached this project, and what was special to you about it?

This project was quite special to me for two reasons. Firstly, it showed me how important this war still is in the minds of Spanish people, and how vivid the memory is. There are so many blogs, websites and forums in Spanish discussing the war; it can be quite overwhelming, as everyone has such strong opinions. I was not expecting this, and it made me even more concerned about doing the best job possible, to do this research justice.

Secondly, a lot of material has recently resurfaced, or is still resurfacing now; images that had been thought lost have been miraculously found. There are some extraordinary stories – the most famous being that of the Mexican Suitcase [a treasure trove of negatives by Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour which was rediscovered in 2007] – but there are also the personal stories of the photographers themselves, such as Agustí Centelles1. From a historical and picture research point of view, it is astonishing: you don't have a fixed number of images to look at, as the amount is always growing. The photographs take on a life of their own, which is scary ... but it also opens up lots of opportunities.

It is also very important to mention that there are many iconic images of the Spanish Civil War. There are also many famous images that were published at the time via the press agencies, by people desperate for their pictures to be seen and circulated – but we don’t always know for certain which photographers they should be attributed to. So it was important to me to make this photographic selection fresh, and to incorporate material which people hadn't seen before. And even though this book was first published a number of years ago, it is still one of the landmark books written on the Spanish Civil War.

You also managed to locate images from all sorts of unusual sources ...

Yes, wonderful sources, such as the Centro Documental de la Memoria Histórica in Salamanca, the Biblioteca Nacional de España, and the Arxiu Nacional de Catalunya. There is a huge amount of material in the archives in Spain which they are still in the process of digitising – it just takes so long because of the sheer amount of images they have. The Arxiu Nacional de Catalunya has the most material available online, and is a really good source to consult.

So you probably wouldn’t have been able to do the research properly without knowing Spanish?

No, I would not have been able to work on this book without [knowing] Spanish, as so many of the sources are Spanish. All the people I've spoken to in Spain have been really wonderful, and very happy to help. This war has got such a special meaning for them – it is so important to keep the memory of it alive.

I looked at loads of newspaper articles, previews of exhibitions about the civil war, and lots of blogs and websites to help me find pictures that would be really good, photographs which I hadn’t already seen in the picture libraries and were not so widely known. The photographs of Luis Ramón Marín are difficult to see – I found them through some reviews about an exhibition of his work2.

King Alfonso XIII dancing at the Venta de la Rubia stables in Madrid in 1916. Luis Ramón Marín enjoyed rare access to Spanish high society, including the royal family. His photographs capture a world which has now disappeared. Photograph by Luis Ramón Marín, 1916. (© DACS 2014)

It must have been very exciting whenever you found a wonderful photograph.

Yes – it was difficult to know when to stop! I knew I had to, because of the deadlines ... but I could have gone on forever, as there is so much material to rediscover. This period saw the birth of modern photojournalism – what we know of as photojournalism today – made possible by leaps forward in technology. For the first time photographers were able to capture the action that was taking place in front of their eyes, directly on the front line3. And the amount of talent these photographers had is incredible. Some really great names – international names – were there, these incredible photographers, such as Robert Capa and David Seymour, who then went on to shoot many other wars.

But not enough attention has been given to Spanish photographers: we ought to give credit to them too, the credit they deserve. This war was so close to home for them, so close to their hearts; they had so much more at stake. Of course, Gerda Taro gave her young life to this war [the German-Hungarian photojournalist was crushed by a tank in July 1937]. But the Spanish photographers had to deal with the devastating emotional effects this conflict had on their personal lives, and in many cases the outcome of the war changed their careers forever. Many photographers who had fought on the Republican side were not allowed to continue being photojournalists, for example.

I also tried to be representative and give the same amount of exposure to both sides. This was not easy as most of the famous photographers were Republican, and many of the images circulated in the English-speaking world came from the Republican side; these are the images we are used to seeing. But what is fascinating is how the author always manages to stay neutral. It would be so easy to start taking sides – but he doesn't. I think this is also why the book is so powerful. You've got to be able to judge by yourself, without preconceptions. Forget what you previously thought about this war: you've got to make your own judgement.

You’ve done a wonderful job and I’d like to thank you for all the hard work you’ve done on this project.

Folio has made it possible to show so many photographs; I was allowed to pick from whichever sources I wanted. This doesn't happen often due to the usual limitations in publishing with schedules and budgets. It's been a privilege to work with Folio.

A nun being evicted during the spate of attacks on churches and convents in Madrid on 11 May 1931. Photograph by Luis Ramón Marín, 11 May 1931; published in Nuevo Mundo, 15 May 1931. (© DACS 2014)

The Folio Society edition of Hugh Thomas’s The Spanish Civil War will be published in April 2014. Presented in two volumes, it contains two frontispieces and 64 pages of plate illustrations.

This is the first in a series of blog posts discussing the photographic legacy of the Spanish Civil War. I will be posting more on Footnotes in the coming weeks. I would also like to thank Hugh Thomas, Michael Alpert and Caroline Hotblack for their help in selecting, checking and ordering the images.

[1] A discussion of Centelles and his work will feature in Part 2.

[2] The work of Luis Ramón Marín (1884–1944) has only recently started to gain the wider recognition it deserves. His photographs were hidden away for decades after the end of the war due to their political content. The Fundación Pablo Iglesias in Madrid now holds 18,000 of his negatives.

[3] Of course photographs were taken during the Crimean War, American Civil War and First World War, albeit on more cumbersome cameras. The Spanish Civil War was the first war to be documented by professional photographers operating at the front line (Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, Penguin Books, London, 2004, p. 18).