Shots of War: Photojournalism During the Spanish Civil War
Introduction Date Place People News Agency War Damage

Introduction: The Spanish Civil War and War Photography in the 1930s

Text and arrangement by Matt Crawford

On July 17, 1936, several officers of the Spanish military initiated an uprising against their own Republican government in Spanish-held Morocco. Additional planned uprisings by other disaffected military officers were staged in major towns and cities throughout mainland Spain at the behest of General Mola in the following days. As the summer of 1936 wore on, General Francisco Franco took the reigns of the military coup and it became clear that Spain was embroiled in a civil war as the country fractured geographically and ideologically along Nationalist and Republican lines.

The significance of the Spanish Civil War as major event in Spanish and European history is well-known. Beyond the implications of the civil war in terms of Spain's own history, the war is viewed, retrospectively, as a prelude to the larger ideological conflicts between fascism, communism, and democracy that eventually consumed all of Europe in World War II. The Spanish Civil War is also remembered as a testing ground for new techniques and technologies of both twentieth-century warfare - as immortalized in the bombing of Guernica - and twentieth-century media as represented by the rise of war photography and photojournalism.

In addition to being an important political event of the twentieth century, the Spanish Civil War was the catalyst for some of the most dramatic imagery of the last century. Among the most striking images are photographs of the war and its effects. Robert Capa's "Death of a Loyalist Militiaman" (1937) is perhaps the most iconic photograph from the Spanish Civil War and remains one of the most acclaimed war photographs of the twentieth century. Capa and the other well-known photographers of the period, such as Gerda Taro and David Seymour, are often cited as the primary representatives of early twentieth-century war photography. Undoubtedly, the contribution of Capa, Taro, Seymour and other famous photographers was significant. Yet, focusing solely on the work of well-known photographers tends to obscure from our historical view the work that many other, often anonymous, photographers contributed. With one exception, all of the works here are anonymous aside from a copyright stamp by the news photo agency.

Several of the major news photo agencies of the 1930s deployed photographers who were just as close to the front lines and just as vital as in the dissemination of images of the Spanish Civil War to the rest of the world. These photographers were present throughout the duration of the Spanish Civil War from the initial uprisings in the summer of 1936 to the ultimate collapse of the Spanish Republican government in April of 1939. Consequently, the visual coverage of the conflict was unprecedented. As Susan Sontag explains in a recent article in the New Yorker (December 9, 2002), "the Spanish Civil War was the first war to be witnessed ('covered') in the modern sense: by a corps of professional photographers at the lines of military engagement and in the towns under bombardment, whose work was immediately seen in newspapers and magazines in Spain and abroad."

Much of the new close-up-action style of war coverage can be attributed to advances in photographic technology. News photographers at the front lines were armed with small, portable 35mm cameras, such as the Leica, which could take thirty-six photographs before being reloaded. These cameras - freed from the constraints of a tripod and long film exposure times - allowed photographers to get closer to the action than ever before. In addition newspaper and magazine publishers were increasingly interested in having photographs accompany their news articles. One result of the new interest in photographs of world events was the creation and rise of picture magazines in the 1930s, some of which reported the news entirely in photographs with minimal text to explain the images.

In a recent article on twentieth-century war photography, Michael Griffin discusses the rise of photography and its consequences for war reporting. He writes, "During the course of the twentieth century, photography as a medium slowly and haltingly gained legitimacy as an art form, as professional practice, and as a serious subject of study. Concomitantly, photojournalism asserted itself as an increasingly legitimate, even indispensable, part of the popular press." Although many producers and consumers of the news in the 1930s often dubbed photographs more objective than text in terms of depicting the truth of an event, Griffin observers that "photojournalism emerged as an established practice, albeit one that loosely straddled conventional notions of documentary, news, information, opinion, publicity, and propaganda." As Griffin indicates, even at the time photography was introduced as a form of representing events, there was some question as to the function photographs as either objective documents or subjective propaganda or both.

Since the 1960s and 1970s, scholars of journalism and communications media have been re-evaluating claims of the objectivity of photographs. For instance, in her 1995 essay on the rise of photography in American journalism, Barbie Zelizer notes a lack of attention to the subjectivity of photographs. She writes, "The general function of interpretation has rarely been incorporated into discourse about the photograph, which has tended instead to privilege the image as a 'transcription from reality.'" Many scholars of media and communications, like Zelizer, have been tracing the historical roots of claims about the representational truth of a photograph. Zelizer localizes the rise of claims about the truthfulness of photographs to their use in journals and newspapers of the 1930s and 1940s. In this period, claims of truth and objectivity were fundamental to establishing the legitimacy of photography as a journalistic practice. Zelizer notes that "photojournalists have been thought to offer a 'visual expansion' of journalistic practice, one that appears to increase the truthfulness of news and extend the adage that 'the camera does not lie' to journalism's primary authority, the reporters."

In early days of photojournalism, Zelizer explains that journalists often convinced photojournalists to emphasize photographs as truthful objective representations. The intent was to keep popular understanding of photographs in line with that of the transparent objectivity of the text in news in general. Ironically, war photographs were hardly ever published alone. The images were almost always accompanied by text describing the scene in spite of journalists and photojournalists arguments about the stand-alone truth and transparent objectivity of photographs. Image and text seem to have developed a symbiotic relationship in which they were construed as reinforcing the objective "truth" of each other. Apparently, editors, publishers, and journalists felt that, in practice, photographs needed the interpretive apparatus of a caption in order to ensure that the audience was seeing the image as intended. Limiting interpretation would prove to be especially important for ideologically slanted publications such as those in Britain that tried to woo audiences to the side of either Republican or Nationalist Spain. As evidence of this trend, the photographs of this collection, in addition to bearing editorial marks on the photos themselves, are all accompanied by short captions describing or explaining the scene.

The years of the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, were a period in which stunning visual imagery emerged in Spain daily. Propaganda posters were deployed by both Nationalists and Republicans to recruit people to their cause. Similarly, periodicals throughout Europe, especially those in liberal democratic states like Britain and France, used photographs of the war for their own propagandistic ends.

In a recent pioneering study on the use of Spanish Civil War photographs in selected French and British periodicals, Caroline Brothers notes, "whether to intervene was a question theoretically tied to public opinion, at least in the foreign democracies, and since this opinion was informed at least as much by images as by text, the press photographs of the Spanish Civil War can be understood as weapons rather than simple illustrations." She continues on the importance of photographs in foreign democracies, "with seemingly everyone from writers to politicians to the Liverpudlian unemployed taking sides over Spain, the civil war took on an unprecedented urgency in the way it was lived and believed in and represented. More than any previous war and possibly any war since, photographs of Spain became images not just of but in conflict. And none of them was indifferent." Thus, the intensity of the photographs derives not only from what they depict but also from the politically and ideologically charged historical context out of which they emerged.

Although none of his work is represented here, Capa's famous photographs remain as some of the most compelling war images of the twentieth century. Even his contemporaries recognized the gravity of his images. This common perception of Capa's work is a testament to the popularity and legitimacy that war photography - dubbed photojournalism in the 1940s - gained throughout the Spanish Civil War. Both Capa's photograph "Death of a Loyalist Militiaman" and Picasso's Guernica exist as two of the most important images to emerge from the war. The fact that one of them was made in the relatively new (at the time) medium of war photography is emblematic of the increased importance and legitimacy war photography gained in the 1930s and thereafter. The photographs in this exhibit show us not only how early twentieth-century photographers visually represented the Spanish Civil War for the news photo agencies. They also reflect the rising importance of photography in the dissemination and representation of war in the early twentieth century.

Spanish Civil War Photographs in the Mandeville Special Collections Library [back to top]

As noted above, the photographs in this exhibit are the products of a junction between the trajectories of European political history and the history of media and communications. Interest in these photographs as artifacts of the twentieth century derives from their participation in both of these historical strands. These images are not only compelling because of what they represent - scenes from the Spanish Civil War. They are also compelling because of how they represent it. The photographs themselves exist as remnants of the practice of photojournalism and the representation of war in the early twentieth-century.

This exhibit contains the ninety-nine photographs that comprise a unit of the Spanish Civil War Collection held at Mandeville Special Collections Library at the University of California, San Diego. Acquired in 2002, the images are of the people and events of the war from 1936 to 1940. It is one of the most extensive on-line exhibits of Spanish Civil War photographs to date. All of the photographs were taken by photographers in the service of various news photography agencies - Associated Press, Keystone View Company, Planet News, World Wide Photos - of 1930s Britain. With the exception of one photograph, the photographs offer no indication of who the actual photographer was. Most simply bear the stamp of the photo agency. Some of the photographs have been identified as appearing in such French, British, and American newspapers and journals as Vu, L'Illustration, Daily Mail, The Illustrated London News¸ Life, and Photo-history. Also, several of the photographs have a caption clipped from a newspaper pasted on the back, which indicates that many of the images did appear in print. However, none of the captions bear any identifying marks to reveal in which specific periodical the photograph appeared.

These photographs represent another installment to the growing collection of visual art and imagery from the Spanish Civil War that the Mandeville Special Collections Library has acquired as part of the Southworth Spanish Civil War Collection. The images in this exhibit take their place alongside two other extensive collections of Spanish Civil War visual imagery: a collection of over 600 drawings made by Spanish school children and a collection of eighty-four graphic propaganda posters. In addition, these visual images are a nice complement to the extensive textual collection of over 13,000 books, pamphlets, periodicals, newspapers, posters, and manuscripts that make up the Southworth Spanish Civil War Collection.

Organization and Presentation
The photographs can be browsed chronologically, by geographic location, or thematically by people, news agency/photographer or war damage. The majority of photographs are images of people both combatants and civilians. The Nationalist and Republican armies as well as a few images of Italian infantries, Spanish communists, and the International Brigades comprise the major groups of combatants represented. The images of civilian life mostly depict refugees fleeing to France or England. There are also a number of miscellaneous images including photographs of political demonstrations and food distribution. Finally, there are a significant number of images of the war damage to physical structures in cities such as streets and buildings in Madrid and Barcelona and the Alcazar in Toledo. All ninety-nine photographs have been scanned on to the website. A large number of them have been "cleaned up" using Adobe® Photoshop® to eliminate editorial cropping marks, highlights, and airbrushing on the originals. Users can choose to view either the "cleaned up" version of photos or an image of the photos as they are with the editorial marks. A caption accompanies each photograph to give further details of what is depicted. All captions are contemporary with the photographs and have been copied from those pasted on the backs of the photographs. These captions are in the form of either newspaper clippings or typed descriptions written, presumably, by a member of the news photo agency or of the periodical that published the photo. Almost all photographs bear the stamp of the photo agency which originally took the picture. Where possible these have been identified so that the images can be browsed by news agency/photographer.

Roger record of originals

Bibliography [back to top]
Related Works Available in the Mandeville Special Collections Library

500 fotos de la guerra. Prólogo de Francisco de Cossío. Valladolid, Imprenta Castellana, 1937.

Capa, Robert. Death in the making, by Robert Capa. Translated by Jay Allen, preface by Jay Allen, arrangement by André Kertesz. New York, Convici-Friede, 1938.

Capa, Robert and David Seymour-Chim. Les Grandes Photos de la Guerre d'Espagne. Texte de Georges Soria. Paris : Jannink, 1980

Espinosa de los Monteros, Narciso and Manuel Gómez Moreno, eds. 139 fotografías del Movimiento Nacional en Sevilla. [Sevilla : Impr. F.E., [between 1936 and 1939?].

Mitchell, David J. The Spanish Civil War : Based on the Television Series. London ; New York : Granada, 1982.

Salvador, Tomas. La guerra de España en sus fotografías. Barcelona, Ediciones Marte 1966.

Southworth, Herbert. Guernica! Guernica! : A Study of Journalism, Diplomacy, Propaganda, and History. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1977.

War in Spain. [New York]: Photo-history, 1937.

Work and War in Spain; Photographs by: Keystone Press Agency, Wide World Photos, Associated Press Photos, Planeta News Ltd., Altavoz del Frente. London: The Press Department of the Spanish Embassy in London, 1938.

Further Reading on the Spanish Civil War and the History of War Photography
History of the Spanish Civil War

Esenwein, George and Adrian Shubert. Spain at War: the Spanish Civil War in Context, 1931-1939.

Graham, Helen. The Spanish Republic at War, 1936-1939. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Jackson, Gabriel. A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War. New York: The John Day Company, 1974.

Thomas, Hugh. The Spanish Civil War. New York : Harper & Row, c1977.

Photography, War Photography, and Photojournalism

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: The Noonday Press, 1981. Original French edition, 1980.

Barthes, Roland. Image, Music, Text. Essays selected and translated by Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

Benjamin, Walter. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," in: Illuminations. Edited and with an introduction by Hannah Arendt. Translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Schoken Books, 1969, pp. 217-252.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Photography: A Middle-Brow Art. With Luc Boltanski, Robert Castel, Jean-Claude Chamboredon and Dominique Schnapper. Translated by Shaun Whiteside. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990. Original French edition, 1965.

Brennen, Bonnie and Hanno Hardt, eds. Picturing the Past: Media,History, and Photography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Brothers, Caroline. War and Photography: A Cultural History. London: Routledge, 1997.

Capa, Robert. Heart of Spain: Photographs of the Spanish Civil War. New York: Aperture, 1999. Capa, Robert. Robert Capa: Cuadernos de Guerra en España (1936-1939). Valencia : Sala Parpalló, Diputación Provincial de Valencia, c1987.

Hardt, Hanno and Bonnie Brennen. Newsworkers: Towards a History of the Rank and File. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.

Images of the Spanish Civil War. Introduction by Raymond Carr. London : Allen & Unwin, 1986

No Pasarán! : Photographs and Posters of the Spanish Civil War : an Arnolfini exhibition. Selected by Rupert Martin and Frances Morris; organized by Frances Morris. Bristol: Arnolfini Gallery, 1986.

Sekula, Allan. "Reading an Archive." in: Brian Wallis, ed. Blasted Allegories: An Anthology of Writings by Contemporary Artists. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987, pp. 114-128.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Picador, 2001. First edition, 1977.

Footnotes [back to top]

1 Susan Sontag, “Looking at War: Photography’s View of Devastation and Death,” volume 78, issue 38 The New Yorker, pp. 82-98.
2 Michael Griffin, “The Great War Photographs: Constructing Myths of History and Photojournalism,” in: Bonnie Brennen and Hanno Hardt, eds. Picturing the Past: Media,History, and Photography. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999), p. 123.
3 Griffin, p. 124.
4 Barbie Zelizer, “Words against Images: Positioning Newswork in the Age of Photography,” in: Hanno Hardt and Bonnie Brennen. Newsworkers: Towards a History of the Rank and File. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), p. 136.
5 Zelizer, p. 136
6 Caroline Brothers, War and Photography: A Cultural History (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 2.