Women at War – Three Pioneering Female Combat Photographers

Women at War – Three Pioneering Female Combat Photographers

1544 925 Josh Solomon

James was tired of hearing about Robert Capa, so he asked me to write an article profiling female combat photographers. Writing it seemed like a straightforward task, until it wasn’t. I picked three photojournalists, and right away their stories hit me hard as among the most personally affecting I’ve ever experienced.

Their lives were in many ways truly gut-wrenching vignettes of injustice, sexism, and tragedy. At the same time, they contain some of the greatest instances of bravery, wit, and ingenuity. To organize an article around our normal topics (gear, cameras, lenses) would be silly.

So, let’s take a closer look at, not the gear, but the lives and work of three women who changed war photography forever.

Gerda Taro

When we talk about the so-called “Mexican Suitcase,” a collection of over 4,000 film negatives made during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, there are three names that come up; Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, and Chim (David Seymour). Out of these three who contributed to the collection of the work, only one person lost their life – Gerda Taro.

Gerda Taro was born Gerda Pohorylle on August 1, 1910 in Stuttgart, Germany to a middle-class Jewish family. The story of her name change from Pohorylle to Taro is one of the most famous in photography, and involves one André Friedmann, who would later be known as Robert Capa. The two met in 1934 and, wanting to avoid the anti-semitism and xenophobia so prevalent in early 20th century Europe, they agreed to change their names and produce work together under new names.

The two, along with David Seymour (aka ‘Chim’) became famous for their coverage of the Spanish Civil War. All three were embedded firmly on the front lines, documenting the Republican cause while running through a hail of Nationalist bullets. Their up-close-and-personal style of shooting was quite literally revolutionary – never before had war photography actually documented what fighting in a war was really like. The invention and popularization of portable 35mm cameras enabled this style of shooting, and these three used these cameras to redefine war photography, and redefine the duty of a photojournalist.

Taro in particular became attached to the struggle, eventually traveling all over Spain to cover different conflicts without the company of either Capa or Chim. She became known for fearlessness on the battlefield, often sprinting across open ground and putting herself in great danger to achieve better angles for photos. Her contact sheets reveal as much, and her final images are breathtaking in both their realism and their proximity to the action. Unfortunately, this fearlessness may have contributed to her death. A woman of action, she died when she was thrown from a truck as it swerved to avoid an oncoming tank on July 26th, 1937.

Though she became well known and well regarded as a photojournalist before her death, her work was often attributed to her partner, Robert Capa. This perhaps isn’t surprising – earlier in their careers, both Taro and Capa made work to be attributed under the Capa name. However, Capa’s name continued to be attached to Taro’s when she started to distance herself from Capa. What’s worse is that much of her work (as well as Chim’s work) in the Spanish Civil War was posthumously credited to Robert Capa, further muddying the waters of her story and experience.

Despite a history marred by misattribution, the fact remains that Gerda Taro was one of the most revolutionary and fearless photographers in history. Through her lens the world got to know intimately the struggles and tragedies of the Spanish Civil War. She also pioneered a new method of covering war – getting right into the thick of it and fighting with her camera.

Taro’s photos can be seen on the Magnum website.

Lee Miller

Continuing chronologically we come to Lee Miller, one of the pre-eminent photographers of World War II. But reducing Miller to “war photographer” seems silly – a look at her past and upbringing reveals one of the most defiant and staunchly individual artists in recent history across any medium.

Lee Miller was born Elizabeth Miller on April 23, 1907 in Poughkeepsie, New York, the daughter of an amateur photographer named Theodore Miller. Tragedy would befall the young Elizabeth early, as she would be raped by a family friend at age seven, leaving scars both mental and physical. Theodore would compound this – after the incident, he began taking wildly inappropriate nude photographs of Elizabeth. The psychological scarring of her upbringing was significant and lasting, but she remained strong and determined to make a life for herself as a photographer.

Her path towards becoming a photographer came as a model. At age nineteen, Miller landed herself a spot on the cover of US Vogue magazine. Her modeling career eventually led to her working for Surrealist photographer Man Ray. Miller eventually convinced reluctant Man Ray to take her on as a photography student in Europe, thus starting her own career as a photographer. Over the next few years, Miller and Man Ray became lovers as well as collaborators, both developing the technique of photographic solarization together. During this time, Miller would also be involved artistically with the likes of Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, and Jean Cocteau. By 1932, her relationship with Man Ray had ended, and she returned to New York.

It was on her return to New York that she began her work as a photographer. She set up her own studio in which she shot everything from advertisements to surrealist art. The decade would see her hone her craft both in the studio and out of it, traveling as far as Egypt and back to Europe, slowly building up an extensive body of work along the way. These travels would eventually culminate in England, where she became a regular photographer and writer for British Vogue.

The breakout of World War II saw Miller become an official war correspondent for Vogue magazine in 1943. She teamed up with Life photographer David E. Scherman to document the 83rd Infantry Division of the US Army. Miller photographed the 83rd’s exploits from Normandy into Paris, but also chose to focus heavily on women’s experiences, choosing to photograph female nurses, officers, and civilians as they navigated the ruins of war and society in World War II. Miller’s photographs at this time are sympathetic, but raw and emotionally devastating. Her sympathy for the suffering combined with her experience with Surrealist art in decades prior gave her the perfect vocabulary to express the absurdity of war and the tragedy of its consequences.

Perhaps her most famous photographs at this time were her photos of the Holocaust, which turned out to be some of the first pieces of evidence of its very existence. She documented the atrocities at Buchenwald and Dachau with an unsparing eye and a ruthless tongue. Her photos of the concentration camps often contained piles of skeletal remains, the articles captioned with words like “The Germans Are Like This” and “Believe It”. Most famously, after having taken those photos, she broke into Adolf Hitler’s own apartment, took off her mud-stained clothes, soaked in his bath, and had her partner David Scherman take a picture of her in the bath. The story goes that she’d been in the Dachau concentration camp earlier in the day and made a point to wipe the dirt from that place onto Hitler’s bath mat.

Though Miller won the battle and the Allies won the war, Miller would sadly be forever scarred by what she saw in the war. She was diagnosed with what would now be known as post traumatic stress disorder, which was compounded by her already-traumatic childhood. This trauma would manifest itself into a severe alcoholism that would follow her to her death in 1977.

Miller’s legacy almost risked becoming lost to obscurity, but thanks to recent efforts (particularly from her son, Antony), we now know her incredible story and her impact on photography. And since production of a biopic starring Kate Winslet is in the works, it seems interest in Miller, her work and life, won’t be diminishing any time soon.

Catherine LeRoy

The photographers of the Vietnam War are, for the most part, relatively well known and well covered. Names like Don McCullin and David Douglas Duncan are some of the most revered in photography. But there was one photographer who didn’t quite get the shine the others did, although her images of the conflict are some of the greatest. Her name was Catherine LeRoy.

Catherine LeRoy’s journey to Vietnam starts the way a two-bit fiction writer would start it – with a Leica M2, a hundred dollars, and a one-way ticket from France to Saigon. Her professional record? Near nonexistent. Her press affiliation? Pfft. Her military background? Irrelevant. All she had was an innate drive to put a face on the suffering of soldiers and civilians affected by war, and an immense amount of photographic skill. Turns out it was all she needed.

LeRoy, a petite five-foot-nothing Frenchwoman, was about the furthest thing from a grizzled, war-hardened Vietnam photojournalist. As such, she experienced an incredible amount of sexism leading up to her involvement in the war. After securing an accreditation with the Associated Press, she obtained permission to make a parachute jump with US troops as a part of Operation Junction City. So unbelievable was this that rumors circulated that she slept with a colonel to obtain permission to jump when, in fact, she had earned her parachute license as a teenager in France and had already jumped eighty-four times.

This absurd rumor perhaps foreshadows LeRoy’s later experiences. Though fellow reporters and soldiers initially expected little from the diminutive LeRoy, she consistently defied expectations. She gained a reputation on the battlefield for her unique combination of fearlessness and empathy. She lived and stood alongside soldiers during the famously bloody battles at Hué and Khe Sanh, sleeping in the same foxholes, eating the same rations, even absorbing the same blows as she was hit by shrapnel while embedded with a Marine unit.

LeRoy’s photos of those famous battles portray perfectly the unique mix of chaos, confusion, and futility of the war in Vietnam. Looking at her work, she accomplished this by capturing soldiers at their most vulnerable, both on the battlefield and off of it. The greatest expression of LeRoy’s style came in a series of photos of Navy corpsman Vernon Wike holding a dying soldier in Khe Sanh. More than perfect photographic technique, the intimacy and humanity of the photos is LeRoy’s visual signature; we can find that same signature in all of her photos of the war.

One of LeRoy’s greatest accomplishments during the war came when, during the Tet Offensive, she was captured by the NVA along with French photojournalist Francois Mazure. She convinced her captors to set her and Mazure free, but before leaving, she insisted that she take pictures of them, explaining that “only one side of the story was being seen.” The photos were taken, and ran as the cover story LIFE magazine, the article being written by LeRoy herself.

After the war ended, LeRoy never stopped taking photos. She continued to cover conflict all over the world, earning a Robert Capa Gold Medal award for her coverage of the conflict in Lebanon in particular. But despite critical acclaim, LeRoy never got the sort of recognition her male peers enjoyed. In LeRoy’s case, she never actively sought fame or even recognition for her photos during her lifetime, choosing instead to put the emphasis on the humanity and inherent beauty of her subjects, and of the photos themselves. Catherine LeRoy passed away in 2006, but her legacy lives on through her striking photos of the Vietnam War and beyond.

A collection of LeRoy’s Vietnam photos

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Further reading and images can be found here – 

  1. Gerda Taro
    1. https://www.icp.org/browse/archive/constituents/gerda-taro?all/all/all/all/0
    2. https://www.magnumphotos.com/newsroom/politics/gerda-taro-first-woman-war-photographer-to-die-in-the-field/
  1. Lee Miller
    1. https://www.leemiller.co.uk/article/Artists/b4OcCNM2-8snMwHxWgoJ5Q..a?cl=b4OcCNM2-8snMwHxWgoJ5Q..a&woinst=9&wosid=630xeBAUT7DKD1CJ9LwOFw&ts=FLt33NtdYFlTq94bMyiP6g..a
    2. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/sep/19/lee-miller-a-womans-war-exhibition-imperial-war-museum-second-world-war-dachau-hitler
    3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lee_Miller
    4. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2015/sep/19/lee-millers-stunning-images-of-women-in-wartime-in-pictures
    5. http://www.artnet.com/artists/lee-miller/
    6. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-vogue-model-photographed-war-ii-surrealist-icon
    7. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Lee-Miller
    8. https://www.academia.edu/18642335/Framing_the_Holocaust_An_Analysis_of_Lee_Miller_s_Photographs_of_Buchenwald_and_Dachau
    9. https://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/meet_the_artist/from-the-cover-of-vogue-to-the-bathtub-of-hitler-lee-millers-fierce-and-fascinating-life-as-a-war-55960
  1. Catherine LeRoy
    1. https://www.icp.org/browse/archive/constituents/catherine-leroy?all/all/all/all/0
    2. https://dotationcatherineleroy.org/en/biography/biography-dates/
    3. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/03/28/opinion/vietnam-leroy-photoessay.html

Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon