Double magnum: the conception of Robert Capa and photojournalism

Double magnum: the conception of Robert Capa and photojournalism

Review of TARO, at the Brockley Jack Theatre 19 January – 16 February 2019

The defining moment of darkroom photo processing occurs in the tray of developer. In to this pungent liquid slides a white sheet of paper revealing no sign of infused light, or the anticipatory anxiety that wills its transformation. Seconds tick by before shapes and grayscale emerge. Form and detail often make an uncertain start, but eventually a semblance of that originally spied through the camera’s viewfinder appears in sharp relief.

It found myself reflecting on this antique process as I watched Ross McGregor’s TARO, produced by the Arrows and Traps Theatre at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre.

The play tells the story of Robert Capa, the arguable father of photojournalism – or more precisely the Jewish exile couple who invented ‘American photojournalist Robert Capa’ as a disguise from behind which they could achieve better rates for both their work. 

The cast of eight conjure the story Gerda Taro and her relationship with Endre Friedmann through fragmentary scenes, choreography and conceit. Enjoyable as these are, I spent a good portion of the 95 minute performance wondering if this dancing collage of grey and white, dreamy episodes and moments of fantasy could possibly coalesce. But as the conclusion approached, the subtle beauty and power of the whole revealed itself in a distilled moment to equal those for which Capa himself become so famous.

Historical narrative supplies the play’s furniture, but its theme is identity and its capacity to be at once self-determined and rooted in our backgrounds. Capa, of course, was a figment from the outset, but there were plenty more. Neither Taro or Friedmann were observant Jews, yet heritage, and anti-semitism shaped their imaginations.  And though they played instrumental roles in creating modern photojournalism with its apparently shocking veracity, both knew well how sometimes deceit is necessary to tell a powerful truth.

Issues of dispossession, identity and representation animate contemporary life every bit as much they did in the middle of the twentieth century. If TARO has a shortcoming it is that this continuum is not clearly signalled. That does not detract from the quality of this work, however, nor of the energetic and eminently capable cast.

Today, of course, few darkrooms remain, and the revolutionary impact of lone photographers framing our world view is subsumed by a tsunami of phone-captured snaps.  A reminder of the human gaze behind every recorded image, however, is all the more impactful for focusing on a time when a single exposure could change the world.