Trotsky in Copenhagen

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In November 1932, Robert Capa was just a darkroom boy working at Dephot (a famous photoagency that the time). His mentor had sent to him Copenhagen to cover a speech being given there by the exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Capa remembered what was to be his first published story:

The newspapers carried a story that Trotsky would speak in Copenhagen. My bosses were excited — but, when they looked around, they saw they had sent all the photographers out to cover events that were happening in Germany. I was the only one there. They said, “Go!”

My departure was a comedy. I got an old passport and no visa. They bought me a first-class ticket and I traveled stylish like a minister. When the conductor came to inspect the passport and visa — I took out a menu card from a restaurant and gave it to him among many other important-looking papers — and he was baffled at first — but I talked faster and more than any first-class passenger he ever hand and he nodded finally and passed on. 

No one could take pictures because Trotsky never wanted to be photographed. There were photographers from all over the world with their big box cameras — none could get in. I had a little Leica in my pocket so no one thought I was even a photographer. When some workers came to carry long steel pipes into the chamber, I joined them — and my little Leica and I went to look for Trotsky. 

Here, we must pause to reflect. Capa was later to be a great self-promotor as well as a great photographer.  The first anecdote about his editors sending the humble darkroom boy was pure fabrication; while it was his first assignment, he was being mentored throughly at Dephot and Trotsky’s speaking arrangement in Copenhagen was well advertised ahead. The second anecdote Capa borrowed from his tall-tale-loving father. As for sneaking into the conference hall, he didn’t have to do this for he had a ticket for Trotsky’s lecture. Only in May 1936, he finagled his way into a meeting at which Leon Blum was speaking such.

This episode highlights the difficulty in trusting even photographers’ accounts about their famous photos.  They like any other human beings misremember, conceal and prevaricate. However he took those photos, Capa’s skills were clear: he positioned himself near the speaker and clandestinely snapped a series of photographs that captured the energy of the impassioned Russian orator and the drama of the moment. Berlin’s Der Welt Spiegel devoted a full page to Capa’s photographs.

Splotches and fissures in the above image (which is the most famous of Capa’s Trotsky images) was the result of a damage to the photographic negative. It was a broken image of a broken man, as Time magazine recalled.

Lenin Speaks to the Troops

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On May 5th 1920, during the Bolshevik Revolution, this photograph was taken of Vladimir Lenin atop a platform, speaking to the troops on the Sverdlov Square in front of the Bolshoi Theater. The soldiers are about to depart for the Polish front to fight Marshal Pilsudski’s forces, which had recently invaded Ukraine. In the original photo, Trotsky (and Kamenev partly obsured behind Trotsky) can be seen standing beside the platform on Lenin’s left side. The original was taken by G. P. Goldshtein.

The subsequent falsification of this photo was probably the first and certainly the most famous example of Stalinist retouching. When power struggles within the revolution forced Trotsky out of the party 7 years later he was “retouched” out of the picture (Figure 2).  Using paint, razors, and airbrushes, Soviet photo artists made several altered versions of the picture.

The original photo, which achieved the iconic status while Lenin was alive and Trotsky still had power, was published throughout the world. It became as much as symbol of the revolutionary Russia as the hammer and sickle or the red flag. After Troksky’s downfall, the photograph was never again shown in its entirety in the USSR even during the Gorbachev years.

For full details, see The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia (1997).

Trotsky, Rivera and Breton

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This photo of Leon Trotsky, Diego Rivera, and André Breton was taken by Fritz Bach in 1938. Diego Rivera supported Trotsky, alienating himself from the Communist mainstream in Mexico; he requested the Mexican President Cardenas to grant Trotsky’s asylum. The Russian and his wife Natalia lived with Rivera and wife Frida Kahlo, rent-free and under 24-hour guard, for the next two years.

Breton, a member of the French Communist Party from 1927 to 1935, who had previously worked with Trotsky to create the International Federation of Independent Revolutionary Art, was visiting from Paris. This is the famous trip where Kahlo was ‘discovered’ by Breton. At Breton’s invitation, Kahlo went to France the next year and was featured at an exhibition of her paintings inParis. (The Louvre bought one of her paintings, The Frame, the first work by a 20th century Mexican artist ever purchased by the internationally renowned museum.) However, Breton didn’t care much about Kahlo–he didn’t even bother to pick Frida who didn’t speak French at the French customs, but his wife Jacqueline Lamba did. Lamba and Kahlo were close friends and are rumored to have had an affair.

Active communist sympathizers, Kahlo and Rivera befriended Leon Trotsky as he sought political sanctuary from Joseph Stalin. Initially, Trotsky lived with Rivera and then at Kahlo’s home, where he had a brief affair with Kahlo. “Little Goatee” she called him, and dedicated her self-Portrait (“Between the Curtains”) as a birthday gift to Trotsky. However, Kahlo soon tired of him (by then, she was calling him, “The Old Man”) and Trotsky’s suspicious wife, Natalia. Trotsky and  Natalia then moved to another house in Coyoacán. After Trotsky’s assassination in 1940 by a Stalinist agent, Kahlo was questioned by police for suspected involvement in the murder. She knew the assassin, Ramon Mercader in Paris and invited him into Trotsky’s refuge in Coyoacán.