Past Image Photography

Photography in the Spanish Civil War

Photography in the Spanish Civil War


The Spanish Civil War (1936-8) saw the birth of modern war photography  with work being undertaken both by civilian reporters and by military photographers attached to army units.  The introduction of small 35m cameras, notably the Leica, and fast shutter speeds allowed unstaged images at the heart of the action whilst there was equal concern for the social impact of the war.  A new outlet for the pictures came with the rise of the photo magazines of the 1930s such as Life and Vu.


The Republican government  commissioned the Catalan photo-journalist Agusti Centelles and the Hungarian Kati Deutsch (nee Horna) to document the war.  The images of Centelles  at least equal those of the more famous Robert Capa in both technical and artistic quality but also have an extraordinary intimacy with the subject as a native camarada. The work includes photographs from the front, uncompromising scenes of civilian casualties and a perticularly chilling shot of small boys playing at being an execution squad.   His work remained hidden until after the fall of Franco.   Kati Horna is even less well known.  She was a childhood friend of Robert Capa and photographed the Anarchist  militias and  particularly the lives of ordinary people affected by the war.



















Some photographers were attached to army units. The 15th International Brigade, which included the British Battalion, had its own small photographic unit with a mobile laboratory. The team consisted of Sgt Harry Randall as Chief Photographer, with Ben Katine and Tony Drossel as Photographers and William Oderaka as lab technician.  Their task was not to take dramatic action shots (more the province of the news media photographers) but rather to document the everyday life of the Brigade.  Other volunteers within the brigade a also took photographs (notably Vladimir Stefanovich) but the frequency with which the Brigade were forced to retreat and lost all of their equipment means that it was difficult to preserve their negatives.  Remarkably,  Sam Walters (a volunteer withthe Lincoln Battalion) did not develop one film for fifty years - because it contained images of the death of a comrade. The British 'Aid For Spain' organisation also commissioned Vera Elkan to document the training of the International Brigades between December 1936 and January 1937.  Within the Spanish units, Julio Souza Fernandez and Faustino del Castillo Cubillo of the Mayo Collective both served as photographers to their brigade newspapers.


A large number of civilian photographers covered the war for major news photo agencies and magazines.  Here the editors were looking for dramatic images that would encapsulate a story or present a particular  vision  of the conflict.  Many of the photographers saw themselves as part of the anti-fascist crusade rather than disinteredted reporters.  For the first time in warfare, photography was used to both reinforce and to shape puiblic opinion. The  best known are the foreign photographers  such Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, David ('Chim') Seymour who had contracts with international magazines.  Gerda Taro was killed during the war; Capa and Seymour went on to found the Magnum Photo Agency.  Less well known and appreciated  are the Spanish photo-journalists such as Paco and Candido Souza Fernandez from the Mayo Collective who worked for Spanish newspapers.  They did not have the same international exposure during the war and their work was suppressed under the Franco regime.


The notes above refer to the photographers reporting the war from the republican perspective.  Those reporters covering the war from the Nationalist side were subject to much more stringent censorship.  One reporter was executed and others were imprisoned or otherwise intimidated.  In particular they were not allowed to report the scenes of the mass executions of republican prisoners.


Details on specific models of cameras used  by photographers in the Spanish Civil War  remains sketchy. Jose  Esparza has now published online  a rermarkable piece of detective work to identify the models of Leicas used by Capa and Taro.  The following list is not exhaustive and any other information would be gratefully received (use Contact Form).


See also WW2 Photography and WW2 Cameras

Leica IIIA



The Leica was regarded as less rugged and more difficult to load than the Contax II but lighter.  Interchangeable lenses (standard for professionals was the 50mm F2 summar). 35mm film in cassettes.


The Leica is seen as the classic camera of the war.  It went through a process of rapid change in the 1930s.  It is likely that most Leicas used in Spain by professional photographers were a mix of II and III models.


A black  Leica II with a Elmar 5cm f/3.5 lens, upgraded to a Model III (addition of a slow speed dial), was used by Gerdas Taro  from February 1937 until her death in July 1937.   She also  used Capa's Leica III / IIIA from June 1937.


A Leica III   with a Summar 5cm f/2 lens, was used by  Robert Capa in 1936 before changing to a Contax II in June 1937.  Agusti Centelles also had a 1935  Leica IIIA, later modified with the addition of flash sync.


The Mayo Collective, Vera Elkan and David 'Chim' Seymour also used Leicas in Spain.  

Zeiss Contax II



The first camera with a combined range/viewfinder.  It was able to use interchangeable lenses and had an acccessory shoe for flash.


Speed to 1/1250.  Interchangeable lenses (standard is 50mm Sonar – F2 or F1.5).  35mm film in cassettes.


Favoured by many professional photographers of the time because of the combined rangefinder / viewer and its sturdier construction.   For his second visit to the spanish Civil War, Robert Capa switched to a Contax II from his Leica.

Rolleiflex Standard


Model 6RF:621  (1932)

Compur shutter to 1/300th. Tessar F3.8, 75mm (6RF:622 model had F3.5 lens and speed to 1/500th).


Twin reflex camera using 120mm film and taking 12 exposures  6x6cm.  


A Rolleiflex Standard was used in the Spanish Civil War by Gerda Taro during 1936-7 and by David 'Chim' Seymour during  1936-8 (alongside his Leica).



Tom Beck, David Seymour (Chim), Phaidon, 2005

Caroline Brothers, War and Photography,  Routledge, 1997

Agusti Centelles, Agusti Centelles: Photobolsillo, La Fabrica, 2010

Vera Elkan, Images on-line via the Imperial War Museum website

J.M.S. Esparza, Elrectanguloenlamano, 2011

Kati Horna, Fotografias de la Guerra Civil Espanola 1937-8, Salamanca, Ministerio de Cultura, 1992

Kati Horna, Online Exhibition, Spanish Ministry of Culture

Cary Nelson, The Aura Of The Cause: a photo album for North American Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War,  ALBA, 1997

I. Schaber, R. Whelan and K. Lubben (eds),  Gerda Taro, ICP/Steidl, 2007

Spanish Embassy, Work and War in Spain, London, 1937 and  1938

Richard Whelan, This Is War: Robert Capa at work,  ICP/Steidl, 2007

Cynthia Young and David Balsells, The Mexican Suitcase: the legendary Spanish Civil War negatives of Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour, Steidl, 2010

rolie_standard_web Leica IIIA Contax II leica_flag fed-1

Fed-1 A-C



Model illustrated:  Fed 1C (1937-9)

Speeds to 1/500.  F 3.5 50mm Industar-10 lens. f3,5. Copy of Leitz  Elmar.


Soviet copy of 1932 Leica II.  Production of the FED camera began in 1934 in a Ukranian factory under the control the NKVD (State Security Service).


The Soviet Union was the main supplier of arms to the Spanish Republic.  Did they also provide cameras?  Some Fed-1 cameras entered Spain  before or during the war. Members of the Spanish Communist Party who had visited the USSR before the outbreak of war were sometimes given a Russian camera as a leaving gift.  It is likely that  some were also  brought to Spain by Soviet advisors during the war - especially as these included members of the NKVD themselves.  In 1961, Photographer Manuel Montenegro found a  a Fed-1 camera in the rubble of a building destroyed in the Spanish Civil War.


Kodak Retina II



 illustrated Type 142 (1937-9).  Speeds to 1/500.  F2.8 50mm Schneider-Xenon lens.


Compact, relatively cheap, 35mm  rangefinder camera made in Germany by Kodak AG.  Its small size and well-protected lens meant it was ideal for slipping nto a coat pocket.


The Canadian surgeon, Norman Bethune, pioneered the development of battlefield blood transfusions whilst working for the Republican medical service in 1937.  In 1938 he went to China to  help develop the medical services of the Communist forces fighting the Japanese.  he died there and specifically willed his Retina II to one of his comrades.  It is not known if he had also carried this camera in Spain.