Harry Randall: Photographer who served in the Spanish Civil War

 

A headless corpse of an enemy soldier slumped forward in a captured trench; a shallow frontline grave of piled-up stones with two unevenly shaped planks of wood as a makeshift cross; a serious-looking bespectacled young soldier pounding away on a typewriter in the middle of an orange grove: these were just some of the hundreds of images that Harry Randall, official photographer for the XV International Brigade of anti-fascist volunteers, captured during Spain's Civil War.

Randall had a personal favourite: a shot of a large group of Brigaders sleeping on railway station platforms and benches, one of them so exhausted from the day's march he is slumped on the tracks, using a rail as a pillow. As he once reflected, "They could be an army anywhere."

But the International Brigades were no ordinary military organisation. Outside Spain, the Spanish Civil War from 1936-39 is often described as a dress rehearsal for the Second World War, and as a teenager Randall had been involved in supporting labour movements and the struggle against fascism near his college at Portland, Ohio. Aged 21, he was one of tens of thousands of volunteers who travelled to Spain to fight for the fledgling Republican democracy against General Franco's forces and his German and Italian backers.

Arriving in Spain on 1 July 1937, after a brief spell training with the MacKenzie-Papineau Battalion –Canadian, but containing a large number of Americans – Randall was appointed head of the photographic section of the XV International Brigade, the unit which contained the largest number of English speaking volunteers. His official brief was to take photos for the Brigade's newsletter, Volunteer for Liberty, and distribute images to news outlets and agencies: but the actual extent of his work was far broader than that.

The compact 35mm camera and lightweight movie cameras were two innovations of the time that permitted cameramen and photojournalists suddenly to get much closer to "live" miitary action. Robert Capa's "Fallen Militiaman" photo, perhaps the Civil War's best-known photograph and seemingly taken at the exact moment a militiaman was killed by enemy fire, was a case in point.

Armed with such technology, Randall's tiny unit – Randall, Benjamin Katine and Anthony B Drossel and thelab technician William H Oderaka – recorded images of war with an immediacy that had rarely been possible before. Sometimes their photographs are harrowing, sometimes touchingly human, sometimes (like the soldier typing in an orange grove) almost surreal.

The quantity and quality of their output was all the more remarkable given that the Brigade was never in the same war zone for more than a few months, and often flung into the bloodiest of battles. A dearth of film and printing paper was one regularly recurring obstacle for Randall and his men; working in a mobile lab was another, while just reaching the Brigade's lines a third: "We are frequently located in a town some distance from any other Brigade unit." Randall said in a 1938 account that appears in Cary Nelson's book on Civil War photography, The Aura Of The Cause. " Where and what to eat then becomes [a] problem."

During one relentlessly long retreat across southern Aragon in the spring of 1938, much of the photographic unit's work, not to mention their best camera, was lost. "We found ourselves acting as runners, ammunition carriers, guards, observers, anything that was needed during those chaotic days," Randall recalled.

However, more than enough of Randall's archive survived to show how, as Nelson puts it, "Thousands of volunteers from some fifty countries had gathered... to defend an ideal. They thought of themselves not merely as an army but also as a kind of community, almost an alternative social order... The job of the photographers was to record the whole culture, not only for posterity but for the men and women themselves."

The unit’s photos, of which some 1,800 are extant,  also provided a record of a key moment in American race relations. In the Civil War – for the first time in American military history – there was no segregation, and black officers commanded white troops, fighting and dying alongside them. With the War all but lost and the Brigades disbanded, Randall returned to New York in January 1939, taking with him the bulk of the unit’s photographic and film material. It now forms part of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives.

It says a lot about Harry that he insisted that the photographic archive be named after his unit, rather than just himself, as was originally proposed,” points out researcher Juan Salas, who first met Randall back in 2001. “He never wanted to take all the credit. He was a very meticulous person, very lucid and analytical with his own work, but warmhearted, open and tolerant, too, of new ideas.” Randall rarely talked about the Spanish Civil War and when he did  “it was rational, in a way too rational. It was maybe his way of dealing with the war.

Still politically committed, Randall volunteered for the Canadian army in the Second World War (once again editing films for his unit) before returning to the US. He then spent the last part of his working life making medical documentaries, which included directing films for the American Cancer Society. However, Harry Randall will arguably be best remembered for photos like that of an anonymous Civil War soldier, asleep on a railway track somewhere in Spain.

Harry Randall, photographer, film-maker and anti-fascist activist: born Spokane, Washington, US 20 December 1915; married 1956 Doreen Cavalier (two children); died Snowflake, Arizona 11 November 2012.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Ashdown Group: Senior .Net Developer - Kingston Upon Thames, Surrey

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A long-established, technology rich ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable