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
Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
News
Russia's President Vladimir Putin gives his annual televised question-and-answer session
peopleBizarre TV claim
News
The energy drink MosKa was banned for containing a heavy dose of the popular erectile dysfunction Levitra
news
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'
tv
News
Posted at the end of March, this tweeted photo was a week off the end of their Broadway shows
people
Arts & Entertainment
tvIt might all be getting a bit much, but this is still the some of the finest TV ever made, says Grace Dent
News
peopleStar to remain in hospital for up to 27 days to get over allergic reaction
Arts & Entertainment
Comedian Lenny Henry is calling for more regulation to support ethnic actors on TV
tvActor and comedian leads campaign against 'lack of diversity' in British television
Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit