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.
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