Oct 2oo9 – Robert Capa

Robert Capa (1913-1954)

Robert Capa (1913-1954)

Endre Ernő Friedmann was born in Budapest in 1913 into a world that would shortly be plunged into a ghastly war of attrition across the European continent. It is only fitting the man we know as Robert Capa would be born into such a world and such a place. Capa would go on in his short lifetime to photograph five different wars across three different continents and capture some of the most memorable photographs of the 20th century. Robert Capa gave little consideration to the technical aspects of photography and considered them secondary to capturing a dramatic moment on film. As a photographer and photojournalist Capa’s action photos of warfare portray the violence of war in a way unique to Capa’s body of work.

Capa was born to Jewish parents and after his arrest in 1932 because of his involvement with political protesters against the government his parents encouraged him to leave the country and settle elsewhere. Though he wanted to be a writer, he found work as a photographer in Berlin, Germany and quickly developed a love for the photographic art form. The rapid rise of Nazism in Germany made Capa’s stay in Berlin a short one and in 1933 he moved from Germany to France. In 1934 “André Friedman”, as he called himself at that time, met Gerda Pohorylle, a German Jewish refugee. The couple lived in Paris where André taught Gerda photography. Together they contrived the name and image of “Robert Capa” as a famous American photographer. He felt a change of name would help him be more recognizable and American-sounding. The name he chose was similar to that of American film director Frank Capra. In fact, however, the word “cápa” is the Hungarian word for ‘shark’. Gerda took the name Gerda Taro, becoming successful in her own right.

Gerda traveled with Capa to Spain in 1936 with the intent to document the Spanish Civil War. In July 1937 Capa went on a short business trip to Paris while Gerda remained in Madrid. She was killed near Brunete during a battle and Capa, who was reportedly engaged to her, was deeply shocked and never married. During the Spanish Civil War in the mid- to late-1930s Capa was photographing the war with Gerda and professional photographer and partner David Seymour.

Falling Soldier Photograph

Falling Soldier Photograph

It was while covering the hostilities in Spain became known around the world for a photograph known as the “Falling Soldier” photo. The images was presumed to be taken in Cerro Muriano on the Cordoba Front and is of a Loyalist Militiaman who has been shot, mortally wounded and falling to his death. There has been a long controversy about the authenticity of this photograph. A Spanish historian identified the dead soldier as Federico Borrell García, from Alcoi (Alicante). This identification has been disputed and in fact there is a second photograph showing another soldier falling exactly on the same spot. According to the Spanish newspaper El Periodico, the photo was taken near the town of Espejo, at 10 kilometres from Cerro Muriano, proving that the photo was staged. In 2009, a Spanish professor published a book titled Shadows of Photography, in which he alleged that the photograph could not have been taken where, when or how Capa and his backers have alleged.

One of the cardboard valises known as the Mexican Suitcase

One of the cardboard valises known as the Mexican Suitcase

Many rolls of Capa’s film shot during the Spanish Civil War and for many decades thought lost forever surfaced in Mexico City in the late 1990s. While fleeing Europe in 1939, Capa had lost the collection of film and over time the lost film became known as the Mexican Suitcase – actually three flimsy cardboard valises. The collection was transferred to the Capa Estate in 2007 and moved to the International Center of Photography, a museum in Manhattan and was founded by Robert Capa’s younger brother, Cornell.

After covering the Spanish Civil War Capa eventually found his way to New York City looking for new work and to escape Nazi persecution as World War II got under way. The war took Capa to various parts of the European Theatre on photography assignments. He first photographed for Collier’s Weekly, before switching to Life after he was fired by the former. On October 7, 1943, Robert Capa was in Naples, Italy with Life reporter Will Lang Jr. and photographed the Naples post office bombing.

Earlier in 1943 Capa met Elaine Justin, the beautiful young wife of actor John Austin. The two immediately fell in love and the relationship lasted until the end of the war, although Capa spent most of his time in the frontline. Capa lovingly called the redheaded Elaine “Pinky,” and their romance became the topic of his war memoir, Slightly Out of Focus. In 1945, Elaine broke up with Capa and married her friend, Chuck Romine.

Some months later Capa became the lover of actress Ingrid Bergman, who was traveling in Europe at the time entertaining American soldiers. In December 1945, Capa followed her to Hollywood, where he worked for American International Pictures for a short time. Bergman tried to persuade him to marry her, but Capa didn’t want to live in Hollywood. The relationship ended in the summer of 1946 when Capa traveled to Turkey.

5 of the Frames Printed by Life Magazine

5 of the Frames Printed by Life Magazine

Capa’s most famous work occurred later in the war when on June 6, 1944 Capa went ashore with the second assault wave in the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Capa carried two Contax II cameras each mounted with 50mm lenses and several spare rolls of film. During the first hours of the invasion Capa exposed 106 photographs of the horror of the allied invasion of Germany’s Fortress Europa. However, a fifteen-year-old lab assistant named Dennis Banks working for Life in London made an error when drying Capa’s film; he set the dryer temperature too high and the emulsion was melted on three complete rolls of Capa’s film and over half of the fourth. Of the 106 exposure made in the melee on the beaches of Normandy only eleven frames were recovered. Capa never said a word to the London bureau chief about the loss of three and a half rolls of his D-Day landing film.

Life Magazine would go on to publish ten of the eleven surviving frames in its June 19, 1944 issue with captions that described the images as “slightly out o focus”. The article went on to explain Capa’s hands were shaking in the excitement of the moment as the reason the pictures weren’t as sharp as they could have been. This is something which Capa denied. Capa used this phrase as the title of his autobiographical account of the war, Slightly Out of Focus.

After the end of World War II in 1945, Capa would found Magnum Photos in 1946 with Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Vandivert, David Seymour, and George Rodger and would later become president of Magnum Photos in 1951. Traveling with writer John Steinbeck to the Soviet Union in 1947, Capa took photos in Moscow, Kiev, Tbilisi, Batumi and among the ruins of Stalingrad. With the humorous reporting of Steinbeck, A Russian Journal was illustrated with Capa’s photographs and was first published in 1948. It was also during this time Capa toured Israel after its founding, and supplied the copious photographs for a book on the new nation written by Irwin Shaw, Report on Israel.

In the early 1950s, Capa traveled to Japan for an exhibition associated with Magnum Photos and while there, Life magazine asked him to go on assignment to Southeast Asia, where the French had been fighting for eight years in the First Indochina War.

Capa had sworn to himself a few years earlier not to photograph another war. For some reason, however, Capa accepted and accompanied a French regiment with two other Time-Life journalists, John Mecklin and Jim Lucas.

On May 25, 1954 the regiment was passing through a dangerous area under fire when Capa decided to leave his jeep and go up the road to photograph the advance. About five minutes later, Mecklin and Lucas heard an explosion; Capa had stepped on a landmine. When they arrived on the scene Capa was still alive but his left leg had been badly damaged and he had a serious wound in his chest. Capa was taken to a small field hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival. He had died with his camera in his hand.

Related Items:

In Love and War – Proving that Robert Capa’s “Falling Soldier” is Genuine from PBS

Robert Capa’s Lost Negatives from The New York Times

The Magnificent Eleven: The D-Day Photographs of Robert Capa from Skylighters.org

Robert Capa Gallery from Magnum Photos


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