Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Robert Capa

Robert Capa, 1913 - 1954
2013 marked the centenary of the birth of Robert Capa -- the greatest war photographer of all time.  Endre Friedman was born in Budapest on October 22, 1913.  His father was a Jewish tailor.  In 1931 he moved to Berlin to study journalism.  After Hitler's accession to power in 1933 he fled the "garden of the beasts" and eventually wound up in Paris.  In 1936 he changed his name to "Robert Capa" and arrived in Spain to cover the civil war.  In Paris he met the great love of his life, Gerda Taro; she would later be killed in the Spanish civil war while working as a war photographer.

"Moment of Death"
During the Spanish civil war he took the famous "moment of death" photograph that launched his career.  This photograph remains controversial to this day with contemporary war correspondents and photographers.  The perfection of this violent image invites the insidious question: "Could it have been staged?"

In the book Frontline: Reporting form the World's Deadliest Places David Loyn writes, "Ever since doubts were raised over Robert Capa's 'moment of death' photograph, which appears to show a soldier as he is hit by a bullet in the Spanish civil war, war photography has been under scrutiny.  The evidence for Capa's picture being exactly what it looks like is strong, but doubts remain.  It is easier to sit in a bar and retell rumour and suspicion than it is to go out and put your life on the line to take real pictures.  Nobody can say what pictures show except the person who took them; interpretation comes down to trust."  (Source: Frontline: Reporting form the World's Deadliest Places, David Loyn, 2011, www.amzn.com/1849531412)

In 1937 Capa made his first visit to the United States.  By 1943 he was an accredited war correspondent in the US Army.  He would document the campaign in Tunisia, Sicily, Italy and the D-day Landings.  The opening 20 minutes of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan are an homage to Robert Capa's work as well as a tribute to the heroes who fought on June 6, 1944.

German POW and US Army medic, Sicily 1943
The immediacy and impact of World War II photography, including Capa's, was far greater than the photography of the First World war, just as the films of the 1940s are more memorable than the films of the silent era.

Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944
Capa's war photography made him a famous celebrity.  He had a two year relationship with Ingrid Bergman beginning in 1945.

Siclian peasant and US Officer, Sicily 1943
"The Germans went that-away!"
Capa was ever a gambler, a risk taker.  He loved to play cards and attend horse races.  His motto was, "If your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough."

Capa's grave, Amawalk, NY
In 1954 Capa went to cover the grim siege of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam.  He stepped on a landmine and was killed at the age of 40.  He is now buried at the Quaker cemetery at Amawalk in the USA.

American GIs at Maria SS Assunta Cathedral, Troina, August 6, 1943
Consider the political trajectory of Capas's life.  He was born into the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian empire.  In his youth he moved in largely socialist circles and was briefly imprisoned by the Hungarian secret police.  He went to University in Weimar Germany.  He fled to Paris to escape persecution in Hitler's Germany.  His first photographic success was in reporting for the Spanish civil war -- the most ideological war of the 20th century.  His unforgettable photos helped turn ordinary GIs into heroes for the US Army.  He adopted the USA as his home.  Finally, he was killed by a communist landmine becoming the fist American casualty of the Vietnam war.

Source: Robert Capa: in Italia, 2013, Fratelli Alinari, Beatrix Lengyel, Eva Fisli.

Travel Notes: From now until February 23, 2014 you can see an exhibition of Capa's Italian war photography at the Museo Nazionale Alinari Della Fotographia (Alinari National Museum of Photography). The museum is in Florence, Italy.   www.alinarifondazione.it. Piazza Santa Maria Novella 14a/r, 50123 Florence, Italy.

You can now purchase Commander Kelly's first book, America Invades here...www.americainvades.com or on Amazon...www.amzn.com/1940598427


J Hooper said...

I read once that many rolls and reels of undeveloped film were tragically lost overboard into the Channel while being transferred from a landing craft to a ship - apparently, that's why there are so few photos from the actual landings. Did the book mention whether Capa lost film as well.

Also. In 2006 PBS, as part of the American Masters series, did a piece that included Capa. The program addressed the question whether the 'moment of death' photo was staged:

"in August 1996, Rita Grosvenor, a British journalist based in Spain, wrote an article about a Spaniard, named Mario Brotóns Jordá, who had identified the Falling Soldier as Federico Borrell García and had confirmed that Borrell had been killed in battle at Cerro Muriano on September 5, 1936. When Brotóns showed Capa’s photograph to Federico’s younger brother, Everisto, he confirmed the identification.

I turned to an expert whom I had met Captain Robert L. Franks, the chief homicide detective of the Memphis Police Department. In September 2000, he evaluated the two `moment of death’ photographs as if they were evidence in a murder case.

The most decisive element in his reading is the soldier’s left hand, seen below his horizontal left thigh. Capt. Franks told me that the fact that the fingers are somewhat curled toward the palm clearly indicates that the man’s muscles have gone limp and that he is already dead. Hardly anyone faking death would ever know that such a hand position was necessary in order to make the photograph realistic. It is nearly impossible for any conscious person to resist the reflex impulse to brace his fall by flexing his hand strongly backward at the wrist and extending his fingers out straight."

The full article is available online.

Anonymous said...

Curious if Capa crossed paths with Hemingway, so I searched and found that he did.

Hemingway and other Capa pics here http://blog.magnumphotos.com/

Commander Kelly said...

Capa knew Hemingway and many of the "lost generation". Thanks for the link.

The "moment of death" photo is still surrounded by controversy. Some have even suggested that Gerda Taro took the photo shortly before her death. Impossible to prove or disprove.

Ultimately, with ANY photo, it comes down to the question, "Do you trust the photographer?" Our modern perspective with photoshop and digital trickery engenders cynicism. Personally, I tend to trust Capa.