Icons of Photography: Robert Capa

Robert Capa was born on October 22, 1913, in Budapest. Actually, that’s not true. Capa was born in April 1936, in Paris. It was Endre Ernö Friedmann who was born that autumn day into the last days of the Austro-Hungarian empire – Jewish, with an extra finger on one hand and a drinking, gambling father. But it was as Robert Capa that he became, in Picture Post’s words of 1938, ‘the greatest war photographer in the world’, the man who said: ‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.’

More than anyone, he formed and shaped our vision of the archetypal photojournalist. At 18, he fled to Berlin, to escape Hungary’s repressive regime and secret police. For the rest of his life, he was ever on the move. From the Aragon front in Spain to the bombing of Hankow in China. From a parachute drop into Germany to Ingrid Bergman’s bed. From Picasso on a beach to Russia for Ladies’ Home Journal.

In Berlin, he renamed himself André, took up photography and moved on to Paris – about the only place open to half-lost young European Jews fleeing from anti-semitism and towards they-knew-not-what. While based in Paris, he took what has since become a famous picture of Trotsky in Copenhagen. His career only took off, though, when, with his lover, Gerda Taro – another young Jewish radical in flight – he invented ‘Capa’. (Capa was one of his childhood nicknames. It’s Hungarian for ‘shark’.) Taro pretended to be an agent, telling picture editors that Capa was a famous, but dilettante, American photographer. And therefore worth far higher fees.

The pictures, of course, were taken by the man who would soon no longer be André Friedmann. And who would, in a very real way, become the man he and Taro invented. If taking pictures was his true life, that fact was sometimes obscured by his love and aptitude for drinking, flirting, smoking, nightclubbing, gambling and chasing women. ‘He acted as if life was a joke and, at the same time, took life very seriously,’ said Hansel Mieth, a photographer he knew in pre-war US. ‘He was made up of very many people, some very good, some not so good. He was a made-up person, mostly by himself.’

As ‘Capa’, he started out taking pictures of left-wing activists in France – naively uplifting ones. Then he moved on to the Spanish Civil War – which is where he began to become himself. Slowly but inexorably, his youthful propagandism – he was still in his early twenties – was eclipsed by a profound humanism. Taro’s death, in 1937, hastened this process.

Ashamed of mankind’s capacity for cruelty and destruction yet never bitter or resigned – in public or his work, at least – he memorialised the everyday pathology of war in the most artlessly straightforward of images. Ordinary young men, fighting and dying. Civilians, smashed about by combat’s witless, uncaring fists. His pictures generally look like snapshots, as if they could have been taken by anyone who just happened to be there. An illusion, of course. Their demotic simplicity is deliberate and considered – though never knowing. As you might expect of man to whose many friends he was always ‘Bob’.

His cousin Suzy Marquis captured the way his personal urges combined with his humanitarian drive. ‘You have to remember that Bob was a man of action. He wanted to be a witness to his times. He always had to move, act, be in the right place at the right time . . . All his life, he had kept moving, mostly as a way to survive.’

He left three big marks on the world: two pictures and one organisation. A single photograph of a ‘falling soldier’. Fewer than a dozen frames shot on D-Day. And the pre-eminent photo agency, Magnum.

The ‘falling soldier’ picture was taken in 1936 – and used on the cover of his 1938 book, Death In The Making. It was of a Republican rifleman at the moment of his death, shot by a Francoist bullet. Or maybe it’s a photograph of a soldier on manoeuvres, slipping on a hillside. The dispute has been there since it was first published – not helped by Capa’s varying stories and explanations. The passion and persistence of the debate, though, is clear testament to the picture’s evocativeness – of an ‘honourable’ war, of a life cut short, of our own inevitable deaths.

The D-Day shots were taken on Omaha beach, where Capa landed at daybreak, under intense fire, with US troops. ‘I am a gambler. I decided to go in with the first wave.’ As he stumbled and trembled through the chill water, he repeated, almost religiously, a phrase he’d picked up in Spain: ‘Es una cosa muy seria.’ (‘This is a very serious business.’) Then, as soon as he could, he got back in a boat. ‘I knew that I was running away.’

He shot 106 frames in total but LIFE magazine’s London office screwed up the processing. Only 11 images survived. But what images – blurry, fear-filled, watery, grey, deathly, violent, vibrant . . . eternal. In recent years the official version of what happened to the negatives has been questioned. Despite this, they have shaped our view not just of D-Day but of all war. Spielberg used them as the keynotes for Saving Private Ryan.

Capa set up Magnum in 1947, with four other photographers, including his pal David ‘Chim’ Seymour and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Its name is a Capa-ly reference to a large bottle of Champagne. Magnum both prospered and struggled – pushed forward by Capa’s drive, charm and restlessness while financially hobbled by his dipping into its funds to pay off gambling debts and buy a couple more Sulka shirts. He could always be relied on for a smart, central European line. ‘It’s not enough to have talent,’ he told LIFE magazine. ‘You also have to be Hungarian.’

If his name will always be most closely associated with his war reportage, he was also simply a very smart photographer, with an almost classical eye for composition. Look at that picture of Picasso on the beach, holding a giant sun umbrella over his mistress Francoise Gilot. It’s no accident that it is one of the best-known images of the painter – with whom Capa had become friends. It has a simple gorgeousness about it, the down-time sensuousness of a warrior taking a break from the front-line. ‘To me war is like an aging actress,’ he said around this time. ‘More and more dangerous and less and less photogenic.’ His road was running out and he knew it.

He went back to war, though, for a mix of reasons. Magnum needed the money. He didn’t know how to live a settled life. Peace was easiest found for him in the roar of conflict. It was what he knew. He died on May 25, 1954, in Vietnam. He’d stepped on a landmine. His camera was in his left hand.

© Peter Silverton 2019

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