Robert Capa was born into a Jewish family in Hungary in 1913. He was forced to leave his home nation as a teenager after allegations of him being a communist sympathiser started doing the rounds. He fled to Berlin, Germany where he would enrol in the city’s university and take a part-time job as a darkroom assistant. He’d later go on to work for a photography agency in the city to help make ends meet.
He was forced to move again, this time to Paris, France, when Hitler’s Nazi Party came to power in Germany and Capa decided the country was no place for a Jew such as he. During his time in Paris, he would meet a fellow Jewish photographer called Gerta Pohorylle who was in the city for the same reasons as he was. The two became professional partners in photography as well as involved in a romantic sense. They collaborated under the name Robert Capa for a while before Pohorylle decided she wanted to establish herself under an alias of her own. It was Friedmann who continued to work under the name Robert Capa and whose work we now see under that moniker.
During his time as a photographer, Capa shared a darkroom with the photography legend, Henri Cartier-Bresson. It was with Bresson, and a handful of other influential photographers of the time, that Capa co-founded the now famous Magnum Photos cooperative. It was set up to manage freelance photographers and their work and became to be known for the very quality of images it dealt with. It still today has a reputation as a society of top-class photojournalists work, but could also be seen as a bit of an elitists group by some.
Robert Capa’s Work
Robert Capa is known for photographing some of the most well-known conflicts in world history but he’s probably best known for covering the Spanish Civil War, World War 2 and the First Indochina War.
The image above has become to be known as “The Falling Soldier” and was taken by Capa during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). It is of a Republican soldier falling after being shot. This image was published in many well-established publications at the time but was later questioned as to whether it was authentic or a staged production. Some of the evidence used to suggest it was staged included other photos of the scene which, supposedly, proved it was a staged image.
It was during this war that his personal and professional partner, Gerda Taro, died on her way back from a photography assignment. It’s said that she was riding on the footboard of the vehicle she was using when it collided with a tank.
More controversy has arisen about Capa and his work during the World War 2 (1939-1945) D-Day landings he was part of on Omaha Beach. Capa claimed to have taken 106 images that day but only 11 survived due to his camera becoming waterlogged and a mistake made by a technician at the film processing facility later with his film. It’s said that the technician at Life London dried the rolls of film at too high a temperature. One image that was recovered from one of the rolls shows an American soldier swimming ashore during the landings even though it didn’t develop as planned. the effect the drying process had is said by some to enhance the impact of the image.
I guess the blurriness helps add to the hecticness of the day and helps to give the viewer a small idea of the crazy, scary, almost not real feel of the event. It does document what was going on but the technical mishap of the drying process also gives this piece a more aesthetic element to it as well. It could be seen as a piece of art as well as a piece of documentary photography.
I’m not entirely sure what the critics of Capa’s earlier piece, “The Falling Soldier”, were trying to get at with their accusations that he only actually took the 11 pictures and not the 106 he claimed to have, but could it possibly have been that they don’t regard him as the heroic photographer many do? These accusations could be true or they could be uncalled for, either way, it opens up the question of whether we should believe everything we see in the media.
Robert Capa eventually decided he’d finished with war photography, but when he got the call to go and document the Indochina conflict (1946-1954) from the French perspective, he couldn’t resist. This decision would prove to be the end of his young, successful life. At just 40-years-old, Capa stepped out of the vehicle he’d been travelling in to get photographs of a battle engagement that was going on. As he went to look for a position to photograph from, he stepped on a landmine which ended his life.
The image above shows a French military patrol passing a typical victim of the Indochina conflict that Capa covered.