Robert Capa: Close-up from the front

Robert Capa: Close-up from the front.

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” Robert Capa

Robert Capa was a Hungarian photographer. He was born in 1913 and his real name was Endre (or Andrei) Friedmann. ‘Fine’, you say, ‘so why should I know about a foreign bloke who took some pictures and changed his name?’ Well, many of the photos he took were both interesting and important, to the point that they have become iconic. He covered some of the most important events of his time and he also happened to live a rather glamorous life, mixing with more than one or two stars in the process. And he died young while working in Vietnam during the first ‘Indochina War’, a conflict which would lead on to the Vietnam War. Robert Capa actually covered five major wars, including the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), World War II and the first Arab-Israeli War of 1948. He revolutionised photo-journalism by being one of the first to work in the heat of the action, with the soldiers, at the front-line, surrounded by the gun-fire and seeing the fighting at first hand. He became a legend for his work and left a legacy which is well worth investigating if you have any interest in war, journalism, art or photography – or about looking cool under pressure.

First of all, a couple of examples of Capa’s work that show him alongside soldiers in Normandy following D-Day in 1944.

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(Author: Robert Capa; Source: here) This might not look like a great photo but Capa was seriously unlucky. Nearly all of the photos that he took on D-Day, the Allied invasion of France on 6th June, 1944, were damaged and this is one of the few that survived. The Capa hallmark is clear though – he was there so that he could get the photo in the first place.

Some famous examples of Capa’s photography can be found here.

Robert Capa really is worth knowing a little bit about as he was so much more than just a photographer. In an age when we are so used to documentaries, film and photographs of war, we can easily ignore the work of those who first went to the frontline. To be a cameraman or photographer at the front today must be extraordinary, even with the digital technology, zoom lenses, flak jackets and helmets that are available; to have been doing this in the thirties, forties and fifties required a very unusual personality with extraordinary skills and attitude.

The young Endre Friedmann’s nickname was ‘capa’, which means ‘shark’ in Hungarian. He began his career in photography after dropping out of college in Berlin. Still called Endre Friedmann, he had moved to the German capital in 1931 in an effort to escape the tensions of Budapest, where the right-wing dictatorship under Admiral Horthy was causing increasing problems for the likes of him, as he was both Jewish and left-wing. He had been recommended to a famous photographer of the time, called Otto Umbehrs, by a fellow Hungarian who was also a famous photographer, Eva Besnyö. His first break came when he was sent to the Copenhagen Stadium in Berlin to photograph a well-known figure talking about politics; as luck would have it, Friedmann’s first professional photos were of the famous Communist, Leon Trotsky, then in exile and on the run from Joseph Stalin. Later on, Capa would enhance the story of that day a little, telling how he was sent at the last minute, without a ticket and how he had to sneak in to the hall with a group of workmen. The talk was actually advertised well in advance and Capa had a ticket but, even so, it was still a remarkable ‘first job’ by anyone’s standards. Luck can certainly play a part in many lives but you still need the skill to take advantage of the opportunities when they come your way and Friedmann showed early signs of his potential as he got really close to Trotsky and captured some of the passion and energy of the speech.

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Leon Trotsky addressing the crowd at the Copenhagen Stadium, Berlin, in November 1932, the 19 year-old Endre Friedmann’s first assignment.

(Author: Robert Capa; Source: here)

But right wing politics was on the rise in Central Europe and Friedmann left Berlin soon after Hitler came to power in January 1933 and he soon arrived in Paris, one of many refugees from Nazism. He soon met and started going out with a German woman called Gerda Pohorylle (1910-1937), another photographer. In 1934, in an attempt to set up a business and make more money, Friedmann and Pohorylle created ‘Robert Capa’, claiming that they were agents for this ‘famous American’ photographer. They hoped to be able to charge the French newspapers double the normal fees for Capa’s work as he was so important; in reality they took the photos themselves. At the same time, Pohorylle also changed her name to Gerda Taro, as it was easier to spell and pronounce and it is by this name that she became famous in her own right as a photographer. The ‘Capa’ plan worked well for a while and they got numerous images into the French newspapers, some of which reflected the growing political tensions of the time. Friedmann photographed the workers’ strikes in Paris and went to the League of Nations in Geneva when the Abyssinian Emperor, Haile Salassie, begged for help in dealing with the growing threat posed by Italy’s fascist dictator, Mussolini. The double-identity of Friedmann/Capa was soon spotted but the quality of his work was acknowledged and he was given a job with an agency. As a result Friedmann became Robert Capa from that time on, a change which reflected the new dramas in his life.

In July 1936, news came through of the growing tensions in Spain. 1936 was a year of huge importance and drama, marking a step-change on the road to World War II and Capa would come to major prominence in this context by covering the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Like many people of that generation, he saw this conflict as a new type of struggle, an ideological battle of ideals and values, a fight to the death between ‘oppressive’ Fascism from the Right Wing and ‘liberating’ Left Wing ideals of Socialism and Communism. In Spain itself, the Fascists were the Nationalists, whose strength was rooted in the army, the landowners, the rich and the Catholic Church. Their leader was Colonel, later General, Francisco Franco. The Communists were the Republicans of the democratically elected Government, and were led by various people over the course of the war. It was a complex war which cannot be covered in detail here but certain important aspects can be mentioned.

Firstly, the Spanish Civil War was seen as a testing ground for World War II. There was supposedly an embargo on any country supplying resources to either side or getting directly involved in the fighting but, while this was enforced regarding most supplies to the Republicans, little was done to prevent help getting to Franco’s forces. The main aid to the Fascists came from Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany, their men, weapons and tactics giving a decisive advantage which swung the war towards the Nationalists. Hitler in particular was impressed by what his troops had achieved, gaining confidence in the Wehrmacht’s (the German Army’s) potential as well as noting the reluctance of Britain and France to act, an sign of their commitment to appeasement in the 1930s. The most famous action by German forces came with the horrendous destruction of the symbolically important town of Guernica in the Basque region. The terrible deaths inspired one of the most famous works of art of the century, ‘Guernica’ by Pablo Picasso.

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‘Guernica’ by Pablo Picasso (1937). When asked by a German officer in Paris, in a disparaging tone, “Did you do this?”, Picasso replied, “No. You did.” The officer walked out.

(Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Secondly, Capa was not alone as a foreigner drawn to Spain at this time. Thousands of people from around the world, but especially from Europe, made the long trek to support either the Fascists or the Republicans in what was seen as a struggle not just for a country but for something more. The Spanish Civil War was a fight over the future direction of humanity, a struggle between traditional forces of monarchy, money and faith, against a rising tide seeking equality, justice and opportunity for all. The Right and the Left would clash horribly over the coming years, tearing apart families, destroying great cities, and spilling blood across the plains and mountains of Spain. Many famous people would be among those who volunteered to fight. Those from the Left Wing who joined the ‘International Brigades’ on the side of the Communists draw most attention today. Just a few of the famous foreigners associated with the ‘International Brigades’ included: Ernest Hemingway (author), George Orwell (author), Martha Gellhorn (journalist), Paul Robeson (actor), Willy Brandt (future leader of Germany), Laurie Lee (author), Jack Jones (British Trade Union leader), Simone Weil (philosopher and Christian mystic), Andre Marty (French political activist) and many others, from the USSR in particular. Hemingway’s ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ and Orwell’s ‘Homage to Catalonia’ are among the most famous books to come out of the Spanish Civil War. Robert Capa would be among this group.

Thirdly, Robert Capa was an eloquent witness to this war which had such important echoes down the rest of the century. His images from this extraordinary struggle bore testament to the willingness of ordinary people to fight for what they believed in, inspiring many rebels and revolutionaries around the world. The repercussions of the Spanish Civil War went well beyond the day of the Fascist victory and the ceasefire of 1939. Spain did not get directly involved in World War II due to the damage and suffering of the Civil War. The failures of Britain and France to act, as the leaders of the League of Nations, weakened their credibility on the world stage and strengthened Hitler enormously. For the Nazis, Spain had provided a real testing ground for their technology and tactics which would later be used to such effect in the early years of World War II. The failure of the Communist forces, so heavily backed by Stalin and the USSR, bred a fear and anxiety in Moscow which would lead to the infamous Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939. Generalissimo Franco remained in power as the much loved and totally hated ‘Benign Dictator’ until his death in 1975. He left a divided country where hatred and tension is only now being openly addressed and overcome.

Robert Capa spent much of the three years of the civil war in Spain itself, working as part of the Republican cause against Franco. Much of his material was lost and it was feared it had been destroyed but thousands of negatives eventually turned up in Mexico City in the 1990s. The collection is today known as ‘The Mexican Suitcase’ and much of the material can be viewed online. His work included one of the most famous and controversial photos of the century, ‘The Falling Soldier’. Debate as to its authenticity continues to this day, many seeing it as a remarkable image of the heroism and futility of war, while others believe it was simply a set-up. The sense of it being ‘staged’ is strong but what cannot be denied is the impact so many of Capa’s images had on people around the world.

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‘The Falling Soldier’, allegedly Federico Borrell, 5th September 1936. Probably the most famous and controversial photo ever taken by Robert Capa.

(Author: Robert Capa; Source: here)

His willingness to travel anywhere within the Republican zones, from Andalucía and Murcia in the south, to Madrid and Toledo in the centre, and to Barcelona and Bilbao in the north, meant he was always able to get closer to the action than just about anyone else. And he was always willing to go that little bit further than anyone else, capturing emotions that were then released into the lives of millions of readers around the world. His pictures from Bilbao just a few days after the notorious bombing of nearby Guernica by Hitler’s Condor Legion in April 1937 were especially powerful examples of the true cost of war.

Robert Capa’s legend was born in Spain. His courage, humour and skill were extraordinary, winning him many friends and admirers. His love of the high life was fostered, too, and he socialised with Ernest Hemingway amongst others. But the war brought tragedy into Capa’s own life, though, as he suffered the loss of his partner, Gerda Taro, herself a remarkable photographer, who was crushed to death by a tank during the Battle of Brunete near Madrid in late July 1937. Capa’s reputation as a great photographer was established during the Spanish Civil War. It brought him fame and celebrity status but these did nothing to stop his work, and his photography retained its power to tell stories that mattered and to challenge ideas throughout his life.

In January, 1938, a year or so before the end of the Spanish Civil War, but with Franco’s forces clearly in the ascendancy, Capa left for Asia to cover the troubles between China and Japan. A project had arisen to make a film documenting China’s resistance to Japanese expansion in the region. The main fighting for the Chinese was being led by the Communist forces of Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-Tung), but the project was funded and controlled by the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek, or more specifically, by his domineering and manipulative wife, ‘Madame Chiang’. Capa travelled to China from France in the company of two well-known authors, W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood. Auden was an American poet while Isherwood is famous today, amongst other things, for his memoirs of life in Berlin which were turned into the famous film ‘Cabaret’. The project, called ‘The 400 million’, turned out to be a frustrating disaster but Capa once again captured many remarkable photographs reflecting the horrors of war. By September 1938, Capa was on his way back to Europe, arriving to chronicle the last few months before the Spanish Republican forces were finally defeated by Franco in what many saw as the ‘death of European democracy’.

A résumé of his life from early 1939 hints at more riches waiting to be discovered for those who study his brief life. He left Europe for the USA in 1939 and there he went through a sham marriage so as to stay in the country, as he was technically an ‘illegal immigrant’. He worked briefly for Life magazine in Mexico and the US before travelling to Britain. In 1943, Capa travelled to North Africa with Allied troops to photograph the invasion and, even more dramatically, he accompanied US troops who landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day, 6th June 1944. Most of his photos from that day were destroyed although a number of slightly out of focus images have survived. Capa loved gambling, champagne and the high life in general. He had too many affairs to mention, but three women who fell to his legendary vulnerability and charm were: the actress Ingrid Bergman, who starred alongside Humphrey Bogart in the classic film ‘Casablanca’; Hedy Lamarr, the star of the film, ‘Samson and Delilah’; and Vivien Leigh, wife of Laurence Olivier and the star of ‘Gone with the Wind’ with whom he had one of his many brief times of intimacy. Ingrid Bergman was a particularly significant relationship and she was just one of the many women who wanted to marry Capa but he refused to settle down, or to have anything to do with Hollywood, and so their relationship ended.

 

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Ingrid Bergman (1915-1982)

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Hedy Lamarr (1913-2000)

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Vivien Leigh (1913-1967)

 

In 1947, Capa joined forces with various well-known photographers to create a new photographic agency, ‘Magnum’. He was also involved with the ‘Photo League’, a left-wing agency that wanted to encourage socially aware photographers in their work; in 1947 it was ‘blacklisted’ as subversive and, in the era of the McCarthyite Witch Hunts, it closed down. Capa already knew Pablo Picasso and he photographed him once more during these years and even took images of Matisse at work. Also around this time, Capa joined John Steinbeck, the author of ‘Grapes of Wrath’ and ‘Of Mice and Men’, for a trip to the USSR. Capa’s freedom to photograph what he wanted was severely compromised and the results were disappointing, but he did get to visit Moscow, Stalingrad and Kiev, where he visited the Dynamo Stadium outside which, today, is found the memorial to FC Start (see Chapter 8). After a brief move into fashion photography linked with the work of Coco Chanel, which produced some interesting results but cost a fortune, mainly due to his huge expenses linked with drinking and gambling, Capa covered the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 and also some of the conflicts in French Indo-China in the early 1950s. And in 1952, he managed to join the list of illustrious figures charged with being a Communist sympathiser as part of the McCarthyite Witch Hunts. Few men can have been so intimately linked with the great people, places and events of the middle years of the Twentieth Century. In truth, Capa needed pressure and danger to focus his mind and enable him to produce his best work. He sought out that danger and produced his most famous and important work at the front line in war zones. He really was a ‘war’ photographer.

Robert Capa died on 25th May, 1954, on the Red River delta in Vietnam. He had agreed to cover the conflict between the French and the Vietminh, led by Ho Chi Minh and General Giap, standing in for a colleague. He had arrived as the French faced devastating defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Capa was the first photographer/journalist to die in the conflict which would develop into the Vietnam War. His death at the age of just 40 was a tragedy but one with a horrible logic and predictability about it; as Hemingway said, ‘The percentages caught up with him’. Capa had survived so many near misses over the years that it was clear that his luck would run out at some time.

‘Capa’, you may remember, means ‘shark’. In becoming Capa, Endre Friedmann created a dynamic and creative genius, a flawed character loved by almost all who met him. His short life contained far more adventure, affairs, gambling, stories and champagne than most people could ever dream of having. Hungarian émigré, friend of Hemingway and Picasso, lover of Ingrid Bergman and countless other women, terrible card player, compulsive gambler, heavy drinker, depressive, unreliable, witty, charming, a fixer and a friend. Remember Robert Capa, a man who made taking photos the basis for a truly extraordinary life.

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Robert Capa at work, a photo taken by Gerda Taro.

(Author: Gerda Taro; Source: here)

 

Find out more:

Capa’s photographs can be viewed on-line but various studies of his work are available, such as: ‘This is war: Robert Capa at work’ by Richard Whelan and Christopher Phillips (Steidl, 2007) and ‘Robert Capa: the Definitive Collection’ by Phaidon Press Ltd, 2004). His work also appears in collections such as ‘Magnum Magnum’ by Brigitte Lardinois (Thames and Hudson Ltd, 2009).

Book: ‘Blood and Champagne: The life of Robert Capa’ by Alex Kershaw (Da Capo Press, 2004).

Book: ‘Out of the shadows: A life of Gerda Taro’ by Francois Maspero (Souvenir Press Ltd., 2008).

Photos of Gerda Taro, the work of Capa’s long time partner can best be seen on-line.

 

 

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