Thursday, October 21, 2010

Robert Capa

It's not enough to have talent, you also have to be Hungarian. (Robert Capa) 

Gerda Taro, Robert Capa, Segovia Front, Spain 1937

Robert Capa (1913-1946) was born as Endre Friedmann in Budapest, Hungary. Aged seventeen, because of his and Kati Horna's leftist student activities, Friedmann was arrested by the Hungarian secret police but released the following day on the condition that he leave Hungary after finishing the school year. In July of 1931, he moved to Berlin, where he enrolled at the Deutsche Hochschule für Politik as a student of journalism. Only a couple of months later, he learned that because his parents' dressmaking business had been badly hurt by the worldwide economic depression, they could no longer send him money for tuition, room, and board.

Robert Capa, Retreat of the International Brigades, Montblanch, near Barcelona, October 1938

In 1932, a friend helped him obtain a job as darkroom assistant at Dephot, the first cooperative photojournalist agency. The agency's director, Simon Guttmann, was a friend of Walter Benjamin, and, since 1928, also was the employer of Otto Umbehr (Umbo). Guttmann, recognized Capa's talent and, in December, sent him to Copenhagen to photograph Leon Trotsky delivering a lecture to Danish university students. Capa smuggled his inconspicuous Leica into the stadium, positioned himself near to where Trotsky was speaking, and clandestinely snapped a series of photographs that captured the energy of the drama of the moment, so much so that Berlin’s Der Weltspiegel devoted a full page to Capa's photographs. It was his first published story.

Robert Capa, Leon Trotsky lecturing on the Russian revolution, Copenhagen, 27 November 1932

After Hitler had assumed dictatorial powers in 1933, Capa fled Berlin for Paris, where he would struggle for several years before becoming a successful photojournalist. In 1934, Capa met Gerda Taro, a German Jewish refugee who became his lover and business manager. During this time, Friedman began calling himself Robert Capa. In August of 1936, he and Gerda Taro set out for Spain to document the two-week-old Spanish Civil War from the perspective of the Anarcho-Syndicalists. Capa photographed in Barcelona and on the Aragon front, then went on to the Huesca front, until he finally arrived at Cordoba, where he took the picture that would be his most famous. It shows a  Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) Militiaman who had just been shot and is in the act of falling to his death:

Robert Capa, Falling Republican Militiaman, Spain 1936

It appeared in Vu, No. 447, on 23 September 1936. The picture occupied the upper left half of a double-page spread entitled La Guerre Civile en Espagne. Responsible for the layout was Alex Liberman, later art director of the American Vogue, who thus was the first to recognize the visual power of the photograph. In July of 1937, while Capa attended to business in Paris, Taro covered the fighting at Brunete, west of Madrid. During a confused retreat, she was fatally injured by a Loyalist tank. In September, Capa made his first trip to the United States, to visit his mother and brother Cornell in New York and to negotiate a contract with Life magazine. In 1938. Capa spent seven months in China with Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens documenting Chinese resistance to the Japanese invasion.

Robert Capa, Departure of Chiang Kai-shek's German military advisors. Hankow, 1938

In 1938, Capa covered the fall of Barcelona. After the end of the Spanish Civil War, in March, he photographed the defeated and exiled Republican soldiers in internment camps in France. He then worked on various stories in France. After the outbreak of World War II, he sailed for New York, where he began to work on miscellaneous stories for Life.  After the United States had entered the war, Capa crossed the Atlantic in a convoy carrying American planes to England, and worked on numerous stories about the Allied war effort in Britain. In 1943, Capa covered the Allied victories in Tunisia, the conquest of Sicily, and the liberation of Naples.

Anom., Robert Capa in Naples, 1943, with Contax II 

Capa's most famous work occurred on June 6, 1944 (D-Day) when he swam ashore with the second assault wave on Omaha Beach, armed with two Contax II cameras. He took 106 pictures in the first couple of hours of the invasion. However, a staff member at Life in London made a mistake in the darkroom, and 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.

Robert Capa, Men of the 16th Infantry Regiment seek shelter from German machine-gun fire in shallow water behind "Czech hedgehog" beach obstacles, Easy Red sector, Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944

Capa then accompanied American and French troops until the liberation of Paris. In December of 1944, he covered the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes. In 1945, Capa parachuted with American troops into Germany, and chronicled the Allied capture of Leipzig and Nuremberg. Some months later Capa became the lover of Ingrid Bergman, who was travelling in Europe entertaining American soldiers. In December 1945, Bergman tried to persuade him to marry her, but Capa didn't want to live in Hollywood, and their relationship ended in 1946.

Robert Capa, Spanish Civil War, Barcelona 1936. The boy is wearing a cap of the Steel Battalions, of the "Union de Hermans Proletarios" (Union of Proletarian Brothers), an anarchist militia.

After the war, Capa became an American citizen. In 1947, together with his friends Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour, George Rodger, and William Vandivert, Capa founded Magnum, a photo agency run as a photographers' cooperative. He spent a month traveling in the Soviet Union with his friend John Steinbeck, and also visited Czechoslovakia and Budapest. Between 1948 and 1950, Capa made three trips to Israel. On the first, he photographed the declaration of Israel's independence and covered the fighting that followed. On the two subsequent trips, he concentrated on the plight of refugees arriving in the country. He also visited Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia and photographed the former concentration camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau.

Robert Capa, Ain Karin, a Transylvanian Jew who had spent nine years in Nazi concentration camps, arriving in Israel in 1949

From 1950, Capa lived in Paris and served as president of Magnum, devoting much time to the agency's business and to the recruitment and promotion of young photographers. Because of allegations that he had been a communist, the U.S. government suspended his passport for several months in 1953, during which time he was unable to travel on work assignments.

Robert Capa, Vietnam, 1954

In 1954, while travelling in Japan, Capa received a request from Life to fill in for its photographer in Indochina. He arrived in Hanoi early in May. From there he travelled to Luang Prabang, Laos, to photograph the wounded French soldiers who had been captured at Dien Bien Phu and released by the Vietminh. On May 25, he accompanied a French convoy whose mission was to evacuate two indefensible outposts in the Red River delta. While the convoy was halted at one point, Capa wandered with a detachment of soldiers into a field beside the road. He stepped on a landmine, and was killed with his camera in his hand. "This war is like an actress who is getting old. It is less and less photogenic and more and more dangerous", Capa had said before.


  1. a hero of mine for many years...

    love your blog.

    refreshing place to drop by.


  2. The last photo was taken by Phillip Jones Griffiths during the american war in Viet Nam...

  3. Currrizio is correct. Note that the soldier to the far left is carrying an American M-60, which was not yet in use by the French in 1954 (or by the U.S.), and the soldier behind him appears to have a S. Vietnamese Ranger patch on this shoulder dating to the 1960s.