Who was Robert Capa?

If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.

—Robert Capa

On 25 May 1954, the distinguished war photographer Robert Capa stood on a landmine in Indochina and was instantly killed. Though a pioneer of war photography, he wasn’t the first such photographer to be killed.

You may not have heard his name, but you have probably seen his photographs. He made his name initially during the Spanish Civil War:

republican soldier

Death of a Republican Soldier

During WW2 he landed on Omaha Beach on D-day:

Omaha

(The grainy, contrasty look is because of a processing error)

After WW2, he co-founded the photographic agency Magnum as a vehicle for self-employed photographers. He continued to work as a war photographer until his death; he was 40.

All very impressive, even more so because ‘Robert Capa’ didn’t really exist.

***

Paris, after WW1 and particularly in the 1930s became a refuge for left-leaning Jews from Germany and the remains of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Endre (Andre) Friedmann was born in Budapest, but arrived in Paris after leaving home when he was 18, seeing no future for himself in his homeland. He made an impecunious living as a hack photographer and photo-journalist; despite his poverty he used a Leica, the miniature camera par excellence.

Another refugee was Gerta Pohorylle who was from Stuttgart originally, though she later moved to Leipzig. She was arrested for distributing anti-Nazi propaganda, being saved only by the intervention of a Polish diplomat—in those confused times, she actually had Polish, not German, citizenship. In Paris, she undertook menial secretarial roles, though showing considerable business acumen; she was particularly ‘media-savvy’.

Friedmann and Pohorylle met quite by chance, and soon became professional partners and lovers. Friedmann taught Pohorylle photography, and together they created a ‘business plan’ or strategy, though most of this was probably of Gerta’s devising.

Portrait of Taro And Capa

Recognising the importance of the American market, they invented the persona of a mysterious, exotic American photographer ‘Robert Capa’ who visited France a few times a year. Friedmann took on the role of Capa (‘shark’), while Gerta became ‘Gerda Taro’. Photographs were credited to both partners. Gerda’s early photographs were taken with a Rolleiflex, a square format camera; later she too used a Leica.

They both covered the Spanish Civil War, with Gerda’s republican sympathies sometimes getting in the way of better judgement.

During their last trip to Spain, Capa left early for Paris. On her final day, having finished her work, Gerda was run over by an out of control tank, dying a few hours later in a primitive field hospital. Her remains were brought to Paris where she was interred in Père Lachaise cemetery on 1 August 1937, her 27th birthday. She was, “the first woman known to photograph a battle from the front lines and to die covering a war”.

Robert Capa was, and remained, devastated by Gerda’s death; he was unable to go to her funeral. His behaviour afterwards became more adventurous—even reckless—though he was famous at his death.

In the confusion after the fall of France, several thousand of ‘Robert Capa’s’ negatives went missing, and remained lost, only emerging 50 years later as the contents of ‘The Mexican Suitcase’. This contained images by both Capa and Taro (and by ‘Chim’) and this discovery led to Gerda’s rediscovery and recognition as a fine photographer in her own right. Had she lived, she might have outshone Robert Capa.

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  • Sliothar

    Robert Capa, Photographer, and companion of Gerda Taró, I’ve heard of.
    Robert Capo? I haven’t a clue.

  • Korhomme

    Today’s deliberate error, or dyslexia lures KO?

    But, thanks!

  • Sliothar

    Apols. Felt a bit like Sheldon from Big Bang after posting.

  • Korhomme

    Google is your friend.

    His younger brother, Cornell Capa, also a photographer, worked to preserve and promote Robert’s legacy as well as develop his own identity and style. He founded the International Fund for Concerned Photography in 1966. To give this collection a permanent home, he founded the International Center of Photography in New York City in 1974. This was one of the foremost and most extensive conservation efforts on photography to be developed. Indeed, Capa and his brother believed strongly in the importance of photography and its preservation, much like film would later be perceived and duly treated in a similar way.

    And you appear to have misnamed one of those photographs

    The Falling Soldier (full title: Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, September 5, 1936) is a photograph by Robert Capa, claimed to have been taken on September 5, 1936.

  • Sliothar

    I remember seeing Capa’s ‘Death of a Republican Soldier’ many, many years ago as a pup. Its iconic imagery has never left my mind. However, a few years ago – I think it was shortly after ‘The Mexican Suitcase’ with his lost negatives was found – many people started to question the authenticity of ‘Soldier’ mainly because no one ever found the original negative. Intriguingly, series of prints of the ‘Soldier’ falling in different poses were found which led to accusations that it was staged and therefore, technically, a fraud.
    Just to refresh my own memory, I clicked on Wikipedia where more details can be found here. http://tinyurl.com/3w6ks3q
    Whatever the truth, (first casualty, etc!) he was still a top photographer with a very interesting life story.

  • Korhomme

    No need to apologise; despite having several books in front of me, and several web pages open, my ‘word blindness’ simply didn’t see what I’d written; not the first time that this has happened.

  • Korhomme

    There has been controversy about this photo. It has been claimed that it didn’t happen where Capa said it happened, or that the whole thing was faked. There seem to be several versions of the name.

    And while ‘Google is my friend’, it’s not always that reliable; I was working from several books about the pair, as well as websites.

  • Korhomme

    Like you, I saw the ‘Republican Soldier’ long before I knew the history, or knew about Gerda Taro. Theirs is a quite remarkable story; I omitted lots of details; Gerda’s funeral was hijacked by the communists, her date of birth on the headstone is a year out…

    And the romantic idea of a ‘Mexican Suitcase’? The reality was prosaic—a few cardboard boxes. But the lot has been published, in a slipcover modelled as a suitcase, and is available from amazon:

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Mexican-Suitcase-Legendary-Spanish-Negatives/dp/3869301414/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1432554363&sr=1-1&keywords=the+mexican+suitcase

    Despite the hefty price, if you like this sort of thing (I do!) it’s well worthwhile; amazon also has a couple of books about Gerda.

  • There seem to be several versions of the name.

    Perhaps, but there is only one original version.

    And while Google may not always be that reliable, it’s reliable enough to get his name right.

    If you had included some of your sources as links in the original post you might have caught that particular error before publishing.

    Just a handy hint for future reference…

  • Korhomme

    According to Jane Rogoyska in ‘Gerda Taro: inventing Robert Capa’, the ‘Falling Soldier’ was originally titled ‘Death of a Loyalist Militiaman’. It first appeared in the French illustrated magazine Vu on September 23, 1936, p 1106 under the heading, ‘Comment ils sont tombes’. There is no title to the picture, which is attributed to Capa.

    The unknown militiaman has been identified as Federico Borrel Garcia, aged 24.

  • whatif1984true

    135 photographers died in Vietnam. Such was the power of their images that the Vietnamese remember them in a special section of the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh city. They brought the war to an earlier close.
    Compare this to the strict embedding control of photographers now, we no longer see the truth most of the time as the media is ‘managed’.

  • Moochin Photoman

    I have to correct you re the photograph from Omaha beach. It’s blurry not because of a “processing error” (more of which in a mo) but because Capa came in with the first wave of troops. It would have been barely light so his settings would have been around 8th/15th of a sec. The water was cold and there was the small matter of the bullets flying around. Those factors would certainly make for blurry images.
    As for the processing error the darkroom technician who had developed the films was told in no uncertain terms that the films were to be developed quickly as they were the first images to come from the beaches, (Capa had sent 3 rolls of film back to be developed). The darkroom technician in his haste to get the films dried set the temperature too high in the dryer AND left them in too long. This meant that only 11 photographs survived. i heartily recommend his book Slightly out of focus.
    I’ll just leave this quote from Henri Cartier Bresson “Sharpness is a bourgeoise concept”

  • Korhomme

    Now that you mention the dryer, a very small bell of memory rings; this wasn’t in the sources I consulted. Thanks!

  • Moochin Photoman

    First thing i think of when i see these images particularly having dev’ed my own film i can only wonder what Capa would have said (and done) to the fella who frigged up considering what he went through to get them