If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.
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:
Death of a Republican Soldier
During WW2 he landed on Omaha Beach on D-day:
(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.
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.
Robert Campbell is a retired surgeon.