ROBERT CAPA REMEMBERED
It was the time when photojournalism was just taking off. World War II was the war of the world. And just who was this Robert Capa? He was the perfect hero. He was brilliant on either side of the camera: a childlike smile, cleft chin, jet black hair, poker player, champagne drinker, lover of beautiful women, a true cosmopolitan. He was not a braggart or a self promoter but he had a magical and magnetic personallity and he fascinated women and charmed men. That is a tall order for a man to accomplish. Reaching an understanding of Robert Capa is a tricky business. Soldiers, poker players, bartenders, writers, artists, and beautiful women were all involved with him. A roster of his friends and acquaintences would include Ernest Hemingway, Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman, Irwin Shaw, Gene Kelly Pablo Picasso, and John Steinbeck. He lived a life filled with adventure and death and war throughout the 1930s to the 1950s all over the world. Capa received the Medal of Freedom from General Eisenhower for his work during World War II.
Capa was born Endre Friedmann in Hungary to Jewish parents in 1913. His background from the time of his youth was devoted to the Spanish Loyalist political views and he associated with a group of socialist and avant garde artists, photographers, and intellectuals. He spoke seven languages, none very well, but he was capable of explaining his views in his photographs. He ran afoul of the Hungarian police and was jailed and beaten for his radical political activity. He was releasd on condition of his leaving Hungary immediately. At the age of 18 he arrived in Germany. However when the Nazis took control of Germany, it became clear to him that it was time to leave and he moved on to Paris for safety. He decided at this time to change his name and give himself an identity more closely associated with America; thus he became Robert Capa. (Capa is the Hungarian name for a shark and Capa was called Capa as a young man in Hungary.) It was while he was in France that he decided in 1936 to go to Spain and photograph the Civil War there. He was passionate in his support of the Republicans and he developed a non-objective approach to photographing the war. He refined wartime photojournalism by insisting on working in the trenches in the midst of combat in grim closeup detail. Capa used the camera as a means of expression depicting the wartime life around him.
In World War II Capa presented the war in the fighting in Africa, Italy and Sicily. However it was the photography he did on D-Day that set the world of photography on fire. D-Day was a perfect meeting between man and moment. Capa could have shot the invasion from a safe vantage point, but his professionalism demanded that if you were going to photograph people dying you had to share their danger. D-Day was the landing of American troops in France with the Germans high up overlooking the beach and protected while the GIs landed and ran for cover from the thousands of bullets and bombs that rained down on them. Capa ended up in the water with the American troops at Omaha Beach, shooting 106 photographs while Germans shot at him. After taking his photographs Capa by his own admission ran to a boat headed for England, collapsed and later woke up with wearing a note that said “Exhaustion. No dog tags.” No other photographer on D-Day got so close and brought his pictures back. The tragedy occured in England when all but 11 photographs were destroyed in a darkroom accident. But of these 11 pictures there is no doubt about the horrors of that day. It is reflected in the surreal blurry scenes of the invasion. They show war in its messy imperfection. Capa had shaken his camera to give the pictures a sense of motion, but the scenes are in early morning light and the reason they are out of focus is that there was no depth. Capa was shooting with a wide open lens to achieve grim closeup detail. He had captured the confusion, the fear, the intensity, the determination and the dedication of the American troops in the Normandy invasion as no other photographer had ever done.
Capa was also able to meet the dread of war with comic retorts. There were German garrisons who refused to surrender. The American commanders called upon psychological warfare units which had a German speaking soldier on a loudspeaker saying, “Achtung! Give up your arms” and the Germans would then commence shelling the truck with machine guns and accurate aim. Capa said that he did not like the odds or the story, but he agreed to go on the truck with the loudspeakaer and perhaps photograph the German garrison. The German response was rapid mortar fire and Capa said simply “Let’s get the hell out of here.” Capa’s pronouncement on such an adventure was that if you were going to risk your life it should at least be for a magazine cover. Thus Capa defied the order that French soldiers must be the first to liberate Paris and entered the city on a Spanish Republican tank. He seems to have had this wonderful gift of laughing and pronouncing outrageous ideas coupled with solid good sense. But where did he get a Spanish Republican tank?
There were few photographs of World War II because the Allied forces banned press photography and so civilians could not imagine the trenches. But Capa had recorded the Spanish Civil War and the Japanese invasion of China. He went on to document the Israeli wars. He said that he hoped to stay unemployed as a war photographer till the end of his life. But when he was asked to photograph the French war in Indo-China in 1954 he went again into battle. Ingrid Bergman had begged him to give it up, but he went. The day after he arrived he was killed when he stepped on a land mine. His obituary – “Robert Capa was somewhat careless as a photographer but was carefully dedicated as a man…He left behind a thermos of cognac, a few good suits, a bereaved world, and his pictures, among them some of the greatest recorded moments of modern history. He also leaves a legend, for which there is no other description than — Capa.”
And just a few wonderful quotes from Robert Capa himself because they tell it all about Robert Capa:
For a war correspondent to miss an invasion is like refusing a date with Lana Turner.
If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.
I am a gambler, I decided to go in with Company E in the first wave.
In a war you must hate somebody or love somebody; you must have a position or you cannot stand what goes on.
The pictures are there. You just take them.
The truth is the best picture.