Historical Photographers: Robert Capa

Some of the most famous photos taken during the twentieth century were photos taken in times of war and strife. Brave photographers, armed with cameras instead of rifles, took to the fields of war alongside soldiers and captured the hectic heroism of war. One of those photographers, most well-known for the images of the Allied forces storming the beaches of Normandy, was Robert Capa.

Robert Capa was born Endre Ernő Friedmann in Budapest, Austria-Hungary in 1913. Finding little to do in his homeland, he left at 18 with aspirations to become a writer. However, while working in Berlin, he discovered photography. He worked as a photographer there until 1933 when he moved to France. Finding it easier to sell his photographs under a more American name, he adopted the name “Robert Capa.” “Capa” came from both his nickname — cápa, meaning “shark,” — and in honor of the early 1900s film director Frank Capra. Robert Capa’s first published photograph was one he took of Leon Trotsky in 1932 during Trotsky’s speech “The Meaning of the Russian Revolution” in Copenhagen.

From there, Capa’s work and photographs began a steady climb. Throughout the late 1930s, Capa, his photography partner and fiancé Gerda Taro, and Daniel Seymour traveled throughout Spain capturing images and reporting on the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. During this period, Capa is believed to have taken the photo “The Falling Soldier.” This photo’s authorship is still disputed with many believing it belongs to Capa while others, most notably several Spanish newspapers, claiming that it was taken, not in Cerro Muriano as Capa and his supporters claim, but rather near Espejo, 10 kilometers away. The falling soldier in the photo has been identified as Federico Borrell García, from Alcoi (Alicante) who was believed to have been killed during a firefight between Spain and the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification Militiamen. Those who believe that Capa did not take this photograph allege that it was staged and that the falling soldier was not killed. In 1937, Capa left Taro to take a brief business trip back to Paris. Taro was killed in near Brunete during a battle. Capa took her death hard and would never marry. His only other relationship would be with Elaine Justin during the Second World War.

After the Spanish Civil War, Capa traveled to China in 1938 and documented the Chinese resistance to Imperial Japan’s invasion of the Chinese homeland. He then returned to Europe for a brief spell before escaping to Mexico where a misadventure caused many of the images from the Spanish Civil War to be lost for decades took place. While in Mexico during this flight from Europe, Capa lost the collection of his photos and negatives. Dubbed the “Mexican suitcase,” this collection was only found in the 1990s when the owner of the negatives, Benjamin Tarver, decided to return them to the families and estates of the those who had taken the photographs. The Mexican suitcase contained over 4,500 negatives, many of them taken by Capa and Taro. Ownership of these images was given to the Capa estate and the collection can now be viewed at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan, a museum founded by Robert Capa’s younger brother Cornell.

When the Second World War broke out, Capa was in New York City looking for work. He had fled Europe to look for work during the Great Depression as well as to escape persecution from the Nazis. Capa quickly found work with several American magazines, Collier and Life among them, and was sent out on assignment to the European theater of the Second World War. He was the only “enemy alien” photographer the Allied forces had. In July and August of 1943, Capa found himself in Sicily with the American troops as they advanced on Troina. Capa captured images of the Sicilian people’s suffering under German domination and their joy when they were liberated by the American forces. One of the most well-known images Capa took during this phase of the war shows a Sicilian peasant pointing out the way that the German troops had taken near Sperlinga. Near the end of his time in Sicily, Capa and Will Lang, Jr., were in Naples and captured images of the Naples post office bombing.

After his assignments in Sicily, Capa was sent to join the D-Day forces in Britian. He was with the second wave of American troops to come onto the Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day. From there, he captured his most famous photographs — the Magnificant Eleven collection. In reality, Capa took over one hundred photos of the D-Day landings but, due to a fire at the photo lab in London, only eleven survive.

After the end of World War II, Capa and John Steinbeck traveled to the USSR where Capa took photos of Moscow, Kiev, Tbilisi, Batumi, and the ruins of Stalingrad. Steinbeck wrote a humorous book during their trip (A Russian Journal) which was illustrated with many of Capa’s photographs.

In 1947, Capa, along with Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Vandivert, David Seymour, and George Rodger, founded Magnum Photos. He became president of this venture in 1951. Capa also toured the newly-refounded nation of Israel and took many photographs which were published in Irwin Shaw’s book Report on Israel. During the 1950s, Capa traveled to Indochina on assignment for Life magazine. Though he had vowed not to photograph another war, Capa was persuaded to take the assignment. On May 25, 1954, he stepped out of the Jeep in which he and several others were traveling and decided to walk up the road to photograph the advance. He stepped on a landmine and died shortly thereafter.

Capa’s photography, short-lived though it was, inspired a new generation of war photographers. Today, many of his photos can be viewed in the museum his younger brother, Cornell Capa — also a photographer — founded in Manhattan. The Overseas Press Club also created a medal in his honor. The Robert Capa Gold Medal is given annually to the photographer who provides the “best published photographic reporting from abroad, requiring exceptional courage and enterprise.” Capa’s style changed the way that wars were photographed as well. Disdaining remaining safely at arm’s length, Capa joined the soldiers in the trenches and was quoted as saying that “if your picture isn’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

— da Bird