ROBERT CAPA (1913-1954) On May 25, 1954, the career of Robert Capa, whose exploits as a war photographer had made him a legend in modern photography, came to an abrupt end when he stepped on a land mine on an obscure battlefield in Indochina.
Robert Capa was somewhat careless as a photographer but was carefully dedicated as a man. He participated with courage in almost every great tragedy of his time, and never lost heart nor faith. He was incredibly quick to guess the truth. Knowing the truth, he took risks, risks which were never calculated to hurt anyone but himself. Like most he had faults, but his faults were invariably charming and his virtues never boring. He dressed well, ate well, and picked up the check. He drank frequently, but never to get drunk. And then he went home, to a hotel room. He was at home in any major city of the world, and slightly uncomfortable in the country.
He knew war well, so well he despised it. He sought for peace without expecting it. He was a menace in only one respect. He was perhaps the world’s worst driver. He took no greater risk in war than in crossing the Champs Elysees He teased the old and made them laugh. He taught the young without their knowing it. Children loved him, as did many women. But he never discussed his deepest affections. He suffered behind the scenes from loneliness, insecurity, heartbreak. He died with a camera in his left hand, his story unexpectedly finished. 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.
Robert Capa was born Andrei Friedmann in Budapest in 1913. Deciding that there was little future under the regime in Hungary, he left home at 18 and found a job as a darkroom apprentice with a Berlin picture agency. He shot pictures on the side, and scored his first scoop with some exclusive pictures of Leon Trotsky.
When Hitler took over, Andrei Friedmann took off for Paris. There with his Polish fianc閑, Gerda Taro, he struggled to get established in the rugged business of free lance journalism. The story of this struggle is recounted in John Hersey’s classic magazine article, "The Man Who Invented Himself."
Andrei and Gerda decided to form an association of three people. Gerda was to serve as secretary and sales representative; Andrei was to be a darkroom hired hand; and these two were to be employed by a rich, famous, and talented (and imaginary) American photographer named Robert Capa, then allegedly visiting France. The ‘three’ went to work. Friedmann took the pictures, Gerda sold them, and credit was given the non-existent Capa. Since this Capa was supposed to be so rich, Gerda refused to let his pictures go to any French newspaper for less than 150 francs apiece, three times the prevailing rate.
The secret was soon found out by editor Lucien Vogel of Vue. But it did not matter. He sent Capa and Gerda to Spain, where Capa became famous overnight for his remarkable picture of a dying Spanish soldier. Gerda stayed on, meeting her death on the battlefield. Grief-stricken, Capa went off to China where he took a series of memorable pictures at the battle of Taierchwang, the only significant Chinese victory of the entire war.
Returning to Europe, he covered the Spanish war until its end in early 1939. When World War II broke out, he found himself in America, technically an enemy alien. But he got an assignment from Collier’s, and in 1942 joined the invasion convoy to North Africa, where he switched to the Life staff.
Leaving Africa, Capa jumped into Sicily with the paratroops and went on to the attack on "the soft under belly of the Axis" in the cold grim winter campaign of 1943-44. Soon after Anzio he left Italy for London, and a wild intermission of poker playing and partying with such old friends as Ernest Hemingway, Irwin Shaw, William Saroyan, and John Steinbeck.
On June 6, 1944, an assault barge landed Robert Capa on Omaha Beach. Stumbling ashore under heavy fire, he exposed four rolls of the most famous films in history. As luck would have it, all but eleven frames were ruined in Life’s London darkroom when the emulsion ran in an over-heated drying cabinet. However, Life, and the world press, published the surviving images, calling them "slightly out of focus" from the blurred emulsion. And Capa maintained his dangerous franchise as the most colorful war photographer.
He was to see the war through to its bitter end, actually photographing the death of one of the last Americans killed. But he missed the Armistice, when, in a rare case of misjudgment, he pooh-poohed the tip that would have given him an exclusive.
Capa wanted no more war, but he could not resist covering the birth of Israel in 1949 with Irwin Shaw. By this time he had also participated, with his old friends Henri Cartier-Bresson, David ("Chim") Seymour, George Rodger, and William Vandivert in the birth of Magnum Photos, the first and still the only international cooperative agency of free lance photographers.
This marked a new development in Capa’s career. He became an international businessman, selling and stimulating the work of Magnum photographers as the group grew to include Werner Bischof, Ernst Haas, and many others. With John Steinbeck he went to Russia in 1947, returning with a memorable story for the Ladies’ Home Journal. Also for the Journal, the Magnum group did a series on international family life called "People Are People the World Over," a photographic forerunner of the "Family of Man."
Capa began to think of his future in terms of writing combined with photography and wrote several charming pieces for Holiday. He already had four books to his credit: "Death in the Making" on the Spanish Civil War, "Waterloo Bridge" on the London Blitz, "A Russian Journal," with Steinbeck narrative, and "Slightly Out of Focus" on World War II (sold to Hollywood but never filmed). His literary style was his own: "To me war is like an aging actress—more and more dangerous and less and less photogenic."
In 1954 Capa went to Japan with a Magnum exhibition. While he was there, Life suddenly needed a photographer on the Indochina front. Capa volunteered. But it was one war too many. His luck ran out on May 25. They found him still clutching his camera.
His funeral was held in the old Quaker meeting house at Purchase, New York. In his memory the Overseas Press Club established the Robert Capa Award "for superlative photography requiring exceptional courage and enterprise abroad."