Robert Capa was the prototypical war photographer of the mass media age; a dashing, self-made innovator with an appetite for action and grace on the front lines. A trove of his photos, long thought lost, has recently been found and International Center for Photography director Buzz Hartshorn explains their significance.
BOB GARFIELD: Some pictures of war are seared forever into our consciousness: the Nick Ut photo of the Vietnamese child, Kim Phuc, burned and naked, running from a U.S. fire bombing, Matthew Brady’s ghostly Civil War tableaus and, not least, Robert Capa’s powerful depiction of a Spanish Civil War soldier captured at the moment of his death.
Capa took that photo and won his place in photography’s pantheon when he was only 23, fully embedded on the front lines of the Spanish Civil War. It is the scene of a Republican soldier falling backward at the very instant he is struck by Nationalist fire, and it sums up Capa’s “you are there” command of war photography. That 1936 image is also arguably the first globally iconic war photo, because the Spanish Civil War was the first to be photographed daily with the images distributed worldwide.
Many of his pictures that were thought to be lost surfaced a decade ago in Mexico and, after much negotiation, have finally been acquired by New York’s International Center of Photography. In the aggregate, says the Center’s director, Willis (Buzz) Hartshorn, this Capa cache represents a new opportunity to understand mass media image making from its birthplace on the battlegrounds of the Spanish Civil War. WILLIS HARTSHORN: For the first time, you really have this kind of collective consciousness of history and what’s going on, and you have people turning to the magazines to try to understand the things that they’re hearing about on the radio or through news reports. BOB GARFIELD: Now, I don’t know about his predecessors in wartime photography. I do know that he himself is not a neutral observer of the Spanish Civil War. He was nakedly on the side of the Republicans, that is to say, the left- of-center government that was trying to put down a right-wing coup, and he was not shy about his sentiments. WILLIS HARTSHORN: Yeah, I think the simplest thing was he was an anti—Fascist, and the importance of the Spanish Civil War was that it was really the last opportunity in which there was the feeling that one might be able to stem the tide of the rise of Fascism. You know, you’re talking about a man who was born in 1913 and at the age of 16 was thrust out of his home town of Budapest, Hungary, for political leanings that were, you know, naïve and student-like, who goes to Berlin and enrolls in university to study journalism, and then has to leave Berlin because of the rise of the Nazis and he’s Jewish, who goes then to Paris. And he turned to photography as a way of, not only making a living but also a way of kind of understanding the world.
So he’s active in the world. He is personally buffeted around by these political events in a way that probably too many of us don’t really understand or appreciate as that generation has moved on. BOB GARFIELD: I think most of our listeners are well aware of Robert Capa’s general fame in the pantheon of photographers, and especially wartime photographers, but they may also be familiar with him in another way and not even be aware of that. And I’m referring [LAUGHS] to the Alfred Hitchcock movie Rear Window, in which Jimmy Stewart’s character was based on Robert Capa. WILLIS HARTSHORN: He and Ingrid Bergman were very close. And to be with her, he went to Hollywood and sort of kicked around there for a while, and realized that, as the Jimmy Stewart character realized, that he kind of missed the travel and maybe even missed the danger and that he wasn’t going to be able to settle down. [CLIP FROM REAR WINDOW] GRACE KELLY: Isn’t it time you came home? I could get you a dozen assignments tomorrow, fashions, portraits – oh, now, don’t laugh. I could do it. JIMMY STEWART: That is what I’m afraid of. Can you see me driving down to the fashion salon in a jeep, wearing combat boots and a three-day beard? Wouldn’t that make a hit? GRACE KELLY: I could see you looking very handsome and successful in a dark blue flannel suit. JIMMY STEWART: Let’s stop talking nonsense, shall we? Hmm? [END CLIP] WILLIS HARTSHORN: If you think of a photojournalist as a hard-living, fun-loving gambler with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth, with a camera slung over his shoulder, running to an airplane to go to some part of the world, that’s Robert Capa. And that was Robert Capa, and that has become a kind of archetype for the photojournalist. BOB GARFIELD: He not only invented that persona, he invented his own name. When he arrived in Paris his name was not Robert Capa. WILLIS HARTSHORN: No, he was born Andre Friedman, and he moved to Paris and began trying to create a career for himself as a photographer. And he and his companion, Gerda Taro, who unfortunately had a very brief career and was run over by a tank and killed in 1939 covering the Spanish Civil War - he and Gerda were working together. And she was actually kind of his business manager, and she would go out and try to sell his pictures.
And what they realized was that if they created an alter ego, they might be able to sell Capa’s pictures, Friedman’s pictures, more effectively, so they created this American photographer, Robert Capa, who was highly successful. And Gerda would go to the various agencies and say, well surely you must know the work of Robert Capa. He’s one of the most famous American photographers ever, and, you know, here’s an opportunity.
It didn’t take too long [LAUGHS] for the people in the photo agencies in France to realize that Andre Friedman and Robert Capa were the same thing. There’s no indication that this helped him sell a single picture, but it did succeed in changing his name and added the sense of mystique and mystery about the man. BOB GARFIELD: In no way to impugn his skills as a photographer or his courage or his storytelling ability, or any of the other dimensions of his genius - are you certain that this man who invented a name and invented a mythology and did such highly subjective reporting would be able to thrive under the contemporary understanding of journalistic objectivity? WILLIS HARTSHORN: There’s a very small group of journalists working today, and I guess I would think of James Nachtwey and Gil Perez and Susan Meiselas - they’re photographers who are choosing their stories. They’re able to choose their stories by basis of their stature, to bring our attention to those world events that they think cumulatively are the most important things for us to see.
The opportunity for what I’m describing is greatly diminished today because of the lack of picture magazines, the rise of television, etcetera, and you have an extraordinary shift now where you have citizen journalists. You look at the bombings in London and the pictures that we have of those bombings are cell phone videos that were taken by the people who were participants.
And all of a sudden there’s a very different kind of relationship to photography and documentation and where the photographer and where the pictures sit relative to the action. BOB GARFIELD: Well Buzz, I appreciate it. Thank you.
WILLIS HARTSHORN: My pleasure, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: Willis Hartshorn is the director of the International Center of Photography.