Robert Capa Photography

Robert Capa

Austrian-Hungarian (1913-1954)

ROBERT CAPA, “Last Man to Die” WWII Germany, 1945, silver print, printed ca. 1950’s or 1960’s, 9 1/2" x 6 3/8”

ROBERT CAPA, “Last Man to Die” WWII Germany, 1945, silver print, printed ca. 1950’s or 1960’s, 9 1/2″ x 6 3/8”

ROBERT CAPA, “Death on a Leipzig Balcony”, 1945, silver print, printed ca. 1940s, 9 1/2” x 6 13/16”

ROBERT CAPA, “Death on a Leipzig Balcony”, 1945, silver print, printed ca. 1940s, 9 1/2” x 6 13/16”

ROBERT CAPA, “Collaborationist is Scorned...”, 1944, silver print, printed ca. 1944, 6 11/16” x 8 7/16”

ROBERT CAPA, “Collaborationist is Scorned…”, 1944, silver print, printed ca. 1944, 6 11/16” x 8 7/16”

ROBERT CAPA, Allied troops use German beach barriers for protection, June 6, 1944, press photograph

ROBERT CAPA, Allied troops use German beach barriers for protection, June 6, 1944, press photograph

ROBERT CAPA, German barriers on French beaches, June 6, 1944, press photograph

ROBERT CAPA, German barriers on French beaches, June 6, 1944, press photograph

ROBERT CAPA, “Saludos Amigos”, 1943, silver print, printed ca. 1943, 6" x 8 1/2"

ROBERT CAPA, “Saludos Amigos”, 1943, silver print, printed ca. 1943, 6″ x 8 1/2″

Biography | Bibliography

Born in Budapest, Austria-Hungary in 1913 as Endre Ern Friedmann, Robert Capa left the country in 1932 after being arrested because of his political involvement with protesters against the government (his parents had encouraged him to settle elsewhere).

Capa originally wanted to be a writer; however, he found work in photography in Berlin and grew to love the art. In 1933, he moved from Germany to France because of the rise of Nazism (he was Jewish), but found it difficult to find work there as a freelance journalist. He adopted the name “Rober Capa” around this time because he felt that it would be recognizable and American-sounding since it was similar to that of film director Frank Capra. (In fact, “cápa” is a Hungarian word meaning shark.)

From 1936 to 1939, he was in Spain, photographing the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. In 1936 he became known across the globe for a photo he took on the Cordoba Front of a Loyalist Militiaman who had just been shot and was in the act of falling to his death. Because of his proximity to the victim and the timing of the capture, there was a long controversy about the authenticity of this photograph. A Spanish historian identified the dead soldier as Federico Borrell García, from Alcoi (Valencia). There is a second photograph showing another soldier who fell on the same spot.

Many of Capa’s photographs of the Spanish Civil War were, for many decades, presumed lost, but surfaced in Mexico City in the late 1990s. While fleeing Europe in 1939, Capa had lost the collection, which over time came to be dubbed the “Mexican suitcase”. Ownership of the collection was transferred to the Capa Estate, and in December, 2007, moved to the International Center of Photography, a museum founded by Capa’s younger brother Cornell in Manhattan.

At the start of World War II, Capa was in New York City. He had moved there from Paris to look for new work and to escape Nazi persecution. The war took Capa to various parts of the European Theatre on photography assignments. He first photographed for Collier’s Weekly, before switching to Life after he was fired by the former. When first hired, he was a citizen of Hungary, but he was also Jewish, which allowed him to negotiate visas to Europe. He was the only “enemy alien” photographer for the Allies. On October 7, 1943, Capa was in Naples with Life reporter Will Lang Jr. and photographed the Naples post office bombing.

His most famous work occurred on June 6, 1944 (D-Day) when he swam ashore with the second assault wave on Omaha Beach. He was armed with two Contax II cameras mounted with 50 mm lenses and several rolls of spare film. Capa took 106 pictures in the first couple of hours of the invasion. However, a staff member at Life made a mistake in the darkroom; he set the dryer too high and melted the emulsion in the negatives. Only eleven frames in total were recovered.

Although a fifteen-year-old lab assistant named Dennis Banks was responsible for the accident, another account, now largely accepted as untrue but which gained widespread currency, blamed Larry Burrows, who worked in the lab not as a technician but as a “tea-boy”. Life magazine printed 10 of the frames in its June 19, 1944 issue with captions that described the footage as “slightly out of focus”, explaining that Capa’s hands were shaking in the excitement of the moment (something which he denied). Capa used this phrase as the title of his alternately hilarious and sad autobiographical account of the war, Slightly Out of Focus.

In 1947, Capa traveled into the Soviet Union with his friend, writer John Steinbeck. He took photos in Moscow, Kiev, Tbilisi, Batumi and among the ruins of Stalingrad. The humorous reportage of Steinbeck, A Russian Journal was illustrated with Capa’s photos. It was first published in 1948.

In 1947, Capa founded Magnum Photos with Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Vandivert, David Seymour, and George Rodger. In 1951, he became the president.

In the early 1950s, Capa traveled to Japan for an exhibition associated with Magnum Photos. While there, Life magazine asked him to go on assignment to Southeast Asia, where the French had been fighting for eight years in the First Indochina War. Despite the fact he had sworn not to photograph another war a few years earlier, Capa accepted and accompanied a French regiment with two other Time-Life journalists, John Mecklin and Jim Lucas.

On May 25, 1954 at 2:55 p.m., the regiment was passing through a dangerous area under fire when Capa decided to leave his jeep and go up the road to photograph some of the advance. About five minutes later, Mecklin and Lucas heard a loud explosion.  Capa had stepped on a landmine. When they arrived on the scene he was still alive, but his left leg had been blown to pieces and he had a serious wound in his chest. Mecklin screamed for a medic and Capa’s body was taken to a small field hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival. He had died with his camera in his hand.

Bibliography

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Cornell Capa, Richard Whelan, Robert Capa Photographs, New York: Aperture, 1996.

Cornell Capa, Richard Whelan, Robert Capa: The Definitive Collection, New York: Phaidon Press, Inc., 2001.

Robert Capa, Robert Capa: Slightly Out of Focus, New York: Henry Holt & Company, Inc., 1947.

Robert Capa, Robert Capa: Photographs, New York: Alfred K. Knopf, 1985.

Robert Capa, Cornell Capa, Robert Capa, Retrospectiva: 1932-1954, Madrid: Fundacion Caja de Pensiones, 1989.

Robert Capa, Children of War, Children of Peace: Photographs by Robert Capa, New York: Bulfinch Press, 1991.

Robert Capa, Esperanza Aguirre Gil De Biedma, Jose Guirao Cabrera, and Cornell Capa, Heart of Spain: Robert Capa’s Photographs of the Spanish Civil War, From the Collection of the Museo Nacional Centro De Arte Reina Sofia, New York: Aperture, 1999.

Marc Scheps, Cornell Capa, Micha Bar-Am, haim Gouri, John Steinbeck, Robert Capa: Photographs From Israel 1948-1950, Or Yehuda, Israel: Zmora-Bitan, 1988.

Richard Whelan, This is War! Robert Capa at Work, New York: International Center of Photography, 2007.