Over the next few days I’d like to delve into the lives of the photographers that founded the Magnum Photo agency. I’ve come across Capa on several occasions now in my work for Linus Carr and it was about time I read up on him. Capa is known for redefining wartime photojournalism. His work came literally from the trenches as opposed to the more arms-length perspective that was the precedent previously. He was famed for saying, “If your picture isn’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

Robert Capa was born on the 22nd of October 1913 as Endre Erno Friedmann to Born Endre Friedmann to Dezso and Júlia Friedmann in Budapest, Hungary as the oldest of two sons. Deciding that there was little future under the regime in Hungary, he left home at 18. He studied political sciences at the University in Berlin where he was a self-taught photographer and in 1931 he started working as a photo lab assistant at a publishing house (Ullstein). In 1932 and 1933 he worked as a photo assistant at a news agency (Dephot). In 1933, he moved from Germany to France because of the rise of Nazism, but found it difficult to find work there as a freelance journalist. He adopted the name “Robert Capa” around this time – “cápa” (“shark”) was his nickname in school.

From 1936 to 1939, he was in Spain, photographing the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, along with Gerda Taro (born Gerda Pohorylle), his companion and professional photography partner, and David Seymour. In 1936, Capa became known across the globe for the “Falling Soldier” photo. There has been a long controversy about the authenticity of this photograph and whether or not it was staged.

In July 1937 Capa went on a short business trip to Paris while Gerda remained in Madrid. She was killed near Brunete during a battle. Capa, who was reportedly engaged to her, was deeply shocked and never married. In 1938, he travelled to the Chinese city of Hankow, now called Wuhan, to document the resistance to the Japanese invasion. Many of Capa’s photographs of the Spanish Civil War were, for many decades, presumed lost when Capa fled Europe in 1939, but surfaced in Mexico City in the late 1990s.Ownership of the collection was transferred to the Capa Estate, and in December 2007 was moved to the International Centre of Photography, a museum founded by Capa’s younger brother Cornell.

At the start of World War II, Capa was in New York City to find work. 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. He was the only “enemy alien” photographer for the Allies.
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 in London made a mistake in the darkroom; he set the dryer too high and melted the emulsion in the negatives in three complete rolls and over half of a fourth roll. Although a fifteen-year-old lab assistant named Dennis Banks was responsible for the accident, another account, now largely accepted as untrue but that gained widespread currency, blamed Larry Burrows, who worked in the lab not as a technician but as a “tea-boy”. Only eight frames in total were recovered. Capa never said a word to the London bureau chief about the loss of three and a half rolls of his D-Day landing film.

Life magazine printed some 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 that he denied). Capa used this phrase as the title of his autobiographical account of the war, Slightly Out of Focus. In this work, he also tells about his romance with Elaine Justin, a beautiful young redhead he used to call ‘Pinky’. They were together from February 1943 until 1945 when they broke up and Elaine married her friend, Chuck Romaine.

After this romance, Capa became the lover of actress Ingrid Bergman, who was travelling in Europe at the time entertaining American soldiers. In December 1945, Capa followed her to Hollywood, where he worked for American International Pictures for a short time. Bergman tried to persuade him to marry her, but Capa didn’t want to live in Hollywood. The relationship ended in the summer of 1946 when Capa travelled to Turkey.

In 1947 Capa travelled 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 the cooperative venture Magnum Photos with Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Vandivert, David “Chim” Seymour, and George Rodger. His early guidance and charismatic personality were critical to the agency’s success.

Capa toured Israel after its founding, and supplied the copious photographs for a book on the new nation written by Irwin Shaw, Report on Israel.

In the early 1950s, Capa travelled 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 the advance. About five minutes later, Mecklin and Lucas heard an 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 called for a medic and Capa was taken to a small field hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival. He died with his camera in his hand.

In order to preserve the photographic heritage of Capa and other photographers, Capa’s younger brother, Cornell Capa (a photographer himself) founded the International Fund for Concerned Photography in 1966. To give this collection a permanent home he founded the International Centre of Photography in New York City in 1974.

The Overseas Press Club created an award in his honour, the Robert Capa Gold Medal. It is given annually to the photographer who provides the “best published photographic reporting from abroad, requiring exceptional courage and enterprise”.

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