One of the great war photographers, the photojournalist Robert Capa (1913-1954), born in Hungary, but a naturalized U.S. citizen, photographed the tumultuous 1930s and the wars that followed. After World War II he helped found Magnum Photos, an international photographic agency.
In a sense Robert Capa invented himself. The son of middle class Jewish parents, he was born Endre Friedmann in Budapest in what was then Austro-Hungary. He grew up under the dictatorship of Regent Nicholas Horthy but accepted the ideas of the artist Lajos Kassák, who spear-headed the avant garde movement in Hungary. Kassák's anti-authoritarian, anti-fascist, pro-labor, egalitarian, and pacifist beliefs influenced Capa the rest of his life. At age 18 Capa was arrested by the secret police for his political activities. He was released through the intervention of his father but was banished from Hungary.
Moving to Berlin in 1931, he worked as a darkroom assistant at Dephot (Deutscher Photodienst), the leading photo-journalist enterprise in Germany. This agency was distinguished by its use of the new small cameras and fast film that allowed photographers to capture fleeting gestures and to take pictures even in poor light. With these advances the photographer could focus on human events and move away from the carefully posed rows of diplomats that had characterized news photography until then. Capa soon mastered the new cameras and was occasionally sent out on small photographic assignments. In his first major break, he was sent to Copenhagen to photography Leon Trotsky. His photos of an impassioned Trotsky addressing the crowd captured Trotsky's charismatic oratorical style.
With Hitler's rise to power, Capa eventually moved to Paris. There he met Gerda Pohorylles, who called herself Gerda Taro, and fell in love with her. She wrote the text for his stories and acted as his agent. Taro found she could charge much more for a photo taken by a "rich American" photographer named Robert Capa than she could for the photographs of a poor Hungarian named Endre Friedmann. Thus the internationally known Robert Capa was born.
Capa and Taro were sent to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War, where Capa took the picture that made him famous—a dying Loyalist soldier falling from the impact of a bullet. In July 1937 Taro was killed by a tank which sideswiped the car she had clambered onto in the retreat from Brunete. She was 26. Capa later dedicated his book Death in the Making, "to Gerda Taro, who spent one year at the Spanish front and who stayed on. R. C."
From 1941 to 1945 Capa photographed World War II in Europe as correspondent for Collier's and then Life magazine. On D-Day, 1944, he landed in the second wave on Omaha Beach. The soldiers, pinned down by unexpectedly heavy fire, sought shelter wherever they could. Capa, crouching with them, snapped pictures of the incoming troops. In London the lab assistant who was processing the films as quickly as possible turned up the heat in the print dryer and melted the emulsion on the negatives. The 11 that survived are slightly out of focus due to the melted emulsion, but the blurring adds to their effectiveness by conveying the confusion and danger.
After the war the photographer became what he always claimed he wanted to be—an unemployed war correspondent. He worked on a variety of projects, including a book about Russia with text by John Steinbeck. He returned to war photography briefly to cover the Israeli war of independence, 1948-1949.
In 1948 he had put into effect his long held dream of a cooperative photographic agency that would free photographers to concentrate on stories that interested them rather than spending their time scrounging assignments. The other founders of the Magnum Photo Agency were Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour ("Chim"), William Vandivert, and George Rodger. Capa's legacy, beyond his wonderful photographs, included his commitment to nurturing young photographers, for his help extended beyond mere teaching to ensuring that they had enough to eat and the freedom to work as they pleased. Though he was often short of cash himself, he was extremely generous in his support of others.
While on an assignment in Japan Capa was asked to fill in for a photographer covering the French Indochina War. He was killed when he stepped on a land mine on May 25, 1954, at Thai-Binh.
For Capa, war always had a human face. His photographs, a deeply moving account of the boredom, terror, and insanity of war, are characterized by a direct appeal to the emotions, the response of average people to events beyond their control. Close up photos of a few people express the emotional impact of the whole. And his pictures were inevitably of people; beautiful compositions of inanimate objects did not interest him unless they somehow expressed the human element, as for instance his photo of an airplane propeller used as a German pilot's tombstone. He was impassioned, and therefore his photos always had a certain bias, but it was a humane bias. He hated war, never glorified it, and never saw himself as heroic. Despite his saying, "If your photos aren't good enough, you aren't close enough," he never took chances unless the photo demanded it.
Further Reading on Robert Capa
Robert Capa's photographs appear in Images of War (1964), The Concerned Photographer (1968), and Israel/ The Reality (1969). The latter two were edited by his brother, Cornell Capa. Robert Capa published several books, including an autobiography, Slightly Out of Focus (1947), and a book of photographs for which he wrote the text, Death in the Making (1937). These texts should be taken with a grain of salt as a good story was more important to him than the truth. To understand the loyalty Capa inspired in his friends, read the essays in Robert Capa (1974) compiled by Cornell Capa. However, to help sort fact from fiction the best source is Robert Capa (1985) by Richard Whelan. Whelan, with Cornell Capa, edited Robert Capa: Photographs (1985), which includes many photographs before they were cropped by picture editors.
Additional Biography Sources
Whelan, Richard, Robert Capa: a biography, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.