Thursday, 7 February 2008

Profile: Robert Capa - Part I

Robert Capa's ' falling soldier' image

Robert Capa is a legendary figure within the photographic world. The influence of his work is felt even now, some 54 years after his death but his own story is just as fascinating as the photographs he took. In part one of this photographer's profile we take a look at the early years and the start of Robert Capa's career.

The Robert Capa story starts in Hungary where he was born Endre Friedmann on October 22nd 1913. Endre Friedmann was the first of many names that Capa would adopt over his lifetime. Endre initially wanted to become a journalist but found that the education opportunities in Hungary were restricted by anti-semitism and political matters. In 1931, at the age of 17 years old, Endre decided to study journalism in Berlin enrolling at Deutsche Hochschule fur Politik. He only studied for a number of semesters before events overtook him and forced him to flee.
In 1933, Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany which resulted in Endre quickly departing Berlin for Vienna to avoid Nazi persecution. After a brief stay in Vienna, Endre moved to Paris where he met the Hungarian photographer Andre Kertesz and was introduced to photography. Kertesz was one of the pioneers in the use of the relatively new 35mm Leica camera and its use in photography for serious artistic and photojournalism work.

The introduction of the 35mm Leica to the young Endre Friedmann was an important milestone in his life. He immediately recognised its potential for reportage and used the small camera to photograph the political demonstrations taking place at that time. It was during this time in Paris he befriended two photographers, David 'Chim' Seymour and Henri Cartier Bresson who would become important figures within the development of Robert Capa - the photographer. Both would later become founder members of the Magnum photo agency along with Endre and the british photographer George Rodger. It was during his time in Paris that Endre Friedmann learned to work as a photographer. The Spanish Civil war would make Capa famous but it was in Paris that he would learn about photography and photojournalism. Commissions were hard to get though, especially for such a new and inexperienced photojournalist as he was and changing his first name to the more French looking Andre didn't seem to make much difference. He would often have to make the decision between a meal for himself or feeding the camera - usually it was the camera that got fed. Henri Cartier Bresson later commented that they very rarely talked about photography during those early days, when they met up in a local Cafe, but it seems likely that Cartier Bresson and Seymour certainly helped in Capa's development as a photographer.

Europe at that time was in political turmoil as right wing politics started to gain favour. Spain had descended into a bitter civil war and it was to this war that the young Andre arrived in 1935. With him was a young German woman called Gerda Pohorylle whom he'd met the previous year. Both had a passion for photography and each other. Gerda would be the love of Andre's life and partly responsible for the introduction of the name Robert Capa. The new name was chosen to help sell work to editors who were reluctant to buy from the unknown Andre Friedmann. Many editors thought that with the Robert Capa name, they were dealing with an American photojournalist. Fees were often three times higher for Capa's images than for other photojournalist's work and a mysterious infamous persona was built around the Robert Capa name. His images appeared in the big magazines of the era like France's Vu, America's LIFE and Britain's The Weekly Illustrated. Many of the original negatives taken during Capa's stay in Spain were recently re-discovered in Mexico City where they had been taken at the start of the World War II. Capa believed until his death that the negatives had been destroyed in Paris during the German invasion. Included within the collection of Robert Capa negatives are some of Gerda's negatives.

The Spanish civil war made a celebrity of the newly named Robert Capa. The image that really made Capa a household name was the 'falling soldier' image taken during a battle on the Cordoba front. Published in 1936, the image is widely regarded as one of the greatest war photographs ever taken. For many years its authenticity was put into question but recent investigation has provided the name Frederico Borrell Garcia as the identity of the soldier captured at the moment of death. This image propelled Capa into the limelight but the success came at a price. In July 1937 Gerda Pohorylle (who had also changed her name to Gerda Taro) died after being run over by a tank. Gerda had not only been Capa's lover but she had also acted as a sort of business manager, selling his work to editors and negotiating fees on Capa's behalf. She was also rather a good photojournalist and it was while doing this that she was killed. Her loss was devastating to Capa. He had hoped to marry her and he never fully recovered from Gerda's loss.
Capa decided to sail for America in the late August of 1937; his mother and brother Cornell had emigrated to the USA earlier that year. Whilst in New York, Capa was able to negotiate a contract with LIFE magazine that would regularly publish his work until his death.

In part two of this profile we will look at Capa's work from 1939 until 1954 including his infamous images of the Omaha beach landings taken during D-Day.

Part two will be posted in the next couple of weeks.

All images by Robert Capa except where otherwise indicated

Top right : Trotsky speaking to Danish University students - November 27th 1932

Top middle : Supporters of the popular front government - Paris 1936

Centre left : Gerda Taro and Robert Capa. Photographer unknown

Bottom right : Gerda Taro working at the front.

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