Friday, 22 February 2008

Profile: Robert Capa - Part II

First wave of troops landing at Omaha beach 6th June 1944 - Photograph by Robert Capa

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 two of this photographer's profile we take a look at Capa's life covering World War II and beyond until his death in Indochina.

In 1939 Robert Capa was one of the most famous photojournalists of the era. His images of the Spanish civil war and in the conflict in China ,where the Chinese were fighting a bitter battle against the invading Japanese, had made him a famous name. His new contract with LIFE magazine gave him some financial security but Capa realised that he needed to get U.S citizenship to be able to stay in the USA, a difficult process that would take far longer than Capa could ever have thought; indeed within months of Capa's arrival, the US immigration authorities were threating to throw him out of America. The Hungarian photographer's grasp of the English language didn't help either. Ed Thompson, the editor of LIFE who gave Capa his contract, later commented that he could barely understand a word Capa was saying due to his thick hungarian accent. His citizenship problems would rumble on for nearly a decade, later causing him trouble with attaining frontline accreditation during WWII.
LIFE may have had Capa on a contract but as World War II started to play out, the magazine seemed reluctant to send its highly regarded photographer anywhere near the battlefront. RobertCapa remained firmly in the U.S photographing domestic stories as across the Atlantic Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain were being fought. It wasn't until the spring of 1941 that Capa was allowed to cross the Atlantic via convoy to Liverpool but to Capa's frustration the Battle of Britain had just about run its course. Initially he requested to go to the Soviet Union and photograph the war on the Eastern front but he heard nothing from the Soviet authorities. During the months of waiting for a visa to enter the USSR, Capa covered rountine magazine asssignments and provided images for a book about the residents of blitz damaged Waterloo Road in the East end of London. Capa's images of one household, the Gibbs, beautifully documented how the ordeal of the blitz had affected the ordinary working man and his family.

Robert Capa's entry into the frontline came in March 1943 when he arrived in North Africa to cover the final thrust against the Afrika Korps and the invasion of Sicily. Due to Capa's Hungarian background, the famous war photographer had found that he was still registered as a 'enemy alien' with the US authorities making the process of accreditation for the frontline a difficult one. The images of the war in Italy are among Capa's best and its ironic that these images were taken on a battle front that is now largely forgotten about by historians and the public alike. His welcome to the war was to witness the carnage left by German boobytraps, usually placed in public buildings like post offices and timed to go off to cause the maximum amount of casualties. It was during this period in Italy that Capa met George Rodger, a British photographer working for LIFE, who like Capa had thought about setting up a co-operative photo agency run by photographer FOR photographers. It was during these meetings that the idea for Magnum started to take shape, mainly due to both photographers unhappiness with their time shooting for LIFE. Both Capa and Rodger would go on to photograph the invasion of France on D-Day.

Rodger's experience of D-Day at Arromanches would be, as he later called it ' a blaze of anti-climax'. Capa, on the other hand, experienced the whole firestorm bloodbath (there were over over 2000 casualties) of Omaha beach with Company E in the first wave of landings. Using two Contax rangefinder cameras, he exposed 72 frames whilst the water but an overexcited darkroom assistant (under pressure to get the images developed no doubt) turned up the film dryer temperature too high which started to melt the film emulsion -all but 11 frames were destroyed by the heat. Capa was understandably furious but to his credit when LIFE mentioned firing the poor assistant responsible, Capa remarked that he wouldn't take another image for LIFE again if they did.
In later years a rumour persisted that the darkroom assistant was none other than Larry Burrows but Ed Thompson, the LIFE editor at that time, stated catagorically that this was not true. Although the loss of the other images was tragic, the Capa photographs that survived are more dramatic for the grain and blurry image quality. The image of the G.I's wading throught water has a upclose look of urgency, a cold sea and the fear encountered when underfire that no other images captured. When the photographs were published in LIFE, the magazine stated that Capa had forgotten to focus due to the terrifying nature of being underfire -much to Capa's fury. Capa's images of D-day and the following weeks of fighting in Normandy remain a definitive record of that historic event. The photographer managed to capture the scale 0f the invasion while uniquely retaining an individual's eye view of the battle. Capa's grainy intensely emotional images taken on the landing craft and in the cold sea are about as close as we can get to seeing what a GI witnessed at Omaha. The experiences that Capa witnessed during the Normandy landings and in later fighting in the Bocage were to have an profound effect on his view of war photography's future.

World War II continued on its course and wherever the front was located , Capa would not be far behind. Capa's beloved Paris was liberated in the summer of 1944, reuniting him with many of his old friends including artists like Matisse and Picasso. The images of a newly liberated Paris show a vibrant and relieved population but Capa's images also witnessed the first dark signs of retribution on suspected collaborators. After the liberation festivities in Paris, Capa continued to photograph the allied army at the front and the preparations for the impending invasion of Germany. In March 1945 a massive airborne force including Robert Capa landed in German. Capa made the jump with the 17th Airborne Division even though he'd never parachuted before, shooting that operation only due to a colleague being too ill to go, creating the spare place that Capa quickly filled. The images from Germany show the bitter nature of the Allies war in the last months of its life. The war in Europe was soon to finally come to an end and Capa had already begun thinking about the future of war photography. The atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki reinforced his view that warfare had changed forever with future conflicts being won or lost with just the push of a button. Capa had also lost many of his family in Hungary to the holocaust. It would be several years before Capa could make his way to Auschwitz to see where a number of his family had been killed.

With the war over, Capa returned to America and started work on creating what would become the Magnum photo agency. His experiences of working for LIFE during the war directly influenced his decision to create the co-operative agency for photographers. The main thing that Capa wanted was control over his work and with the newly established Magnum agency he would get that. Capa had by this time gained US citizenship which helped him concentrate on agency work without the worries of deportation. Robert Capa continued to lead Magnum during the early years of the agency, showing a lot of vision, determination and direction. Magnum soon had offices in New York and Paris with a lineup of new, young and talented photographers but Capa was becoming disillusioned with earning a living through photography. Up until his death Capa mixed the roles of Magnum leader and photo-journalist as best he could but at times Capa found the challange of running the Magnum business tiresome. Many believe that he may have ended his career as a photographer had he lived but fate had another plan for him. Capa covered various different assignments during the early 1950's creating more powerful images but he stayed away from being a war photographer until he was sent to Indochina where the French were fighting to retain control of their colony. Ironically Robert Capa only went to Indo-China because the LIFE photographer Howard Sochurek had returned to America because his mother was ill.

On 25th may 1954 Capa was killed after standing on a anti personnel mine near Thai Binh. He was forty years old and the first American journalist to be killed in Indo-China, later to be renamed Vietnam. The legacy that Capa left is not just represented by the images he shot during his short life - he also left a major influence on photography that has remained strong and intact to this day. The Magnum agency that he helped establish still has the reputation as the home to some of the best photographers in the world. The agency needed a strong and tough leader when it was formed and Capa was perfect in that role - his influence over that agency is still strong today. The other major Capa influence is on how photographers work. The Capa quote ' If your photographs aren't good enough, you're not close enough."' is as true now as it was sixty or seventy years ago. The camera technology may have changed but the skills involved in photojournalism remain the same.

Robert Capa is often called a war photographer but he described himself as a photojournalist. His work in Mexico, China, U.S.A, and the U.K provides the proof, if it were needed, that Capa was a great photojournalist capable of creating great images during peacetime but it will be for his images of war during the early/mid part of the 20th century that he will be best remembered.

All images by Robert Capa unless stated otherwise



Top left : Robert Capa - image by Ruth
Middle right : Robert Capa and George Rodger
Middle left : A lone G.I struggling ashore at Omaha beach

Bottom middle right : German SS officer searched by a military policeman
Bottom left : Robert Capa ready for his parachute jump

Bottom right : Robert Capa's final exposed frame on the road to Thai Binh, 25th May 1954

Anyone interested in further reading about Robert Capa's images and life story should look at the Phaidon book 'Robert Capa - The Definitive Collection'.

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