Published in British Journalism Review, Volume 13, No.3, 2002
Blood and Champagne:
The Life and Times of Robert Capa
by Alex Kershaw
Let’s get the bad stuff over first. Robert Capa was a liar, a compulsive gambler, a depressive, a heavy drinker, and a womaniser (especially with prostitutes). He used people, broke promises and when he was accused of being a communist and the U.S. State Department kept his passport, he “named names”, to get it back.
At the urging of the appalling Henry Luce, the founder of Life and producer of the March of Time newsreel series, he staged Republican attacks on Fascist positions during the Spanish Civil War and filmed them, noting that they looked “more real” than if they had actually taken place. And, I maintain, he faked the most famous war photograph of all time, the Spanish soldier at the moment of death.
A review of this excellent, objective and exhaustive biography is not the place to go into all the evidence that made me conclude back in 1974 that the moment of death photograph was a fake. The author seems to me to do this admirably.
But I suspect that Capa did not set out deliberately to fool the world with the photograph. He posed it because he intended it to be symbolic, as, indeed, the caption with its first publication in the French magazine Vu in 1936 made clear.
But then, a year later, Life got hold of it and someone–no one will admit who–wrote a new caption that changed the photograph utterly: “A Spanish soldier the instant he is dropped by a bullet through the head.” It created a sensation and Capa was suddenly famous. I understand his dilemma. Should he have jumped up and down and shouted, “No. No. You’ve got it wrong. It’s not real?” Or just have kept quiet, telling himself that the fuss had nothing to do with him?
Perhaps it didn’t. The author has found a British academic, Caroline Brothers, who blames the public at large. “The fame of this photograph is indicative of a collective imagination which wanted and still wants to believe certain things about the nature of death in war. What this image argued was that death in war is heroic, and tragic, and that the individual counted and his death mattered.”
Either way, from that moment Capa never looked back. He was born Andre Friedmann in Budapest–”It’s not enough to have talent,” he said, “You also have to be Hungarian.” He got his first break in Berlin where, working for one of the many photo agencies that flourished all over Europe in the 1930s, he photographed Trotsky addressing a huge crowd on “The Meaning of the Russian Revolution”.
Hard times followed in Paris where at one stage he was reduced to fishing in the Seine in the hope of catching his dinner. In 1936, just before Capa and his new girlfriend, a tiny, red-haired communist called Gerda, went to Spain they both changed their names. Andre Friedmann became Robert Capa because “it sounded American and was easy to pronounce.” Gerda had a better reason changing her name to Taro: her real name was Pohorylles.
Spain was the happiest period their short lives. They were friends with Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn and Herbert Matthews of the New York Times. They were all committed to the Republican cause and hoped that they were helping win the war. Then Gerda was crushed to death by an out-of-control Republican tank and Capa was never the same again. He told Martha Gellhorn, “In war you must hate somebody or love somebody. You must have a position or you cannot stand what goes on.”
At the D-Day invasion in 1944 his photographs of GIs struggling through the waves to land on the Normandy beaches are considered by many to be the greatest pictures of the war. But his spark seemed to have dimmed and his commitment had faded. The author makes the important point that in every article bearing his pictures for Life, his work was captioned to support Henry Luce’s view of the world. Was this at the back of Capa’s mind when he became a co-founder of Magnum which to this day insists that the captions on its photographers’ pictures should not be amended.
His peace-time work was undistinguished. He went with John Steinbeck to the Soviet Union to do a big photo-essay. Steinbeck said later that he did not want to work with Capa ever again. To get his photographs Capa had promised to send people gifts from America–cameras or anything else they fancied–but he did not keep his word and Steinbeck himself had to do it.
The fact is that you could not trust a lot of what Capa said, something he was quite willing to admit himself. Part of the dustjacket blurb for his book, Slightly Out of Focus, reads :”Writing the truth being so obviously difficult, I have in the interests of it allowed myself to go sometimes slightly beyond and slightly this side of it. All events and persons in this book are accidental and have something to do with the truth.”
All right, possibly a Capa joke. But what are we to make of his reaction to the loss of his American passport because of an FBI report full of ludicrous allegations that he was a Communist and supported Communist causes? He swore an affidavit to the passport authorities denying that he had ever been a member of the Communist Party but then went on to name some who were, including his old colleague and friend Joris Ivens: “probably a communist”. Some of his friends believed that he cut a deal with the CIA–in return for his passport he became a CIA agent.
Life staff photographer Hansel Mieth said of Capa: “He was a made-up person, mostly by himself. . . He was made up of many people, some very good, some not so good. . . .” So let’s end with some of the good. He was great fun to be with, charming, generous and considerate He was an inspirational mentor and the staff of Magnum remember him with enormous affection. He was physically brave and took enormous risks to get the photograph.
He was probably the first photographer to bring home the horror that war inflicts on civilians. His pictures of petrified Spanish mothers and children after a fascist bombing raid on Madrid are a better tribute to his skill as a war photographer than the discredited “moment of death” image.
Capa died in Vietnam on 25 May 1954 when hit by a mortar, the first American correspondent killed in a war that would later claim many more. He was barely 40. His career had probably run its course and he was growing increasingly pessimistic about the future of photojournalism, believing that television would soon take over. It is no consolation to those who knew and loved him, but Robert Capa would not have taken kindly to old age.