A Republican Spanish militiaman sprawls backward at the moment of his death, his head bent back, showing the impact of a Fascist bullet. A grim American infantryman with set jaw crawls onto Omaha Beach on D day. A French collaborator, her head shaved, is mocked in the streets of Chartres after the town’s liberation by American troops. It was photographer Robert Capa’s fate to live in a time of many wars.
A retrospective of his work is showing at the Public Library Cultural Center. Though Capa is best known for his war photos, the show also includes striking and tender images of friends who were also celebrities–Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, Ingrid Bergman, and others–as well as pictures that document everyday life in many different countries.
The earliest photo in the exhibition–one of Leon Trotsky–was taken in 1932, just before the Nazis came to power; the last was taken in 1954, moments before Capa was killed by a mine in Vietnam. In between, over 22 years, the photographer was able to document the Spanish Civil War, various theaters of World War II, the Israeli war of independence, and the nascent war in Indochina.
Through it all, Capa prided himself on being in the thick of the action. Many of his images were taken directly on the front lines–and they are hallmarked not only by fighting and dying soldiers, but by blurring and occasional shakiness that convey something of the intensity of battle. “He always rode toward the sound of the guns,” wrote his friend Irwin Shaw.
Capa’s use of the new 35-millimeter portable camera made it possible for him to photograph in combat, but it was his bravery and willingness to take risks that endeared him to the soldiers who fought beside him. So impressive was his continued survival in World War II that American officers thought he conferred good luck on hazardous missions.
What really elevated Capa’s work above mere reportage, though, was his sympathy, both for the victims of war and for worthy causes. The Hungarian-born photographer had lived in Budapest, Berlin, and Paris before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and he knew the horrors of Fascism. He photographed that war, then, as if he had a personal stake in the outcome.
“He was a participant,” says Cornell Capa, Robert’s brother and director of the International Center of Photography, which put together the exhibition. “Therefore, these pictures show sympathy for the people who were subjected to strafing from the air, open cities bombed, women and children running. . . . So there was no question which side he was on. He could not be a professional photographer who covered the war one week on the Loyalist side and next week he could go on the Franco side. It was out of the question.” That loyalty was easily transferred to the Allies during World War II.
But Capa’s sympathy for individuals did transcend political lines. His photos of collaborators and captured German soldiers show the same humanitarianism that distinguishes photos of innocent victims. All accounts agree that Capa was very warm, a generous and giving man who would take friends out to a fancy restaurant with the last money in his pocket. His careless way with money enabled him to win and lose thousands of dollars in all-night poker matches, but, according to his friends, his charm enabled him to talk his way out of almost any situation.
That caring and risk-taking made him the ideal war photographer. “I am a gambler,” he wrote on D day in 1944. “I decided to go in with Company E in the first wave.” But Capa’s adventuring left scars. His lover was killed when she was run over by a runaway tank during the war in Spain. And with his passionate devotion to the Loyalist cause, Capa was profoundly depressed by Franco’s eventual victory.
Those twin tragedies strengthened Capa’s allegiance to the Allied cause in World War II. “The liberation of Europe was a serious thing for him,” says Cornell Capa. “Liberating Paris was the most wonderful day that there was. It’s really a great story of being able to bear witness to the forces of evil–it was a great adventure to come back to Europe and participate in the undoing of Fascism and Nazism. Particularly, even beyond everything else, because Spain ended so badly. It was one more chance of redemption, that the right stuff would work. It did.”
The photos in the exhibition depict the extremes of war, from the horrors in the midst of battle to exultant crowds celebrating the liberation of Paris and smaller French and Italian towns. Notably, not a single one of the photos is devoid of people. And almost all are on a very human scale–the subjects are so close their emotions show. We see individuals caught up in history and trying to get by, whether they are Chinese air-raid victims dousing fires or American troops resting for the next battle in the North African desert.
Capa’s great strength was his ability to empathize with his subjects, linking subject, photographer, and viewer. “He was a good friend and a great and very brave photographer,” wrote Hemingway upon hearing of his death. “He was so much alive that it is a hard long day to think of him as dead.”
“Robert Capa: A Retrospective, 1932-1954” runs through September 26 at the Public Library Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington. Gallery hours are 9 to 7 Monday to Thursday, 9 to 6 Friday, and 9 to 5 Saturday. Admission is free; call 346-3278 for details.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/George Rodger–KP.