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Robert Capa: Love and War

Robert Capa is famous for the strange juxtapositions of his life: love and war, romantic ideals and brutal regimes, joy and suffering. He moved in artistic circles during the mid twentieth century that epitomise our illusions of the romance of war. Like many of his friends, who included Ernest Hemingway and Henri Cartier-Bresson, he was a sensitive man drawn to big events, whose fast-living and verve concealed true desperation at the awfulness of the times he witnessed.


Early Years

Capa was born Andre Friedman in Budapest, Hungary, in the year 1913. As a young man he was ambitious, idealistic and very conscious of injustice, including where it impacted him as a Jewish outsider in his home country. He fell in with leftist revolutionaries at an early age and, at 18, moved to Berlin as a student of politics.

Though Friedman spoke several European languages passably, he was drawn to the visual language of photography while a student and, at 19, found himself in a position to photograph Trotsky speaking about the Russian Revolution.

These early examples of his work exhibit the key characteristics that we associate with his later output. The photographs are "technically" very weak, blurry, with faulty exposure and spontaneous composition. But he was close to the action, very close. This physical proximity is matched by emotional proximity to the passion of Trotsky and atmosphere of the room. Friedman understood what was happening and sought to contain the essence of it in a photograph taken at just the right moment.

There is a sense of impatience and restless movement on the part of the photographer. Rather like a great singer whose vocal technique is secondary to, or even overwhelmed by, the emotional qualities it conveys, Friedman's early work and his career as Robert Capa is defined by the intensity and moral urgency of his images rather than their mere technical features.


The Paris Years

In 1933, having spent just two years in Germany, Friedman was forced to move to Paris due to the growing threat of Nazism. There he embraced a pretty hedonistic lifestyle of partying, drinking and womanising. But his energies were never solely bent on self-gratification and, under Alliance Photo, he reported widely on the socio-economic trouble of the times.

When in France, one of Friedmann's first assignments was to photograph the luxury lifestyles on the Riviera. Having taken the opportunity to participate in the high-life for a few days, he reportedly told his employers that it was necessary to first experience the place before photographing it. But this was not merely a light-hearted excuse. He would soon feel the need to be present on the front line of warzones in order to document the environment effectively.

Whilst living in Paris, Friedmann met and fell in love with another young photojournalist, who had also fled Germany because of her Jewish background: Geda Taro. The two of them shared a powerful desire to be at the centre of things; to enjoy the excitement of Paris life, but also to join the important witnesses to the growing danger of their time - European Fascism.

Frustrated by anonymity, together they conceived of Robert Capa as a new persona for Friedmann. Capa would be a famous, untouchable American photographer, always on assignment and in high demand throughout the world. This audacious ruse lasted for a time, with Taro acting as intermediary between Friedmann and editors. When it was eventually foiled, Capa had in fact earned such admiration that the editors decided he might as well just continue working under the same name.

Capa and Taro soon fell in with the photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson and David Seymour, with whom Capa regularly worked on joint projects, as well as prominent authors and journalists living in Paris, including Ernest Hemingway.


The Spanish Civil War

In 1936, the Spanish Civil War drew Capa and Taro, along with many of their Paris circle, to fight fascism with their cameras. Capa's images dealt very much with the effect of war on the civilian population. He did not present it so much as a struggle between ideologies, but a display of violence and savagery against ordinary people, whose lives were unfairly caught amongst it all.

He threw himself into front-line situations with a powerful drive to show the world what was happening. His images pulled no punches. They depicted bloody dead soldiers, civilians fleeing for their lives, lonely crying children moments after being orphaned and the total destructiveness of Franco's campaign on the lives of Spanish people.

Taro took precisely the same approach, which probably required even greater courage for a woman. One day in 1937, having been reporting on the front line, she jumped on to the side of a Republican military vehicle as they retreated from the advancing Nationalists. As they rode, a panicking Republican tank swerved towards them and crushed Taro. She died the following day.

Capa was utterly distraught. It's perhaps not an exaggeration to say that this was a, maybe the, turning point in his life. Now, instead of being animated by a desire to witness the impact of war and violence as well as a love for Taro, he was left only with the former. But he found the strength to continue working in Spain, taking perhaps the most famous war photograph of all, "The Falling Soldier", which depicts a young Republican soldier in the moment of being shot. Debate about the authenticity of this image continues, but contrived or not, it is a potent symbol of Capa's attitudes and ideals.


World War II

Capa travelled to China in 1938 to document the Sino-Japanese war, before briefly returning to Spain. His reporting throughout World War II encompassed the campaigns in North Africa, Italy, Sicily and even the Omaha Beach landings of D-Day.

robert capa

Capa's D-Day images are extraordinary records of one of the most terrifying events of the war. He first captured the calm before the storm with eerily peaceful pictures of troops preparing on the landing craft. Then he joined the waves of men wading through the shallow water up on to the beaches, just able to steady his camera enough to take clear pictures.

The images of the beaches are, understandably, quite blurry, reflecting the frantic pace of action, and speed at which the photographer was working. But it also produces a certain surreal quality, which must have actually been felt by the soldiers who found themselves in that hell on earth.

Capa joined Allied forces as they progressed through France, liberating villages, small towns and eventually Paris. The images of just liberated Parisians convey a palpable sense of relief, euphoria and patriotism. True to his style, Capa photographed his subjects close up with great sensitivity to the most emotionally expressive moments.


Magnum and the Post-War Years

As the war drew to its conclusion and the threat of European Fascism subsided, something of a void seems to have emerged in Capa's life. The sense of injustice and outrage at the cruelty of Fascism had been the key driver behind his desire to witness events with his camera. But, by 1946, he was without a cause, and the strange blend of hedonism and violence, or as Capa's biographer Alex Kershaw puts it in the title of his book, "Blood and Champagne", had begun to take its toll. His ideals had been battered into nihilism and his verve for life gave way to depression and alcoholism.

But in 1947, along with his friends Henri-Cartier Bresson, David Seymour and two other photographers, he founded the Magnum photo agency, appropriately named after the oversized champagne bottle. He continued working, but found that assignments in the Soviet Union did not motivate him in the way earlier work had done, and he eventually took a break from photography.

By 1954 his desire to travel and shoot had returned, and he took an assignment covering the French colonial war in Indochina. On 25th May 1954, after an enthusiastic diary entry in the morning and, once again in the thick of the action, Capa stood on a landmine and was killed.

Robert Capa's career spanned one of the most violent and decisive periods of the 20th century. He summed up his attitude towards photography in the famous remark, "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough". Those who knew him report on his love of people, which accounts for both his capacity for fun and friendship as well as his sense of urgency in documenting the true impact of conflict. He was able to bring together the compassion of an observer with the courage and attitude of a soldier, which is a powerful combination for a war photographer, but one which also brought its inevitable personal costs.

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