Screamadelica 24/8/2004

Robert Capa

This week’s pics are dedicated to Robert Capa, who was a self-made man and a brilliant photographer. He was an anti-fascist and leftist, though he rejected recruitment by the Stalinist Communist party in his native Hungary at an early age.

Capa is most famous for his coverage of wars. Even if you don’t think you know of his work, you’ve probably seen it somewhere in history books or TV documentaries. I first came across it around 21 years ago since his first published pics were of Leon Trotsky. As a teenage Trot, I was moved by the way Capa caught the passion and commitment of my hero, even as Trotsky was in flight from Stalin’s assassins.

His photos of the Spanish Civil War remain some of the most heartbreaking and stark pictures of war ever taken and Capa was fearless getting them. In fact, more than one person who accompanied Capa on wartime shoots has said that he’d go anywhere to get the shot, throwing himself into exactly the same danger as the soliders around him. His dedication to his work in World War Two earned him the Medal of Freedom Citation, which he received from General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Capa also helped change commercial photography:

In 1947, with his friends, David Seymour"Chim", Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and Bill Vandivert, he began a picture agency named Magnum.
He spent the next few years making Magnum into a successful cooperative, and photographing the good times with his artist friends, including Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck.
(Source: International Center of Photography)

If all you know of Capa is his war work, you really have to see the amazing portraits of Picasso and his family. Capa captured the emotional byplay between parents and small child with a a deft touch, delicate and involved without being cheesy.

Sadly, Capa had a tough time of it when the US was seized by the crypto-fascist movement known formally as McCarthyism. His early leftist past and photojournalism in the Soviet Union were more than enough for the witchhunters and in 1953, he had to fight to retain his US passport. This despite his honouring by Eisenhower.

Capa died in 1954. He was covering the war in what was then known as French Indochina and left the safety of a transport to get a particular angle. He stepped on a landmine. He was forty.

In such a short life, Robert Capa crammed in a whole lot. From his early political activity in Hungary, his flight from the Nazis, so many wars… And yet, he still managed find the time to form and lead Magnum, helping to establish the idea of photographers retaining copyright in their work. He also mentored many young photographers, helping them get on the first rungs of the career ladder. He was a man about town, regarded as extremely handsome by many of the most beautiful women of the age. Personally, I’m envious of anyone who had a love affair with Ingrid Bergman.

Steven Spielberg appears in the documentary about Capa, he’s undoubtedly a fan. I just hope that either he or someone else makes a film of Capa’s amazing life, so that it becomes more widely known. It may have ended far too soon but it remains a vivid, inspirational story.