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Robert Cappa

As part of the exercises to the frozen moment we are asked to research a durational space. Most photographers at some point try to freeze time or at least the sense of movement within the frame. I chose Cappa firstly because of his connection to conflict and documenting war having served in the Armed Forces I wanted to see exactly how he recorded it and how I had done so with overseas tours of Iraq and Kuwait.

Robert Cappa an adopted American sounding name but was born Endre Freidmann in Hungary 1913. His parents worked in Pest,Hungary running businesses and father although not clear where he served in the first world war he returned to Hungary.

I find it ironic that Cappa hated war yet came directly in the line of fire and that I willing signed on the dotted line to serve my country and put myself in conflict.

He studied political science at the Deutsche Hochschule für Politik in Berlin during the rise of the Nazi party. At a time of over four million unemployed in Germany, a banking crisis and collaboration of political parties.

He worked as a photographer in Berlin and in 1933 moved from Germany to Paris.

Prior to leaving in 1933 he met with others at the SDSE, Schutzeverband Deutscher Schrifstellar im Exil the (protective association of german writers in exile) run by communist leaders where he made friends with Gisele Freund, who managed to escape Germany with little notice that she would be arrested the same evening. She went on herself to become a distinguished photographer in France and would later become associated with the Magnum, the photo agency of which Capa would become one of the founder members along with Herni Catrier-Bresson, George Rodger and David “Chim” Seymour. The four were a collaboration of photographers that each played part in documenting wars formed Magnum.

David Szymin, who was known by his friends as “Chimm”, was born in Warsaw in 1911. Chim was a talented pianist in his youth and even considered pursuing music as a career. His father, however, had other ideas for his son. His father was a publisher of Hebrew and Yiddish books. He wanted him to study publishing with a view that he would join the family business. In 1929, “Chim” studied in Leipzig and commenced a three-year course covering printing techniques, graphic arts, and photography.

By 1932, he had moved to Paris and intended to study chemistry and prepare to research printing inks and lithography. He too found himself in the same position of Cappa had experienced in Berlin and found himself unable to fund his studies because his family had suffered during the economic crisis. His family had a family friend who ran a photo agency in Paris and he began work as a photojournalist.

Chim was friends with Cartier-Bresson. Henri Cartier-Bresson was born in 1908, the son of a wealthy Norman family in the textile business. He was a scholar at Lycee Condorcet and went on to study at Cambridge in 1928 reading literature, during this time he met the Cubist Andre Lhote.

As a child he had an interest in photography and this came back into his life when he found himself recuperating from an infection conracted in Africa. He was drawn to Surreralism and due to his wealth unlike Chim and Capa he had the luxury to travel to France, Spain, Belgium, Italy and Germany during 1932-33 in pursuit of his passion for the subject.

Capa, had several transient jobs during 1934, as a darkroom technician as he had little technical knowledge about photography. However, a newly formed photographic agency was looking for photographers as they could not afford established photographers’ to cover the newly fashionable Riviera of St. Tropez. He was advanced a camera and film along with expenses. Unfortunately, his lack of experience and bad luck meant he failed to deliver any useable photographs and the Plaubel Makina camera he was supplied with was pawned to cover the unforeseen costs he’d encountered. The agency realised that something had happened when they received strips of 35mm film he sent were not the same format of the medium format single plates they had supplied. He returned to his employers with feeble excuses, who went on to rent their darkroom to other photographers whilst Capa moved onto other darkroom work.

During 1934 he met Ruth Gerf, who he wanted her to pose for him. Gerf did not want to meet Capa alone and took her friend Gerta Pohorylles along. Gerta eventually changed her name Gerda Taro and the two became friends. (O’Hagan, 2012)

Capa and Taro invented the American sounding photographer ‘Robert Capa’ as a marketing ploy selling their work under the pseudonym.

In early September 1936, both were covering the Spanish War and by far one of the most controversial images ‘Death of a loyalist militiaman’ a Spanish Republican soldier falling backwards, who appeared to have been shot falling to his death. However, it appears that there is a certain amount of curiosity as to whether the soldier was indeed posing for Capa and been shot or it was a staged shot, which he was known to have done.

SPAIN. Córdoba front. Early September, 1936. Death of a loyalist militiaman.

SPAIN. Córdoba front. Early September, 1936. Death of a loyalist militiaman. Copyright Magnum Photos

For the first time he had documented the conflict in a rather personal, up and close way that had not been achieved before. Photographs that showed families and children such as crowds running for an air-raid shelter as the alarm sounds.

In 1937, Capa returned to France, Taro remained in Spain continuing to photograph the Spanish conflict. Sadly, on 25th July 1937, Taro was travelling in a car which was struck by a tank of the Republican army. A day later she died from her injuries. In December that year Capa covered the battle of Teruel.

From here on Capa moved to the invasion of China by the Japanese and ahead of the 1939 German invasion he had left France for America. Upon leaving France three boxes of 126 rolls 35mm film containing 4,500 negatives of the Spanish Civil War by Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, and Chim. The ‘Mexican Suitcase’ thought to have been lost since 1939 had been re-discovered in 1995 by a Mexican family, descendants of a Mexican General. (The Mexican Suitcase, 2016)

Capa’s greatest achievement was by far the coverage of the D-Day landings. He covered wartime London and at the beginning of 1943 had a romance with Elaine Justin, which lasted two years. He spent a year covering the Italian campaign, including the liberation of Naples.

On 6th June 1944, he landed with US troops on Omaha Beach, Normandy, France. I can only imagine the fear and anxiety he must have felt has he was shoved out of the carrier onto the beaches clinging to his camera. He had learnt from his earlier mistake in 1934 and immersing his camera in water. It was only when his film reached the darkroom that most of his film was ruined and only a few images were useable.

Again, it seems unclear if this was a mistake made by a clumsy lab assistant at Life magazine or that he had caused the accident.

The blur of some images is understandable but with some of Capa’s work the blur almost seems deliberate rather than accidental. Who am I to argue either way. I consider the tension and scene he was presented with I am pretty sure that he would have had little time to consider his settings more a case of point and shot, hope for the best and the law of averages that if you use enough film you will have something useful. He didn’t bargain for the aftermath of most ending up in the bin!

FRANCE. Normandy. June 6th, 1944. US troops assault Omaha Beach during the D-Day landings.

FRANCE. Normandy. June 6th, 1944. US troops assault Omaha Beach during the D-Day landings.

He followed the invasion and liberation of France and covered the Battle of the Bulge. In 1946, he became a US citizen and co-founded Magnum Photos. He took a break from his photography until he began to travel once again in 1948 where he travelled to Israel.

Once again he returned to Paris and from 1950 to 1953 he was the director at Magnum Photo’s.

His final photographic assignment in 1954 of the Vietnam War resulted in his death. On 25th May, 1954, he was travelling with a convey when the convey stopped. He followed the patrol into a field and took at least one photo, when he stood on a land mine and was fatally wounded.

Portraits of Capa portray him as a sophisticated man almost plucked out of a film from the 1950’s or a war hero with a cigarette in his hand dressed in uniform.


The Art of Photography (no date) The Mexican Suitcase. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KympSgVknO4 (Accessed: 26 September 2016).

O’Hagan, S. (2012) ‘Robert Capa and Gerda Taro: love in a time of war’, The Guardian, 13 May. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/may/13/robert-capa-gerda-taro-relationship (Accessed: 26 September 2016).

Pro Magnum Photos (no date). Available at: https://pro.magnumphotos.com/ (Accessed: 26 September 2016)

The Mexican Suitcase (2016) International Center of Photography. Available at: https://www.icp.org/browse/archive/collections/the-mexican-suitcase (Accessed: 26 September 2016).