Photographers You Should Know: Robert Capa
Today is Veterans Day, which is a great time to talk about one of the most celebrated war photographers in history—Robert Capa.
Capa notably covered several conflicts—from the Spanish Civil War in 1936 all the way to the First Indochina War in 1954. His coverage of World War II particularly gained him notoriety in the United States—his photos from D-Day on Omaha Beach became iconic after being published in Life magazine in 1944.
Capa's black and white photographs from D-Day perfectly captured the storming of Normandy—from the grey, cold water and sky, to the jarring movement of the troops up the beach through the fog of war.
Capa claimed to have taken 106 photos on that day, although only 11 surfaced in the end. He initially stated that his bag became waterlogged and therefore the exposed rolls were lost to the elements. There were later claims that a young assistant botched the development after the rolls were sent to London to be processed. A photo editor from Life ultimately posited that the most likely explanation was that Capa only ended up taking 11 frames on that day and was trying to cover for it.
This kind of controversy is a common recurrence through Capa's life. A master storyteller and self-marketer, it could be said that Capa invented himself into a wartime photographer of great renown.
Born to a Jewish family under the name Endre Erno Friedmann in Budapest, Austria-Hungary, right before the start of World War I, his trajectory was one that required reinvention and new beginnings.
He fled out of Hungary at the age of 18 after being suspected of having Communist affiliations. He settled in Berlin, where he started his photography education, only to be forced out once again as the Nazi party rose to power. He then moved to Paris, where he struck up a relationship with fellow photographer Gerda Taro, and shared a darkroom with Henri Cartier-Bresson, with whom he would later co-found the Magnum Photos agency.
Capa finally found his calling on assignment in Spain, photographing the civil war alongside Taro from 1936 to 1939. His famous photo "Death of a Loyalist Soldier" was published in Life magazine, surrounded by some controversy that it was staged.
Staged or not, Capa felt the very real consequences of war in Spain, as his partner, Gerda Taro was killed in a freak accident involving a runaway tank. While the loss of Taro devastated Capa, he remained in Spain to cover the rest of the war. He later struck a friendship with Ernest Hemingway there, who was covering the war as a journalist and would later recount it in his novel, For Whom The Bell Tolls.
In 1938, Capa traveled to China to document the Japanese invasion and his photographs were published in Life once again. This relationship with the American magazine brought him to New York right before the start of World War II. He was then sent straight back to Europe to cover many campaigns, from Italy to France, Belgium and finally, Germany. It was during this time that he also became involved with the famous Swedish actress, Ingrid Bergman, who was there to entertain the American troops.
After WWII, Capa traveled through post-war Soviet Union with his friend and writer John Steinbeck, whom he had met while covering the Allied invasion of Italy. In 1947, Capa was back in Paris, where he founded the Magnum photography collective with Cartier-Bresson, William Vandivert, David Seymour, and George Rodger. Their agency managed work for freelance photographers and photojournalists and became renowned for their quality and integrity.
In the early '50s, Capa rubbed noses with notable filmmaker John Houston, screenwriter Truman Capote, and was a poker buddy of Humphrey Bogart. He enjoyed his new status and fit in well with all those larger-than-life figures.
Unfortunately, on May 25th, 1954, while on assignment in Vietnam during the First Indochina War, Capa was killed when he stepped on a landmine. He was only 40 years old.
While his story is one filled with mystery, dubious claims, controversy, rebirth and reinvention, Capa's talents and accomplishments cannot be denied. Not only did he capture some of the most iconic wartime photographs from the first half of the 20th century, he also helped establish a legacy of photojournalistic excellence and curation through his agency, Magnum Photos.
Robert Capa put his life on the line to document warfare and paid the ultimate sacrifice alongside the very soldiers he was documenting.
Main image: Robert Capa during the Spanish civil war, May 1937. Photo by Gerda Taro. Public domain.