Robert Capa (October 22, 1913 – May 25, 1954) was a famous war photographer during the twentieth century, one of the early photjournalists whose work brought home the realities of life in distant lands to those at home. He covered five different wars: The Spanish Civil War, the Second Sino-Japanese War, World War II across Europe, the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and the First Indochina War. Capa documented the course of World War II in London, North Africa, Italy, the Battle of Normandy on Omaha Beach, and the liberation of Paris. His blurred shots of the D-Day Invasion are classic war photos, as is his famous photo of a Loyalist Militiaman from the Spanish Civil War, taken at the moment of his death.
Capa died camera in hand, taking photographs during the First Indochina War in 1954. His life had been given to bring home the reality of life, and death, in countries around the world in times of war. He recognized that the desire of a war photographer is "to be put out of business," a sentiment that he was able to express so vividly in his work, raising the consciousness of humankind to desire peace on earth.
Robert Capa was born Andrei Friedmann on October 22, 1913, in Budapest, in Austro-Hungary. Even though he grew up under the dictatorship of Regent Nicholas Horthy, he followed the ideas of the artist Lajos Kassák, who headed the avant-garde movement in Hungary. Kassák's anti-authoritarian, anti-fascist, and pacifist beliefs heavily influenced Capa throughout his life.
Friedman originally wanted to be a writer. Moving to Berlin in 1931, he first found work in photography and grew to love the art. He worked as a darkroom assistant at Dephot (Deutscher Photodienst), which was one of the leading photojournalist enterprises in Germany. This agency was able to create new filming techniques that allowed photographers to capture fleeting gestures and to take pictures even in poor light. With these advances the photographer could focus on human events and move away from the carefully posed rows of diplomats that had characterized news photography until then.
He soon mastered the new cameras and was occasionally sent out on small photographic assignments. In his first major break, he was sent to Copenhagen to photograph Leon Trotsky. His photos of an impassioned Trotsky addressing the crowd captured Trotsky's charismatic oratorical style.
In 1933, he moved from Germany to France because of the rise of Nazism. There, he met Gerda Pohorylles and fell in love with her. She helped him along by acting as his agent and writing text for his photographs. Taro suggested to Friedman that they could make more money for a photograph taken by a "rich American," than she could for the photographs of a poor Hungarian named Andrei Friedmann, effectively creating his new name. He chose the name Robert Capa because he felt it would be recognizable and familiar, as it was close to the filmmaker Frank Capra's name and sounded American. (In fact, "cápa" is a Hungarian word meaning shark.)
This provided the impetus to start Capa's professional career. He worked through many wars, including the Spanish Civil War, World War II, the Israeli War of Independence, and the French Indochina War. During the French Indochina War, Capa was killed when he stepped on a land mine on May 25, 1954, at Thai-Binh.
From 1936 to 1939, Capa worked in Spain, photographing the horrors the Spanish Civil War. In 1936, he became known across the globe for a photo he took on the Cordoba Front of a Loyalist Militiaman who had just been shot and was in the act of falling to his death. Because of his proximity to the victim and the timing of the capture, there was a long controversy about the authenticity of this photograph. Historians eventually succeeded in identifying the dead soldier as Federico Borrell García, from Alcoy (Valencia) and proved it to be authentic. This is the best-known picture of the Spanish civil war and it is quite obvious why; it is rare to photograph at close range the instant of someone's death in war.
At the start of World War II, Capa was in New York City. He had moved there from Paris to look for new work and to escape Nazi persecution. The war took Capa to various parts of the European Theater on photography assignments. He first photographed for Collier's Weekly, before switching to Life after he was fired from the former. When first hired, as a Hungarian, he was a citizen of Greater Nazi Germany, but he was also Jewish, which allowed him to negotiate visas to Europe. He was the only "enemy alien" photographer for the Allies. On October 7, 1943, Robert Capa was in Naples with Life reporter Will Lang Jr. and photographed the Naples post office bombing.
His most famous work occurred on June 6, 1944 (D-Day), when he swam ashore with the first assault wave on Omaha Beach. He was armed with two Contax II cameras mounted with 50 mm lenses and several rolls of spare film. Capa took 108 pictures in the first couple of hours of the invasion. However, a staff member at Life made a mistake in the darkroom; he set the dryer too high and melted the negatives. Only eleven frames in total were recovered.
Life magazine printed ten of the frames in its June 19, 1944, issue with captions that described the footage as "slightly out of focus," explaining that Capa's hands were shaking in the excitement of the moment (something which he denied). Capa used this phrase as the title of his alternately hilarious and sad autobiographical account of the war, Slightly Out of Focus.
In 1947, Capa founded Magnum Photos with Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour, Bill Vandivert, and George Rodger as "a photographic cooperative of great diversity and distinction owned by its photographer-members." The results of World War II had left the photographers scarred from what they had seen, but curious to see the different ways the people had survived the conflict, as well as the rebuilding of the war torn areas of the world. The photographers decided to divide different areas according to different photographers, so as to find the most photojournalistic material.
Capa felt that working for magazines and newspapers allowed only certain kinds of photography that is limited to newsprint. He said that Magnum would allow photographers artistic freedom to obtain the kinds of stories and perspectives that regular news agencies did not appreciate. Henri Cartier Bresson described Capa's ideas of photojournalism: "Capa said to me: 'Don't keep the label of a surrealist photographer. Be a photojournalist. If not you will fall into mannerism. Keep surrealism in your little heart, my dear.'"
In the early 1950s, Capa traveled to Japan for an exhibition associated with Magnum Photos. While there, Life magazine asked him to go on assignment to Southeast Asia, where the French had been fighting for eight years in the First Indochina War. Despite the fact a few years earlier he had sworn not to photograph another war, Capa accepted and accompanied a French regiment with two other Time-Life journalists, John Mecklin and Jim Lucas. On May 25, 1954, at 2:55 p.m., the regiment was passing through a dangerous area under fire when Capa decided to leave his jeep and go up the road to photograph some of the advance. About five minutes later, Mecklin and Lucas heard a loud explosion. Capa had stepped on a landmine. He had died with his camera in his hand.
In 1947, Robert Capa along with colleagues, founded Magnum Photos. Magnum has existed for 60 years and the photographers associated with the organization are generally considered the best in their field.
In order to preserve the photographic heritage of Robert Capa and other photographers, Cornell Capa, his brother, founded the International Fund for Concerned Photography in 1966. To give this collection a permanent home he founded the International Center of Photography in New York City, in 1974.
The Overseas Press Club created an award in his honor, the Robert Capa Gold Medal. It is given annually to the photographer who provides the "best published photographic reporting from abroad, requiring exceptional courage and enterprise."
Some of his World War II shots have become famous, particularly the shots of the D-Day Invasion. The blurred shots he took during D-Day informed the look Janusz Kaminski used for filming the movie Saving Private Ryan. The shots are often hailed as some of the greatest early war photography, accurately depicting soldiers in action at D-Day. Robert Capa continuously risked his life for photography and brought home some of the most detailed and in depth war pictures because of his risk. His collection spans a stunning five war period, and his pictures bring the true brutality of war home to the people who may not otherwise see it.
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