Robert Capa (born Endre Ernő Friedmann; October 22, 1913 – May 25, 1954) was a Hungarian combat photographer andphotojournalistwho 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. He documented the course of World War II in London, North Africa, Italy, theBattle of Normandy on Omaha Beach and the liberation of Paris. His action photographs, such as those taken during the 1944 Normandy invasion, portray the violence of war with unique impact. In 1947, Capa co-founded Magnum Photos with, among others, the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. The organization was the first cooperative agency for worldwide freelance.
Born Endre Friedmann to Dezső and Júlia Friedmann on October 22, 1913 in Budapest, Hungary. Deciding that there was little future under the regime in Hungary, he left home at 18.
Capa originally wanted to be a writer; however, he found work in photography in Berlin and grew to love the art. In 1933, he moved from Germany to France because of the rise of Nazism, but found it difficult to find work there as a freelance journalist. He adopted the name “Robert Capa” around this time – in fact “cápa” (“a shark”) was his nickname in school and also he felt that it would be recognizable and American-sounding since it was similar to that of film director Frank Capra.
Spanish Civil War and Chinese Resistance to Japan
From 1936 to 1939, he was in Spain, photographing the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, along with Gerda Taro, his companion and professional photography partner, and David Seymour. In 1938, he traveled to the Chinese city of Hankow, now called Wuhan, to document the resistance to the Japanese invasion.
In 1936, he became known across the globe for a photo (known as the “Falling Soldier” photo) long falsely presumed to have been taken in Cerro Muriano on the Cordoba Front of a Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) Militiaman who had just been shot and was in the act of falling to his death. There has been a long controversy about the authenticity of this photograph. A Spanish historian identified the dead soldier as Federico Borrell García, from Alcoi (Alicante). This identification has been disputed. In 2003, the Spanish newspaper El Periodicoclaimed the photo was taken near the town of Espejo, 10 km from Cerro Muriano, and that the photo was staged.In 2009, a Spanish professor published a book titled Shadows of Photography, in which he showed that the photograph could not have been taken where, when, or how Capa and his backers have alleged.
Many of Capa’s photographs of the Spanish Civil War were, for many decades, presumed lost, but surfaced in Mexico City in the late 1990s.
While fleeing Europe in 1939, Capa had lost the collection, which over time came to be dubbed the “Mexican suitcase”. Ownership of the collection was transferred to the Capa Estate, and in December 2007 was moved to the International Center of Photography, a museum founded by Capa’s younger brother Cornell in Manhattan.
World War II
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 Theatre on photography assignments. He first photographed for Collier’s Weekly, before switching to Life after he was fired by the former. He was the only “enemy alien” photographer for the Allies. On October 7, 1943, Robert Capa was in Napleswith 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 second 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 106 pictures in the first couple of hours of the invasion. However, a staff member at Life in London made a mistake in the darkroom; he set the dryer too high and melted the emulsion in the negatives in three complete rolls and over half of a fourth roll. Only eight frames in total were recovered. Capa never said a word to the London bureau chief about the loss of three and a half rolls of his D-Day landing film.
Although a fifteen-year-old lab assistant named Dennis Banks was responsible for the accident, another account, now largely accepted as untrue but that gained widespread currency, blamed Larry Burrows, who worked in the lab not as a technician but as a “tea-boy”. Lifemagazine printed some 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 that he denied). Capa used this phrase as the title of his autobiographical account of the war, Slightly Out of Focus.
In 1947 Capa traveled into the Soviet Union with his friend, writer John Steinbeck. He took photos in Moscow, Kiev, Tbilisi, Batumi and among the ruins of Stalingrad. The humorous reportage of Steinbeck, A Russian Journal, was illustrated with Capa’s photos. It was first published in 1948.
First Indochina War and death
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 he had sworn not to photograph another war a few years earlier, Capa accepted and accompanied a French regiment with two other Time-Life journalists, John Mecklinand 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 the advance. About five minutes later, Mecklin and Lucas heard an explosion; Capa had stepped on a landmine. When they arrived on the scene, he was still alive but his left leg had been blown to pieces, and he had a serious wound in his chest. Mecklin called for a medic and Capa was taken to a small field hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival. He died with his camera in his hand.