The first half of the 20th century was a tumultuous time for the world. Barely coming out of one World War (The Great War, they called it), Europe continued to writhe in pain, as if in labor, birthing a new world order in the process. Out of the ashes of the Great War came the seeds of yet more conflict, as if men were intent on a mission to wipe themselves from the face of the earth.
As different ideologies clashed in the world of ideas, their adherents clashed in the physical one, pitting Fascists against Republicans against Socialists against Nationalists. Coinciding with these troubled times is the development of photography, specifically portable photography in the form of the 35mm film format. One last invention completes the stage for ushering in the age of photojournalism, that of the illustrated magazine. And in the golden age of photojournalism, few men stood quite as tall as Robert Capa, the legendary war photographer (some say, the war photographer).
The following short biography for Capa can be found almost anywhere.
Born Endre Friedmann in Hungary, he first renamed himself Andre Friedman (to fit in with the French), and later Robert Capa (apparently in an effort to sell more photographs. More on that later). Having met and fallen in love with Gerda Taro in 1934, the two contrived the name Robert Capa, an imaginary photographer whose supposed fame and status did not allow him to be out in the streets negotiating with magazines, leaving the couple in charge of such mundane tasks. Of course, editors eventually caught on the ruse, but the name stuck. Little is known about this period of his life, except for the photographs that first made him a near-celebrity (including “Death of a Loyalist Militiaman“). Known for taking risks in battle, it would eventually cost him possibly the only woman he truly loved, when Gerda was crushed by a Republican tank in the chaos of retreat. Capa never married, but in a LIFE magazine article, referred to Gerda as his wife, a testament to his conviction to her. He would be plunged into shock and depression for a while, but this is only the beginning of the legend that is Capa.
Capa, the Bohemian
Losing the love of his life only seemed to unshackle the inner bohemian in Capa. He is variously described as a gambler, charmer, lover, showman, and so forth. His was a life of high-living with low cashflow. How he managed to do it, it will perhaps never be known. But it probably has something to do with his “Hungarian charm”. As if he natural charisma weren’t enough, his fame and celebrity as the world’s leading war photographer made him the subject of admiration. In fact, it is said that in both Magnum and LIFE offices, the ladies would doll themselves up and wait eagerly if word was that he would be visiting. During the war, it is not uncommon to find Capa in all-night poker sessions (in which he invariably lost, some say to gain the favors of the military brass), and then setting out on a mission early the next morning. His numerous love affairs with Ingrid Bergman, Elaine Justin, and so many others, only served to consolidate his identity as a wanderer. His semi-factual, romanticized account of the war years are recorded in the book, “Slightly Out of Focus“, which is a must-read for anyone wishing to get a glimpse of Capa’s inner life, fictional though parts of it might be.
A Friend in Need
Reading the preceding paragraph, one might think of Capa only as a Casanova of some sort (which he certainly was), but he was known among his friends as someone one could depend on, who would go out of the way to help them. He was also particularly concerned about David “Chim” Seymour, his bespectacled photojournalist friend (and later President of Magnum Photos) who, though not many years older, certainly looked and behaved the part of a patriarch. Many times, he had used his considerable charm to secure jobs for friends. This was particularly true after the establishment of Magnum Photos, a first-of-its-kind cooperative that is run and owned by photographers, designed to free photographers from the whims of editors, and to serve as a haven of sorts for those whose work may not be considered immediately useful or publishable in contemporary magazines, but which nonetheless had such intrinsic values, they cannot afford to be ignored.
Passing of a Giant
Even as he managed Magnum, conflicts raged in the world, and new photographers were cutting their teeth in conflict photojournalism that Capa was best known for. In particular, one David Douglas Duncan was beginning to eclipse Capa at his own game, and that was certainly unacceptable. Spurred by this, and probably a lack of money, he accepted a modest job to shoot in Japan, and from there to Vietnam to document the First Indochina War. It is perhaps fitting that one who gambles should perish in a bet, and despite his conflict-savvy Capa was killed by an anti-personnel mine during a lull in the fighting. It was a day of grief back in the Magnum offices, as Werner Bischof, a young, talented, and recently married member was also killed in an accident just days before (though the news reached the offices the same day as that for Capa).
There might be a moral in there somewhere, but for me, it was pure loss. A great torch bearer of the photojournalistic tradition was killed in a minor assignment, thousands of miles from home. Who knows how things would have been different had Capa, the visionary been alive in the years that followed.