Capa in Color: In Love and War
Robert Capa just might be the greatest war photographer that ever lived. He covered five 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 — and published the results primarily in black and white. But the world at large, in all colors of the rainbow, was waiting in the wings, and throughout a tempestuous career, he photographed and lived his life as well, in living, breathing, heart-stopping color.
The International Center of Photography in New York has mounted the most comprehensive show of Capa’s color work to date and it serves as a testament to a life lived to the fullest. As curator Cynthia Young comments, “The exhibit shows a radically different side that really was a part of his postwar career, when he really had to reinvent himself as a photographer.” There’s no doubt that the color side of this auspicious career is one of the most engaging shows that ICP has mounted in recent years, for the well-seasoned to the uninitiated alike, but to sidestep the importance of his amazing black and white output would be an oversight.
The museum boasts a well-stocked bookstore worth perusing, as well as online resources that can provide an in-depth exploration on the artist. A few publications worth mentioning include Children of War, Children of Peace; Heart of Spain, Robert Capa’s Photography of the Spanish Civil War; Robert Capa: The Paris Years 1933-54; and an autobiography, Slightly Out of Focus.
From his early experiments with Kodachrome in 1938, two years after it was introduced, we are presented with a series of shots of the allied convoys traveling from the U.S. to England; from women and children in the U.S.S.R. on assignment with writer John Steinbeck; to Sun Valley, Idaho with Ernest Hemingway and his sons; to the cafes of Paris’ Left Bank and the ski slopes of Switzerland, armed with a lens to record a full spectrum of adventure and romance. It is only fitting that Capa at 100 joins a collection of exhibits in Budapest, Rome, Mexico City, Tokyo and Paris to pay tribute to such a passionate and peripatetic artist.
Capa the “Shark”
A few words about the man who was born Endre Friedmann on October 22, 1913 in Budapest, Hungary to Jewish parents is in order. After early studies in political science, a trip to Berlin ignited an interest in photography, but fearing persecution by the Nazis, he fled Germany in 1933 for France. It was then that his journalist girlfriend Gerda Taro helped him invent a new, more westernized persona. Capa, meaning “shark,” was an early school nickname he liked but they were also familiar with a popular film director of the day — Frank Capra — and that decided the matter. Taro became a kind of midwife to his fledgling sales, touting the work as being that of “an important American photographer.” Finding the right name might have taken some reinvention but his nascent talent for the right image was never in question. If he had an eye for the exact image, he had the nose for where it could be found. Unfortunately, it was in Spain, while covering the civil war there, that Taro was tragically killed.
To look death in the face could bring many would-be photojournalists to a screeching halt. True for many, but not Capa. His iconic 1936 picture of a volunteer soldier in Spain falling with a machine gun bullet to the head was taken from a nearby trench. The argument could be made that his bravado knew no bounds. In a later radio interview on the Jinx Falkenburg show — the host, a celebrated beauty of the day — he said modestly that “the prize picture is born in the imagination of the editor and the public who sees it.” (That interview is available to exhibit visitors on a series of headphones set up midway through the extensive galleries.)
He was part of the second wave of combatants to arrive on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. “The Magnificent Eleven” is an important portfolio of eleven photographs that survived a laboratory accident from that historic day. Though too exhaustive to describe all the images that comprise a wartime theme in the Capa bibliography, a surprising number of color photographs that appear in the ICP exhibit capture the bravery, and at times, lighthearted spirit of their creator. One startling image is of a lineup of Arab camel cavalry, replete with white headdresses, galloping toward the camera. A cerulean blue sky fills the upper four-fifths of the picture. It could be mistaken for a still photo straight out of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia film. In another shot, a young seaman confronts the viewer with a Mickey Rooney devil-may-care attitude, cap pushed back and a cigarette dangling pug-like from his mouth. We see an American captain nonchalantly posed in front of a B-17 bomber, the name of the plane, “The Goon” showing a caricature of a soldier with a bomb in his hand and a halo over his head.
There are other examples of the war atmosphere, revealing a straight documentary approach. One shipboard image shot some distance from the action reveals British soldiers on their way to the African front hanging around a boxing ring match on deck. Another captures a captain and his chief officer on the bridge of a Norwegian freighter, a mascot dog given equal weight to the two men, while a Saturday Evening Post assignment showcases two men sleeping on deck. This is an artfully composed portrait, where the setup of subject and background are in perfect counterpoint to each other.
A rare respite from wartime concerns was a trip to Sun Valley in the fall of 1941 to photograph Ernest Hemingway, his two sons and the writer’s photographer companion at the time, Martha Gellhorn. There’s a relaxed picnic shot of the group, but more touching is a picture of Hemingway and son Gregory at an intimate moment, with the boy’s bare foot resting on his father’s leg.