Five Favorite Photos – Robert Capa

Five Favorite Photos – Robert Capa

1280 953 Chris Cushing

When we recently spotlighted Josef Koudelka’s career, we noted that it was defined by both its extraordinary length and the artist’s preference for isolation. Save for Prague in 1964, Koudelka spent decades working almost entirely alone. By contrast, Robert Capa’s work is defined by the photographer’s deep immersion in his subject and by his career’s brevity. Beginning with his first published photograph in 1932, Capa’s career spanned just 22 years, but in that short span he cemented himself as one of the premier combat and adventure photographers of all time.

Many of Capa’s photographs are well known as some of the most iconic images of the 1930s and 1940s, including those taken at Omaha Beach on D-Day (the “Magnificent Eleven”) and his controversial photo of the falling soldier in the Spanish Civil War. But to focus on those images would do a disservice to the rest of his work, where Capa proved a master of making the unfamiliar and challenging feel weirdly intimate.

Hemingway Family Picnic

Ernest Hemingway, then working as a journalist, first met Robert Capa during the Spanish Civil War in 1936 or 1937. For the next five years the pair seemed nearly inseparable. Numerous photos exist of Capa and Hemingway together (typically not taken by Capa himself), and Capa gained very privileged access to the life of one of America’s most mythologized writers.

This photo, taken in Idaho in the early 1940s, shows Hemingway picnicking with his soon-to-be third wife and her children. Hemingway traveled to Idaho to write For Whom The Bell Tolls as the landscape reportedly reminded him of Spain. Seeing a man whose professional and personal life are so often marked by violence at peace in such a pastoral scene is a privileged view on a little-observed facet of Hemingway.

American Soldier Treats German POW, Italy, 1944

When Robert Capa entered Naples in 1943 and 1944, it was the most-bombed city in Italy. Overhead the 12th Airforce, including novelist Joseph Heller, pounded the city into submission. On the ground, Capa experienced a much more personal version of the Italian Front, and regularly got closer to both the allied and axis soldiers than any other photographer in the war.

This photo, one of several that Capa published of captured German soldiers, depicts a wounded German soldier being treated by an American. The difference in posture between the two is striking, with the American leaning in close over the wounded German. Even with his eyes closed the German still appears defiant, consistent with the attitude German POWs were known to display to their Allied captors.

[The image discussed here depicts a dead soldier. Since some readers may be reticent to see such a grisly scene, we have linked to it via this text rather than display it openly. The above photo, taken moments earlier, is another from the series published in LIFE.]

Last Man To Die, April 18, 1945

Victory in Europe was officially declared on May 8th, 1945. Though the war in Europe still had several weeks remaining (indeed the final documented allied casualty occurred on May 7th) Capa dubbed Robert Bowman, killed April 18th, the last man to die. Capa had the unfortunate distinction of photographing Bowman’s final minutes, first setting up a machine gun, and ultimately losing his life to a German Sniper a few moments later.

When this photo and the other photos in the series were initially published in LIFE Magazine the faces of both Raymond J. Bowman (left) and Clarence Ridgeway (right) were blurred out. Though Bowman’s photo was among the last photographed American deaths of the war, the sight of a dead GI was still unusual in American media. The American public had only seen the first published photos of dead soldiers in September of 1943, following the Battle of Buna Beach, and sights like this were still very much a shock.

Bowman, a native of Rochester, New York, was identified by his family later on due to a pin he wore on his uniform. This series, particularly the final photos of Bowman, are unusually close and intimate for photos taken in an open combat zone, and Capa himself was clearly fully exposed moments before Bowman was killed.

The apartment in Leipzig where Bowman was killed was partially burned in 2011, and has since been restored. The building is now known as the Capa house.

From Russian Journal, 1947

Hemingway was not the only iconic American author Capa considered a friend. Author John Steinbeck took Capa with him to Russia in 1947, and the pair toured Moscow, Stalingrad, Tblisi and other Soviet locales in the wake of the Second World War. Steinbeck’s goal was to report honestly on what he observed in post-war Russia, “without editorial comment, and without drawing conclusions on things we didn’t know sufficiently.” The photos that accompanied the work centered on ordinary people, and focused on the average Russian’s fear of yet another global conflict.

For Steinbeck, this work became a turning point. Following A Russian Journal Steinbeck would publish East of Eden, his most ambitious novel, and his most engrossing non-fiction work; Travels with Charley, finally divorcing him from his roots in the Great Depression.

For Capa this diversion into Russia would prove a decisive turning point as well, and by 1952 the photographer was disinclined to ever photograph combat again. Of course, despite his best intentions, his obligations to LIFE Magazine would bring him back into the fray.

Indochina, 1954

Capa died young, at just 40 years old. While working for LIFE Magazine, Capa was embedded with the French Army in French Indochina. In order to photograph the advance, Capa got out of his Jeep and ran up the road under fire ahead of the advancing troops. While out ahead of the troops, he stepped on a land mine and was instantly killed.

This photograph is among the last he ever took, and compositionally is one of my favorites in his whole body of work. The advancing column is met by a Vietnamese citizen walking the other way. The advancing vehicles are set to the right of the frame, and are counterbalanced in the image by their own dust cloud being blown from right to left in front of the photographer. It’s a beautiful shot, and one that American combat photographers would evoke time and again throughout the 1960s and ’70s.

Though Capa’s career was short, his penchant for embedding himself as close as possible to every kind of action produced some of the most evocative images of the 1930s, ’40s and early ’50s. Robert’s brother, Magnum photographer Cornell Capa, has endeavored to preserve his brother’s legacy through the Fund for Concerned Photography, an effort which has been continued by the ICP.

For anyone considering the craft and its importance as a journalistic tool, Capa is someone worth studying. You can find books on the man and his photography at Amazon and on eBay.

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Chris Cushing

Chris Cushing is a freelance writer, pedant and photographer who still plays with cars. Based in Albany, New York, he can often be seen aimlessly wandering the Northeast with a camera twice his age slung around his neck.

All stories by:Chris Cushing
  • Thank you for this! I’m a big fan of these pieces, please continue with them. The literary aspect of Capa’s life interests me a lot, I can’t think of another photographer who spent so much time around writers (and such prolific ones at that). Reminds of of Roland Barthes, although I think he only wrote about photography rather than practising it / hanging out with photographers. Thank you for picking out these specific pictures also—I was browsing through Capa’s work on the Magnum archives recently and don’t remember seeing any of these, but they do have that quality which I like about the Capa I have seen.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it! I found several photos online which were PROBABLY taken by Capa, but which were not attributed to him. Such as the photo below of Hemingway duck hunting in Idaho around the same time as the photo I included:

      Stylistically it matches well, and it was taken around the same time as the first photo, but it’s not attributed correctly anywhere that I’ve seen.

      Capa certainly lived a very interesting life, and there was a lot more to his career than the Magnificent Eleven!

      • Interesting, I wonder why the information isn’t out there as I assume there’s an archive of original negatives which can be compared? I’m not an expert by any stretch but I agree it is very similar stylistically—he seems to place lots of emphasis on shadows, there’s always a definite deep black at the expense of an obvious white point. The fact he only used a 50mm Zeiss Sonnar keeps a consistent look also, although it makes me wonder how he could shoot in high-pressure situations with such a close crop and shallow DoF.

        • @Callum; there are two contact sheets from “Last man to die”, one is 35mm, the other is 6×6, I believe from a Rolleiflex. I never knew he only used a 50mm lens, do you have a source?

          • Michael- I have not seen this either. He used a variety of cameras, and when he was killed he was carrying both a Contax rangefinder and a Nikon S series rangefinder. Many of the photos of him during the Spanish Civil war show him with a TLR, generally a Rolleiflex.

            At least partially to Callum’s point- since Capa tended to shoot rangefinders when shooting 35mm, and that does make accurate focus at fast-apertures a little quicker than with an SLR.

          • I see, I forgot he shot 6×6 also. I confess it was a bit of an exaggerated claim, it seems to be agreed everywhere I’ve read that he documented the D-Day landings with 2 Contax II bodies with a 50mm F1.5 Sonnar mounted to each. Seems to me if you carry two cameras with the same lens on to something like that you must really like that particular lens.

  • All wonderful photographs with informative descriptions. Thank you.

  • Love the last one Chris, I’ve never seen any of his Indochina work before, is there a resource you can suggest?

    • Michael- Magnum keeps a database, which is easy to search if you go to their site and look for Robert Capa. There are about 30-40 photos from the first Indochina War on there.

      Unfortunately there isn’t a ton of Indochina work because Capa wasn’t in-country that long before his death.

  • Excellent writing Chris, I really look forward to these pieces.

  • Thank you for the writting and pics. Capa is my freaking hero.

  • I think this was very detailed and it helped me with my research assignment and I thank you for this.

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Chris Cushing

Chris Cushing is a freelance writer, pedant and photographer who still plays with cars. Based in Albany, New York, he can often be seen aimlessly wandering the Northeast with a camera twice his age slung around his neck.

All stories by:Chris Cushing