Close Focus: The Life, Work, and Cameras of Robert Capa

Close Focus: The Life, Work, and Cameras of Robert Capa

2000 1125 Ryan Alexander Huang

His career spanned two decades and five wars. His list of relationships — both the romantic and platonic ones — reads like an art and entertainment hit parade: Ingrid Bergman, Gerda Taro, Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, Humphrey Bogart, Johns Steinbeck and Huston. And if you need any further hints, conjure in your mind the image of a man falling against a backdrop of Andalusian mountains, or a chaotic scene of waterlogged soldiers hurling themselves toward Omaha Beach.

Robert Capa’s star-studded, swashbuckling life sometimes overshadows his contributions to photojournalism. For ease of transportation, the brilliant (and, like this author, chronically asthmatic) Oskar Barnack developed the compact 35mm camera as an antithesis to the tripod-borne large format beasts of the time. Capa was among the first to take Barnack’s invention into the field and press it into professional service. “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” A clichéd axiom today? Maybe. But we shouldn’t fail to recognize Capa as a pioneer of run-and-gun shooting, a necessary skill when the photographer is quite literally working in front of a hostile muzzle.

Romantic adventurism aside, Robert Capa’s approach to the technicalities of photography are less often discussed, by himself or otherwise. Perhaps he was a mirror image of Spanish playboy Alfonso de Portago, Ferrari’s dashing racing prodigy who, by his own admission, knew little about the cars he drove and cared even less. It could indeed be argued that the rakish Capa treated his cameras as he did his lovers; a new model seemingly came and went with every conflict that he covered.

But there might be more behind that fly-by-night facade. One only has to study his kit to understand that Capa, like (or unlike) many of us, was a pragmatist when it came to his gear.

Spain and the Screw Mount Leica

1931. A young Jew named Endre Friedmann fled his native Hungary, a nation increasingly choked by creeping fascism, and landed in another country on the cusp of similar disaster. It was within the darkroom of the Berlin photo agency Dephot that Friedmann found his purpose.

His eye for composition became evident even as a lowly assistant, and eventually Dephot boss Simon Guttmann rolled the dice that would set a great career into motion. He dispatched Friedmann to Copenhagen, where the exiled Leon Trotsky was due to speak. Guttmann sent the 19 year-old on his way with one thing: a Leica II screw-mount rangefinder.

The camera that Endre Friedmann brought to Copenhagen was only the first major update of Barnack’s original fixed-lens Leica A, but its basic design would remain largely unchanged for decades to come. The Leica II was a black-enameled gem and a true pocket camera. Hold one in your hand today, and it becomes apparent why it proved a game-changer for potentially dangerous situations unfriendly to the journalist. Friedmann came away from Copenhagen with a set of photos that affirmed his talent despite his inexperience. The most iconic one is a surreptitious low-angle shot of Trotsky orating at the podium, his hands locked like talons in front of his face to make a point.

Friedmann soon made some major changes to his life. He fell in love with Gerda Taro, a fiery German-born Jew who shared both Friedmann’s talent for photography as well as his need to flee the nascent Third Reich for Paris. With Taro’s encouragement — some might say tutelage, for her own skills were already formidable — he studied photography more seriously and fashioned a new identity to improve his marketability. Endre Friedmann became Robert Capa, and Robert Capa was intent on photographing war-torn Spain.

One thing remained unchanged: the kit. Both Capa and Taro brought screw-mount Leicas with them to cover the Spanish Civil War. Based on an extant photo of Taro shooting with a chrome-plated Leica, the couple likely carried either the Leica III or the improved IIIa, released in 1935 with the addition of a 1/1000th top shutter speed. Taro’s photos from this period, which were also made on a Rolleiflex, easily rival Capa’s in their artistry and intensity. (Needless to say, her trailblazing career merits its own writeup.)

The Leica’s light weight and small form factor resulted in combat photography as it had never been seen before. Robert Capa and Gerda Taro used them to full effect, producing photos of shell-shocked casualties, civilians scrambling through towns reduced to rubble, and portraits of men and women fighting for various militias — the CNT, the POUM, the PSUC, et. al. — that formed a muddled alphabet soup of ideologies and motives.

The most famous photo, of course, is Capa’s “Falling Soldier.” A picture which shows a Loyalist militiaman seemingly captured on celluloid at the moment of death. There are probably as many conflicting accounts and theories surrounding the photo’s authenticity as there were acronyms for Spain’s combatants. While the controversy surrounding “The Falling Soldier” is beyond the scope of this article, one thing is undeniable: the image ushered forth a new era of combat photography and made Capa famous.

SPAIN. Cerro Muriano, Cordoba front. September 5th, 1936. Republican militiaman (Federico BORRELL GARCIA) at the moment of death. (“The Falling Soldier”).

But by the time Robert Capa finally left Spain, only one death was on his mind: Gerda Taro’s. While covering the end of a failed Loyalist offensive in 1937, she was killed in a freak accident after a tank collided with her amidst the chaotic withdrawal.

Capa had intended to marry Gerda. Her death would leave a permanent scar. On his next assignment, the Leicas they used together were replaced.

The Contax in Combat

The next time Capa ventured into the battlefield, it was in the Far East with a Zeiss-made Contax II. While a romantic might ascribe his abandonment of the Leica to its painful association with Gerda, from a purely technical standpoint it represents a logical upgrade to keep up with the progress of technology. Leica screw-mount cameras remained perfectly viable tools, and the line would continue until the IIIf and short-lived IIIg were finally supplanted entirely by the fabled M series in the 1950’s. But even as early as 1936, other companies were already moving in on Leica’s blind spots.

The III series from A to G invariably featured separate windows for the viewfinder and coupled rangefinder: to compose a picture, the photographer had to first look through the narrow rangefinder window to focus, then move the eye over to the viewfinder window to compose. Though successive iterations of the III would bring the two windows closer together, the combined rangefinder-viewfinder window introduced by the Contax II was more ideal. Further boasting a removable back and bayonet lens mount, the Contax’s improvements made it hard for a working photographer to resist.

Sure enough, during Capa’s coverage of the Chinese war of resistance against Japan, he can be seen debuting his new Contax kit while perched atop a knocked-out Japanese tank. It was with this camera that he made some of his most poignant photos, including a portrait of a Chinese boy soldier that would grace the cover of Life Magazine in 1938, a shot of tense citizens watching a dogfight play out above their city, and a touching winter scene of carefree children playing in the snow amid a surreal lull in the violence. And while color film was still dismissed by most professionals at the time, Capa enthusiastically experimented with Kodachrome in China.

CHINA. Hankou. March, 1938. Children playing in the snow.

Several Zeiss bodies would accompany Capa for the rest of his career. Their most famous moment would be on June 6th, 1944. As he plunged into the surf behind Allied troops assaulting the “Easy Red” sector of Omaha Beach, Capa brought two Contax IIs fitted with 50mm glass. As he describes in his autobiography Slightly Out of Focus, “The slant of the beach gave us some protection, so long as we lay flat… I took out my second Contax camera and began to shoot without raising my head.” He later recalls frantically attempting to reload his Contax soaking wet on “the ugliest beach in the world”, eventually retreating to a landing craft out of panic. (It should be noted that as he did elsewhere in life, Capa presented alternate or fictionalized retellings of events for dramatic effect in Slightly Out of Focus.)

By now the disaster that befell Capa’s D-Day negatives in Life Magazine’s darkroom has taken on mythical status, a horror story for lab technicians to tell around the campfire. As with “The Falling Soldier”, the contradictory accounts and urban legends surrounding what really happened are myriad (the accusatory finger has even been pointed toward a young Larry Burrows, then working in the darkroom as an assistant.) Until recently, various versions of the accepted narrative had been that between two and four rolls of film from the pair of Contaxes arrived at the Life offices in London. So sensational were they that the lab technicians were ordered to process them as quickly as possible; in their haste, they left the film in the dryers for too long or at too high a temperature, destroying all but the “Magnificent Eleven.”

Yet as he neared his 100th birthday, Life editor John G. Morris himself admitted the possibility that no other frames from Omaha Beach had existed in the first place. “I now believe that it’s quite possible that Bob just bundled all his 35 together and just shipped it off back to London, knowing that on one of those rolls there would be the [Omaha Beach] pictures he actually shot that morning.”

Debate continues to rage online over the veracity of Capa’s accounts and the official line taken by his publishers. Some fans and mainstream outlets still parrot the dramatic traditional narratives despite their often significant embellishments and inaccuracies, while zealous internet sleuths on the other side seem curiously invested in their attempts to discredit Capa’s work and cast doubt on his personal character.

As is often the case with events that occurred decades ago in a chaotic time, the truth probably lies hidden somewhere in between. Whatever it may be, the number of civilians in the immediate vicinity of Omaha Beach during the first waves could likely be counted on one hand — and Robert Capa took the closest pictures.

Capa retained his Contax IIs for the entirety of World War II. He also appears to have variously carried a borrowed Graflex Speed Graphic, a Rolleiflex Automat Model RF, and an earlier Rolleiflex Old Standard. Based on his body of work, Capa employed the Rollei TLRs in calmer situations that allowed for precise composition and portraiture. Some of his most impressive photos involve no action whatsoever, like his stark portraits of German prisoners-of-war.

But perhaps his most arresting photos of all — ones with authentic immediacy no one can dispute — are a sequence taken on a Leipzig balcony showing the moments leading up to Private Raymond J. Bowman’s death at the hands of a German sniper. The symbolism of Bowman’s demise just weeks before the end of the war in Europe became his namesake: “The Last Man to Die.”

The End: A Nikon in Indochina

Though Capa’s interwar years are often overlooked, they produced breathtaking color work, intimate portraits of artists from Matisse to Picasso, a misadventure in the Soviet Union with John Steinbeck, and behind-the-scenes candids on Hollywood sets.

The latter period was marked by Capa’s brief but doomed affair with the actress Ingrid Bergman. They fell deeply in love, but Capa eventually found himself reluctant to pursue the relationship further and commit to Bergman’s suggestions of marriage. The prospect of following her around from soundstage to soundstage chafed against his urge to remain untethered. It was inevitable that he would find himself on the battlefield once again. After his coverage of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, fate presented another opportunity. It would prove to be his last.

By 1954, France was clinging to its last colonial possessions in Indochina and rapidly losing ground to the Viet Minh. At the eleventh hour, Life asked Capa to fill in for another photographer who had been on the ground covering the fighting.

Gone were the Rolleis, but one final addition was made to Capa’s loadout: a Nikon S to complement his ever-loyal Contax. It may seem an odd choice at first glance. The S arguably didn’t offer a radically different or improved shooting experience over the Contax, as both cameras were aesthetically and functionally quite similar. It’s reasonable to wonder why Capa eschewed the Leica M3, which debuted that same year with such improvements as a rapid advance lever and larger viewfinder.

Simple experimentation may be the answer. The 1950s brought with them a strong Japanese challenge to the long-dominant German and American camera industries. Old hands like David Douglas Duncan were already mounting Nikkor glass to their Leica screw-mount bodies. It’s also probably no coincidence that when Capa received the cable to divert to Indochina, he was touring in Japan. (Incidentally, the colleague he replaced had initially been tasked with undoing the “diplomatic damage” caused earlier by Duncan’s frank assessment of French performance.)

On May 25th, 1954, Robert Capa accompanied French troops into the countryside of Thai Binh province with two other correspondents. His Contax was loaded with black-and-white film, the Nikon with color. Around 2:50 PM, a restless Capa left his companions behind to scout up the road in search of action. He joined another group of French soldiers patrolling a large field, tagging along behind them and taking the last photos of his life.

Then he stepped on a Viet Minh land mine buried in the dirt. The Nikon was thrown clear in the ensuing blast, while the Contax remained clutched in his left hand. The rolls of film inside had survived. Their creator had not.

Robert Capa’s legacy has inspired countless debates and dilemmas — on the role of the photographer as a passive observer or active participant in the often tragic events being documented; on the nature of the adrenaline rush that comes from combat and the void left behind in peacetime; on the blurred lines that exist between art, photojournalism, and propaganda.

But for the readers of this site, Capa’s career offers an interesting look at how one professional used his equipment and responded to the considerable technical advancements that occurred throughout his lifetime — innovations that we now take for granted. When a teenage Endre Friedmann was cutting his teeth in the darkroom, Barnack’s seminal 35mm masterpiece was still taking form. When Robert Capa met his untimely end in Vietnam, the age of the Leica Ms and SLRs that we continue to passionately discuss to this day had just begun.

We’ve all probably gone through similar mental exercises before: If Robert Capa had sidestepped that land mine and continued his work, how would he have photographed the watershed moments of the 60s and 70s? What would have been in his camera bag?

Perhaps these hypotheticals are a moot point. Like his kindred spirit Alfonso de Portago, whose own life would be cut short three years later in a hairpin turn at the Mille Miglia, Robert Capa died as he lived: fast. But he carried with him a breadth of experience and achievement that most men would take two lifetimes to dream up.


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Ryan Alexander Huang

Ryan Alexander Huang is a writer-director of film and a USC School of Cinematic Arts alumnus, but growing up with photography in his home state of Minnesota is what started it all. History’s people, objects, and moments inspire his storytelling, and the cameras that captured those moments are no exception. You can find more of his work at ralexanderhuang.com and on Instagram @ralexanderhuang.

All stories by:Ryan Alexander Huang
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Ryan Alexander Huang

Ryan Alexander Huang is a writer-director of film and a USC School of Cinematic Arts alumnus, but growing up with photography in his home state of Minnesota is what started it all. History’s people, objects, and moments inspire his storytelling, and the cameras that captured those moments are no exception. You can find more of his work at ralexanderhuang.com and on Instagram @ralexanderhuang.

All stories by:Ryan Alexander Huang