Making icons: Richard Whelan’s Robert Capa: The Definitive Collection

[This article first appeared on 6 January 2004 here.]

BOOKS: Making icons

Richard Whelan’s Robert Capa: The Definitive Collection

For reasons that may exercise cultural commentators in centuries to come, the word ‘iconic’ is grossly overused these days. (Its root-word, on the other hand, is often misused, as when people who should know better nonsensically refer to a person – e.g. Diana, Princess of Wales – as an ‘icon’.) So pandemic and annoying is this sloppiness, indeed, that it often seems better, out of snobbery as much as anything else, to avoid the word altogether.

Yet as one leafs through the opulently-produced pages of Robert Capa: The Definitive Collection, there is no other word that seems right. Robert Capa was personally responsible for the creation not just of one, but of several twentieth-century icons which even today inform the Western civilian understanding of war. Capa’s eye for an unforgettable composition was unerring, but even more significant was his eye for what should be photographed – for how conflict could be distilled into a visual language fit for civilian consumption, whether as journalism, propaganda or as part of the historical record. If there’s a shock to be had amongst these stunning photographs, it has less to do with their formal brilliance – formidable though that is – than with the fact that even today, very nearly half a century after his death, Capa’s vision of war still colours the content of our own newspapers, television news coverage and fictional accounts of war. It’s all there – the obsession with the ways in which war unsettles civilian lives, the images of suffering children, the tendency to concentrate less on the action itself than on the impact of that action on individual men and women and the claims for empathy that come from such a treatment. Capa’s photos also aestheticise conflict – with all their formal elegance and instant visual appeal, how could they fail to do so? There is, of course, nothing new in that, but Capa’s personal style did more than most to shape a working aesthetic still current today. And the more often Capa’s photographs are reproduced, either directly or through imitation, the more ‘real’ they look. The most famous Capa images gain from their absolute familiarity a sort of fictive autonomy, as if simply generated by their subject-matter as naturally as a cast shadow – as if possessed of an inevitability cut free from human agency. This is one of the several reasons why Robert Capa: The Definitive Collection is vital material for anyone interested in the intersection between warfare and contemporary visual culture.

Of course there are plenty of other ways in which Capa’s work can be appreciated – ways that reflect the ambiguous spaces separating photography, art and history. Capa biographer Richard Whelan alludes to this in a frankly hagiographic introductory essay:

Robert Capa always thought of himself as a photo-journalist, not as an artist. But he had the spirit of a true artist, for he did his work with great intelligence, passion, skill, sensitivity, wit, and grace. In an essay entitled “What Is Art?” Leo Tolstoy answered that question by saying, “Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain signs, hands on to others feelings that he has lived through. He does this in such a way that others are infected by those feelings and experience them.” If we accept that definition, who could possibly deny that Robert Capa was a great artist?

Working with Capa’s younger brother Cornell Capa, Whelan spent part of the early 1990s sorting through about 70,000 of Capa’s old contact sheets and choosing the 937 images which make up this book. The men’s shared goal in doing so was to seek out images ‘whose emotional and graphic impact measure up to, or at least comes close to, the impact of Capa’s classic photographs’. Phaidon, the prestigious art publisher, has given the selection – black-and-white only, by the way – the most opulent, handsome presentation possible. From the format (just under one foot square) to the cover (a grainy print of the D-Day landings, black on khaki, overlaid with cross-hairs) to the fonts (like an old-fashioned typewriter) to the margins (tiny) to the layout (fashionably faux-haphazard) to the quality of the photos themselves (very, very high), this book has been produced with every attention to aesthetic appeal. It is a delight to examine, to handle, even to smell. It is, in other words, a beautiful art book calibrated to convey Capa’s personal, subjective account of some of the most important historical events of the last century while providing non-stop formal delectation. The claims it makes for its subject are expressive and individual, rather than objective and documentary. Ultimately it is as much about Capa as about anything else. In other words, its tone parallels the sort of claims made for modernist high art during the period of Capa’s greatest photos. And as with modernist high art, at its centre is the charismatic, larger-than-life figure of the artist himself.

A life in part
Capa took an active role in the creation of his own mythic status. He was born Endre Friedmann in Budapest in the year 1913, the second son of a family of assimilated, non-observant Jews who owned a smart dressmaking salon. By his early teens he was both a socialist and an aspiring journalist. He was apparently forced out of Budapest for political reasons and by 1931 he was in Berlin, unable to pay for a place at university and working as a delivery boy and darkroom assistant at a prominent photo agency. With a borrowed camera he made his first forays into professional photo-journalism, before political pressure again set him wandering, first to Vienna, back to Budapest, and eventually to Paris. He was taken up by a Hungarian photographer, André Kertész, who helped him find work and gave him further training – not least, in the use of the small but versatile Leica camera, which would soon become Capa’s standby. He made friends with Henri Cartier-Bresson and with David Szymin, who would later become famous as ‘Chim’. In 1934 he met and fell in love with a vivacious, attractive and very left-wing German woman, three years his elder, named Gerda Pohorylle.

Young Andre Friedmann (he had already modified his name) was not, however, having much success, even after a visit to Spain – his French was bad, his manners and haircut bohemian, and he was often confused with another, better-known photographer called Friedmann who also worked in Paris. There was, in fact, a solution to these problems – editing the truth to make it fit better. With Gerda’s help, he invented a famous American photo-journalist called Robert Capa – the name was meant to evoke confused memories of American film director Frank Capra – and again with Gerda’s help, touted Friedmann’s photos round Parisian editorial offices under the Capa name. It worked, and Gerda subsequently followed suit by rebranding herself Gerda Taro. Eventually, however, especially as foreign assignments loomed, it became politic for Andre Friedmann to become the glamorous Robert Capa. And with remarkable speed, the reputation he and Gerda had created out of thin air mutated into fact, as Capa’s photos were published in the great news magazines of his day: Vu, The Weekly Illustrated, the Picture Post and Life.

In July 1936, the Spanish Civil War began. Never before had there been a conflict in which photography was so important. Every possible participating faction – Nationalist or Republican – hoped that powerful images of the conflict would win them sympathy and support from abroad; for political activists outside Spain, the Civil War became an easy metaphor for more local and personal concerns which could then be projected back upon the hapless Spaniards. Or to put it another way, here was a rare case where there was both an ample supply of photographic opportunities and an avid if selective market for the resulting images. The result would act as a sort of template for the treatment of subsequent conflicts. Some of the world’s best photographers and journalists filtered the chaotic, unpleasant realities of a brutal civil war in ways which tended both to simplify ideological and moral complexity – killing seems better when the reasons for it are simple – and to emphasise the travails of civilians, as these were more likely to resonate with a civilian audience elsewhere, than the suffering of actual soldiers – this, despite the pretty obvious fact that civil wars make a nonsense of soldier-civilian distinctions.

The Spanish Civil War made Capa’s career. It was here, apparently in Andalusia, that Capa shot The Falling Soldier, perhaps the most famous photographic image of warfare ever produced. This was printed both in Vu in 1936, and, in 1937, in a photo-essay about the war called Death in the Making for which Capa contributed the photographs while Gerda wrote the captions. Capa was in Madrid when the International Brigades arrived. He photographed civilian life in the midst of aerial bombardment, as well as weary militiamen. He covered the retreat from Málaga, the fighting in the mountains of Segovia, and the ongoing struggle over Madrid. In July 1937, Gerda was accidentally crushed to death by a Republican tank. The French Communist Party gave her the equivalent of a state funeral, complete with burial in Père Lachaise and a monument designed by Giacometti.

It goes almost without saying – and certainly, Richard Whelan’s text takes it as inevitable – that Capa photographed the Spanish Civil War as a socialist, identifying completely with his Republican subjects. Throughout his life his ideological orientation remained firmly left-leaning. He made no secret of his left-wing stance, whether during his time as an accredited US Army photographer in the Second World War (North Africa, Sicily, central Italy, France and Germany) or afterwards, in 1947, when his activities included travelling to the Soviet Union to provide illustrations for an embarrassing encomium written by his long-time friend John Steinbeck, or in 1949 when he worked with Irwin Shaw on the firmly pro-Zionist Report on Israel. With his old friends Cartier-Bresson and ‘Chim’, he co-founded the famous Magnum co-operative which survives to this day as one of the most prestigious, and lucrative, in its field. At the same time, his socialism did not prevent him from enjoying ski holidays in Klosters (where he made friends with the Dutch royal family) or gambling excursions to Deauville and Biarritz (he haemorrhaged large sums of money as easily as he earned them) or from consorting with Hollywood glitterati like John Huston, Gene Kelly and the sublime Ingrid Bergman (one of the many beautiful women who fell head-over-heels in love with him). This, too, was part of the Capa myth – this modern sense of being a permanent outsider, quite literally at home with peasants or with princes, but bound by no firm nationality or social class or party-political position.

Even in death, he was glamorous. In 1954, Life hired Capa to cover the war in Indochina. After a few days in Hanoi, Capa travelled with General René Cogny, the commander of French ground forces in North Vietnam, to Namdinn. There he accepted an invitation to photograph the evacuation and destruction of two small forts. He brought with him a Contax loaded with black-and-white film, a Nikon loaded with colour film, a flask of cognac and a thermos of iced tea. Walking up a gentle, grassy slope behind an advancing French platoon, Capa trod on a Vietminh antipersonnel mine. It detonated. Capa died almost immediately, the Contax still firmly clutched in his hand. He was only 41 years old.

A myth in the making
None of this would matter much, were it not for the way in which Capa was always the real subject of his best photographs, and for the long shadow cast by this dashing, reckless, charismatic photo-journalist. Like his friend Ernest Hemingway – and also, parenthetically, like both Pablo Picassso and the great artists of the New York School (De Kooning, Pollock, Smith et al) whose work is in some ways the mirror image of Capa’s – his was a self-consciously macho, work-hard-and-play-hard, highly mannered aesthetic. He wrote several volumes of memoirs, of which the following description of the liberation of Paris (quoted in Robert Capa: The Definitive Collection) accurately captures the tone:

I felt that this entry into Paris had been made especially for me. On a tank made by the Americans who had accepted me, riding with the Spanish Republicans with whom I had fought against fascism long years ago, I was returning to Paris – the beautiful city where I first learned to eat, drink, and love […]Our first stop was in front of the Café de Dôme in the Montparnasse. My favourite table was empty. Girls in light printed dressed climbed up on our tank and ersatz lipstick soon covered our faces. Around the Chamber of Deputies we had to fight, and some of the lipstick got washed off with blood. Late in the evening, Paris was free.

‘We had to fight’ … ‘the lipstick got washed off with blood’ … in an age of highly mechanised warfare and enormous conscript armies, it is the journalist who, in a shotgun marriage of individual exceptionalism and partial identification with real fighting men, becomes the hero of his own story. He, alone, can communicate to civilian polities the over-arching truths about the reality of conflict. Half-soldier and half-artist, he alone can be trusted. Although Capa did not create this situation himself, he certainly helped it along. It is not exactly difficult to trace the connections between that description of the liberation of Paris and, to pick only a few examples out of many hundreds, incidents in the public lives of Max Hastings, John Pilger and John Simpson.

But it is not just written memoirs that award the photo-journalist this prominent, exciting, pivotal position. It is there in the photos themselves. There is a strong sense that soldiers shoot with weapons, photo-journalists with cameras, and in wars of ideology the two must fight shoulder-to-shoulder. The cross-hairs delicately traced over the cover image of the book surely play on this blurring of identity. Capa’s motto – oft repeated – was ‘if your pictures aren’t good enough, then you’re not close enough’. Thus much of the drama of Capa’s best photographs comes from our complicity in the photographer’s viewpoint – that, and from the aura of physical danger the viewpoint so often generates. In The Fallen Soldier, we are, apparently, invited to lie with Capa in a ditch as a man is shot dead only inches away. Photos of civilians running frantically towards an air-raid shelters in Bilbao and Barcelona induce a mild feeling of panic – why are we standing still, rather than running too? And on Omaha Beach, the blurry, grainy images remind us that Capa was, in places, actually standing in the water in front of the advancing American troops, looking back towards the landing craft as they came ashore. On one level the thrill is about authenticity – ‘he was there; this was how it really looked’ – while on the other hand the account is leavened with a highly subjective yet powerful dose of personal heroism. Sometimes the content of the photographs seems to allude directly to the intercessory role of the photo-journalist, as in a Capa photograph of the aftermath of a riot in Mexico City in 1940, where nine young men surround the body of their dead comrade, gesturing with their hands towards the corpse, looking entreatingly into the camera as if in direct appeal – as if commanding the camera to bear witness to their suffering. In many other photographs, someone’s eyes – often those of a child – stare directly into the camera, drawing attention to the photographer whose viewpoint we are forced to share, and in doing so, flattering us by implication. If the photographer is an heroic teller of truths, we are also heroic in our apprehension and decoding of those truths. We, like him, can meet those eyes. Then we can turn the page and look at something else. Thus are very big wars trimmed down to a manageable human scale.

By the seaside with Picasso
It is perhaps remarkable, given his reputation as a war-photographer, that some of Capa’s greatest photographs had nothing to do with conflict. Robert Capa: The Definitive Collection includes powerful portraits of, inter alia, Picasso, Matisse, Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn and John Steinbeck. His photos of Picasso and Françoise Gilot larking about on the beach at Golfe-Juan are astounding. In the most brilliant of these, Picasso follows his radiant mistress, holding a beach-umbrella over her head – echoes of Van Dyck’s great portrait of Elena Grimaldi – followed in turn by his nephew. In formal terms this photo has a magical aptness. Françoise’s fringed hat rhymes with the fringed sun-shade, while the three figures set up a surging diagonal across the horizontal bands established by sand, sea and sky. In expressive terms it is compelling. Compared with the elegant Françoise, Picasso might seem to be diminished by perspective as well as context. In van Dyck’s painting, after all, it is an African servant who carries the parasol of which the countess seems all but unaware. In fact, however, the look Picasso gives to the camera conveys a completely different message – one that asserts the absolute dominance of the old man who is so clearly the centre of all this apparently light-hearted activity. To what extent did Capa identify with the world’s most famous artist? They had in common exile, beautiful women, a taste both for high living and hard work, and pre-eminent stature in their respective spheres. They both had the visual equivalent of perfect pitch. They had that willingness to take risks which is necessary, if not sufficient, for real artistic greatness. Again, this would not matter if it did not hint at the Capa’s own understanding of the nature of his achievement.

Elsewhere in this essay I have made reference to the affinities which linked Capa with what Harold Rosenberg would call the ‘action painters’ of New York – in particular, Jackson Pollock – as well as other individuals generally lumped together under the title of the American Abstract Expressionists. On a silly, superficial level it is easy enough to think of similarities. They all, as I have noted before, had a tendency either to portray themselves or to be portrayed as macho, hard-living individualists; their politics were universally left-wing; a complicated fascination with self-destruction laid most of them in very early graves; in a strange way, the Ab Ex painters benefited as much from American illustrated magazines as did Capa (in Pollock’s case, one thinks of Time magazine and the Cecil Beaton Vogue fashion-shoot); their work was, in each case, particularly vulnerable to the way in which it was captioned and contextualised. On an equally superficial level, there was also a major disjunction. Capa’s photos were not only supremely representational – a quality which critical reaction banished from the Ab Ex painters’ work when they did not do this themselves – but emphasised exactly those things about which the Ab Ex painters’ work maintained such a studied silence: war, ideology, difference. Or to put it another way, while we tend to assume that the Ab Ex painters work should be read in formal – or, for anyone willing to risk the posthumous wrath of Clement Greeberg, expressive – terms, it is normal to treat Capa’s achievement as something rather different simply because the causal relationship between a photographic image and its subject seems to us to confer on it a ‘reality’ unobtainable by art.

So none of this would be worth examining, were it not for one affinity which is slightly more interesting that those described above. When Rosenberg coined the phrase ‘action painters’ he wished to draw attention to artists who, he felt, used the canvas as ‘an arena in which to act’, with the resulting painting coming to serve as a record of that action. As criticism this has largely been discredited, but at the time it was influential, and perhaps it still possesses a sort of hazy truth. A painting likeNo. 1, 1948 encourages a certain sort of viewer to think through and indeed identify with the actions which produced the thing he sees before him in a way that, say, Van Dyck’s portrait of Elena Grimaldi does not. Possibly there are affinities between this and the appeal of Capa’s photographs. In 1937, Capa was asked about how he created his photographs. He replied

No tricks are necessary to take pictures in Spain. You don’t have to pose your camera [i.e. set up the shot]. The pictures are there, and you just take them. The truth is the best picture, the best propaganda.

It is hard, reading this, not to be reminded of the claims for spontaneity and fortuitous effects which the Ab Ex painters inherited from their Surrealist predecessors and passed on into much conceptual art. There is a sense – rather dated now, perhaps – that ‘truth’ is an objective thing that can be trapped on a canvas or on a photographic plate in a way that no carefully-planned composition could ever hope to offer. I think both Capa and the Ab Ex painters enjoyed these claims for a sort of visual truth while at the same time realising that they were, at a higher level, nonsense. Good photography, like good painting, requires a lot of human intervention.

The one truly iconic non-photographic image of the Spanish Civil War is, of course, Picasso’s Guernica The grey-scale tonality of Guernica makes reference to press photography, obviously Picasso’s own experience of the bombing of the Basque town must have come through the usual channels of print journalism, photography and newsreels, and he could be sure that his audience would have shared this common experience. But the resulting painting could hardly be less like a photograph. As Elizabeth Cowling points out in Picasso: Style and Meaning, within weeks of Guernica’s first public appearance in 1937, most of an entire issue of Cahiers d’Arthad been turned over to a description of the work’s ‘history’, including prepatory drawings and a sequence of photographs by Dora Maar showing how the painting had developed during the course of its creation. From the frieze-like composition to the patient accretion of art-historical references (including his own analytical cubism) to the rejection of naturalistic modes of representation, this is a painting that proclaims itself to be a painting. How on earth could a clearer distinction be made between the planned, handcrafted and manufactured work on one hand, and the immediate and unproblematic ‘truth’ of the photograph on the other? Picasso moved, in the course of the late 1930s and early 1940s, from a position in which he refused to countenance any political reading of his work to one in which he could describe himself as ‘a political being’, but he remained alert to the gulf separating this engagement with contemporary events from that of the photographer. He told an American war correspondent in the days following the Liberation:

I have not painted the war because I am not the kind of painter who goes out like a photographer for something to depict.

This takes us back precisely to Capa’s ‘the pictures are just there, and you take them’.

A tarnished icon?
If Capa produced one of the most famous war photographs ever, he also produced the most controversial one. The photo in question – variously called Death of a Republican Soldier or (as in Robert Capa: The Definitive Collection) The Falling Soldier – shows a militia-man falling backward, eyes closed, arms outstretched, weapon nearly lost, against the background of sky, dry grass and distant hills. What cannot be denied is that it is a brilliant photo. The blurring, the apparently clumsy framing (the soldier is about to fall out of the picture towards the bottom left, while the sky dominates most of the space) convey an impression of haste, of proximity and of veracity. At the same time, the photo makes reference to familiar art-historical conventions – the idea of the battlefield as a place of harvest, for instance – while those outstretched arms potentially refer both to the Goya’s Third of May, and to the Crucifixion. The vantage-point means that even as he falls, the militia-man still looms over the horizon, creating a scene in which individual death and individual commitment do matter. For most of us though, the iconographic cleverness registers, if at all, on a subconscious level only. The real shock comes from the immediacy of the image, and the directness with which it seems to depict – no, to document – the great mystery of warfare, mercifully hidden from civilians – the exact moment at which a bullet strikes and wounds and kills. We see – because it is as if we are there in the trench with Capa – the physical impact of the projectile, the way death punctuates the onward rush of life. And yet at the same time, with its bloodlessness and lack of physical destruction, it is almost a consoling image. To quote the caption given to another of Capa’s photos, This Is War. This is as close, we feel, as most of us will ever get.

Or is it? As Caroline Brothers has described in her brilliantly incisive War and Photography, ever since two authors raised the issue in 1974 (was there a dose of post-Vietnam, post-Watergate cynicism here?) controversy has raged over the authenticity of this iconic image. The basic charge against Capa is that the picture does not in fact show what we have all assumed it showed. It has been suggested both that the soldier in the photo has not been shot but is merely falling, and also that the whole series of photographs was no more than a succession of ‘action shots’ staged for the camera during a lull in the actual fighting. This is, of course, not the place to explore the full spectrum of arguments supporting each position. Suffice to say that one of the strongest arguments against authenticity is a very similar photograph that appeared in Vu directly under the photo of The Falling Soldier, and sharing its emotive ‘How they fell’ caption, in which it is implied very clearly that both soldiers were shot dead. The two photos were clearly taken from exactly the same point, within moments of each other. (The shadows in the grass in the two pictures do not change.) The two photos also clearly depict two discrete individuals. So why does neither photo show two mortally wounded soldiers, rather than one? And if the first soldier really were shot dead and (as some have claimed) pulled back to the trench by his comrades, would even Capa have remained standing, clearly three or four feet above the level of the trench, as yet another militia-man was shot and killed a few feet away from him?

Of course if these photos were posed, Capa would hardly have been the first or the last photographer who sought to improve reality in the interest of achieving the perfect image. Robert Fenton’s early photos of the Crimean War, printed in The Times, mingled posed battle-scenes with images of life in the encampments and Crimean topography. During the American Civil War, Matthew Brady and his assistant produced photographs which still look terribly ‘real’ to us, if only because the conventions of his day were not those of ours – nineteenth century America was more familiar with death than we are today, and hence stiff and bloated corpses were perhaps less shocking then than now – but he was perfectly capable of moving bodies, re-dressing and accessorising them, in order to get the shot he wanted. And one of the greatest photographs from the Second World War – the image of a group of US Marines struggling to raise the Stars and Stripes over Iwo Jima – was re-enacted several times for the benefit of Joe Rosenthal and the rest of the press corps. Is this a bad thing or a good thing? It depends, obviously, on the claims one makes for photography.

In Robert Capa: The Definitive Collection, Richard Whelan takes a firm line on this whole subject. Unsurprisingly, he will not entertain the implication that his hero’s greatest picture might have been a composed, ‘inauthentic’ one. He produces several circumstantial arguments in attempting to prove that this was not the case, none of which strike me, at least, as being very compelling. Yet he also prints, alongside The Fallen Soldier, three other photographs apparently taken in the same time and in the same place (Cerro Muriano, Cordoba front, 5 September 1936). These are fascinating, not least because they seem – to me, anyway – to show quite clearly both the two men who appeared in the more and less famous Vu photos. Whatever else was going on, Capa obviously been able to photograph them both in close-up and from several yards away. Whelan insists that no Spanish militia-man would have been so free from superstition as to agree to pose as if dead. I am not so sure. Surely, though, at least the more famous Falling Soldier could, after all, be simply be that – a picture of a soldier who, in the course of charging or pretending to charge out of his sheltering trench, happened to slip and fall? All of which serves as a reminder of the central importance of captions and context when it comes to the way in which we ‘read’ photo-journalism.Death of a Republican Soldier, after all, conjures up one kind of feeling – Republican Militia-man Slips on Dry Grass conjures up another.

Text and subtext
All of which brings us to the subject of captions. As I hope I have made entirely clear by now, Robert Capa: The Definitive Collection is a magnificent and timely publication. Yet if there is a single point of regret that stabs at the intellect as one leafs through these pages, it is with regard to the captions for the photographs. These are, I think, written by Richard Whelan. All list a location, a date, and in the case of some of the portraits, the names of the individuals portrayed. Sometimes there is also a short paragraph giving context, generally in terms of Capa’s own biography or presumed qualities. Thus for a series of photos of tired-looking Republican troops killing time in Madrid before being sent back to the front, we are told that

Capa understood that the truth about war was to be found, among other places, behind the lines – in the faces of soldiers enduring cold, fatigue, and tedium.

The commentary shares without apology or explanation Capa’s Republican stance. In a way, this is reasonable enough – Whelan, who has written a biography of Capa and was working with Capa’s own brother, presumably has a relatively good sense of what Capa felt about his images. (For what it’s worth, though, I find enthusiasm for the Republican militias far more culpable for someone writing today, presumably with the benefit of hindsight both about Franco’s regime and the socialist regimes of the mid-twentieth century, than for someone in Capa’s time – but that’s a topic for another day.) In places Capa is even quoted about the content of the photos. A series of pictures of refugees from Barcelona is captioned as follows:

On his caption sheet for his photograph of a refugee transit centre during the evacuation of Barcelona, Capa wrote, “It is not always easy to stand aside and be unable to do anything except record the sufferings around one.”

This is, of course, interesting, not least for way it flags up the photographer, rather than the subject of the photo, as the nexus for psychological drama. But it raises other questions, too. For one thing, it reminds us that most of these photos, if not all of them, would have been given captions by Capa himself, for the benefit of the editors who acquired the agency photographs for publication. Some of these photos appeared in Capa’s several books of photo-essays, in which he either composed or maintained editorial authority over the captions. Many appeared in magazines or newspapers, again with captions.

But as was manifest in the case of The Falling Soldier, what viewers are told about a photograph can play a decisive role in the way they ‘read’ its content. Most of us are sufficiently logocentric as to have to be told what to see. If, for instance, one is told that a stony-faced old woman seated on the ground is a refugee, rather than a beggar, it makes a difference. A young soldier lying on the sand could be sun-bathing or resting until a caption reveals him to be a dead German defender on the beach at Anzio. A blurry photo of some armed men plunging through the surf matters more once one knows that this is one of the first photographs of the first wave of American troops landing in Normandy. And so on. The problem with the hybrid method whereby the captions derive from unspecified sources (Capa’s own captions, his published photo-essays, Whelan’s sanitising reflections on them) is that one never really knows what one is reading. As long as one is enjoying this volume on the level of an art book, this probably does no harm. But if one is attempting to explore, in however cursory a fashion, the original historical impact of these photos, it would have perhaps been better had each photo been accompanied by some information as to its first publication(s), the caption that accompanied it and some scholarly notes on the context. At the risk of belabouring a very obvious point, the danger in Whelan’s caption is precisely the danger of lazily assuming that each photo is somehow a little gobbet of pure reality, preserving in its grainy analogue face a tiny speck of unchanging truth, like a fly frozen in a bead of amber.

Capa sometimes wrote as if he believed that this were true, but he was also a proud and open political partisan, and a man who believed that photography had a part to play in winning wars. When he asserted that ‘the truth is the best picture, the best propaganda’ he was presumably aware of the double-edged nature of this claim – of its clever implication both that the real truth, if published widely, would achieve the best results, but also that for the best results to be achieved, published images needed to be accepted as the real truth. This was not duplicity or cynicism – it was simply an integral feature of his chosen medium. Capa, as one of the giants of that medium, handled this feature just as instrumentally as he did any other.

Point and shoot?

The relationship between analogue photography and reality is a subject which has benefited from discussion by many brilliant and learned people, and I do not propose to add to it – if anyone is interested in reading more, Caroline Brother’s War and Photograhy is a good place to start. Let me simply assert that I do not agree with the view of photography implied by Christopher Isherwood when he claimed that ‘I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking’, or rather, that I understand it as an attempt to assert a privileged status for a particular type of visual information. Photography, I think, can say a lot about the sort of light reflections which hit a lens at a particular moment in time, but that between that sort of information and meaning – let alone ‘truth’ – stand a number of issues of audience, patronage, composition, interpretation, context, outright falsification and, as was suggested at the beginning of this essay, the all-important choice of what to photograph, what to appear to tell what truth about. If this were not the case, anyone could take photos like Capa’s. It is, though, and obviously we can’t.

And this, therefore, is why Capa’s politics matter – not because some silly issue of ‘bias’ but because his politics are part of a complex of ingredients that informed his best images, and hence as significant as any other aspect of his technique. As with any photographer, whatever his background and whatever his intentions, Capa’s account of warfare – not least in Spain – was inevitably personal, partial, and partisan. It could not have been otherwise. At a crude level, this is why, rifling the pages of Robert Capa: The Definitive Collection we see many photographs of motherly women and adorable children whose lives have been gouged apart by Nationalist bombardment, while there are no photographs at all of Republican reprisal killings or the sectarian carnage that stained with blood the great squares of Barcelona. It is why Capa’s images of Israel in 1948 are universally celebratory and heroic. It is why his identification with film stars, authors and artists allowed him to produce such memorable visions of them – visions that captured the sexiness of Picasso, the melancholic aimlessness of Faulkner, the gritty glamour of John Huston. It is why, paradoxically, some of the most haunting photographs in the book seem to depict situations about which Capa felt slightly torn – his painful photos of shorn-headed collaborators being jeered through the streets of liberated France, or one taken shortly before his death, in which some French troops show little interest in a young Vietnamese woman weeping beside her husband’s grave, or in the two little toddlers standing nearby. And it is also why, alas, some of the pictures eventually blur into each other. Probably this is a terrible thing to admit, but after a while, most refugees, most snipers, most cute but endangered children look very much alike. Capa, I think, saw this too, when he commented late in his career that ‘To me war is like an aging actress – more and more dangerous and less and less photogenic.’

But if these images resemble each other, they also refer to each other, too, and that in itself is a way of helping viewers make sense of their world. Capa helped frame an iconographic shorthand which rhymed the experiences, and hence the merit, of some very disparate groups and situations and individuals. Yes, this shows that photographs are in some sense contrived. It also underscores how brilliant Capa was at contriving them.

Making icons

It may seem that I am going too far in denying that photographs have some special claim on historical truth, and that thus the images in this marvellous book are no more than art [sic]. Self-evidently, analogue photography still packs a punch that the makers of handmade visial art can only regard with envy. Los Angeles would not have exploded into riots over a drawing showing LAPD thugs assaulting Rodney King. That terrible, grainy footage of a trusting James Bulger being walked to his death hurts, if we pause to think about it, like no painted image could. And art has been famously slow to follow on from the endless, numbing photographic images of 11 September that have surrounded us for the past year, as if shocked into silence by its own apparent irrelevance in the context of the most photographed and most photogenic disaster the world has ever known. We may be a good deal more cynical about visual imagery and news manipulation than were our grandparents, but most of us still sense something special in the causal relationship that produces an image on a photographic plate. In this we are, I suspect, doomed to be a great deal less cynical than our own grandchildren will be, remaining as we do largely unaware of the havoc that digital photography – a process that eats aways at the boundaries between photography and computer graphic – will wreak on our vision of the world. The damage, however, is well underway. As early as 1989, a Wall Street Journal article suggested that of all colour photographs in US publications, at least ten per cent had been digitally altered. The proportion must be hugely higher now. Unlike analogue photography, digital photography has no negative, no contact-sheet to act as its artefactual conscience. The truth has never looked so nakedly mutable. Where does this crisis of authenticity leave us? How – the question seems particularly pertinent today – are we ever going to get close to the truth about war?

It is too soon to tell, of course, but at the same time it is perhaps worth venturing an idea or two. For me, at least, one of the undeniable attractions of Capa’s oeuvre is its nostalgic evocation of a long-ago world in which photography told the truth, in which history was presented to us as it happened in manageable and digestible portions about which we were not particularly cynical, yet at the same time a world in which heroic individuals could tell truths worth hearing – whether the bracing modern truths of Picasso or the wilfully individual truths of Abstract Expressionism or the detailed and yet soothingly simplified truths of Robert Capa. And incidentally, I do not mean the word ‘soothingly’ as in any way pejorative. The decision to use only black-and-white photographs in this book helps to encourage that nostalgia, to fence these authentic-looking images off from the more problematic ones that surround us today. Ultimately, then, what is real about these photographs is their ongoing currency as a valued part of our visual language, not the circumstances of their creation. If the creators of Robert Capa: The Definitive Collection do their subject any disservice, it is in pretending, pace that Tolstoy quote, that his images could have been, as it were, ‘begotten, not created’. In order to value them as we should, we need to remember that in their own way, they were as handmade, as quirkily individual and as biased as any work of art, even if part of their facture involved knowing attempts to make them look more haphazard, more accidental and contingent than they actually were in practice. Modernism spent the better part of a century prising art and war away from each other, erecting distinctions which are now collapsing all around us. Perhaps it’s just me, but looking back at the 1930s, 40s and 50s, the kinship between artistic and photographic responses to war seems far more striking that the differences.

We are constantly told that photography killed off representational art, and certainly killed off art as documentary evidence about conflict, and that thus modernity created a permanent and decisive break in our visual culture. Looking at Robert Capa: The Definitive Collection, though, I am not so sure. What if it turns out that what we love most about these Capa photographs, what we trust most about them, comes precisely from their handmade quality, from the controlling intelligence that framed them, from the way in which they were explained to us by critics and caption-writers, by an ‘aura’ of authenticity that proves just as nebulous as any aura of uniqueness which elevates one-off, handmade visual art? What if the representation of great truths still depends, ultimately, as much on the viewer as it does on the image itself?

This, in our time, is how icons are made.
Bunny Smedley, when not engaged as ERO’s Arts Editor, sometimes contempates writing a book on art, warfare and modernity.

Bunny Smedley, January 6, 2004 07:06 PM


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