Robert Capa: The Brave & Reckless Life Of A War Correspondent

Here's the story of legendary war correspondent Robert Capa whose personal life mirrored the drama he experienced in the trenches of the world's war zones...
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Here's the story of legendary war correspondent Robert Capa whose personal life mirrored the drama he experienced in the trenches of the world's war zones...

Omaha Beach, Normandy. June 6th 1944.  Amid the gunfire raining down from the shoreline, the surf, the blood and the guts one man ran ashore armed only with two cameras and several rolls of film.

That man was Robert Capa whose career became the template for the modern-day war correspondent. Reckless, brave and compassionate in equal measure he was a heavy drinker, a womaniser and a gambler - a charming rogue who never owned a house instead living in hotels or the homes of friends.

He had affairs with movie stars and was as comfortable in the company of GIs as he was with intellectuals, artists and film directors. Like many great war correspondents he didn’t die in his sleep, instead killed by a landmine aged just 40.  If his life had not been lived but instead created for the big screen, it would have seemed fanciful.

Yet, in many ways his life was a creation and this would add to the legend as well as cast a shadow of doubt over what is arguably his most famous photo.  Capa was born André Friedmann in 1913 to a Jewish couple who owned a dressmaking shop in Budapest. Intelligent, romantic but bored he sought danger from an early age and became involved with the left-wing revolutionary group Munkakör (Work Circle) during his teens.

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He took part in demonstrations, often violent, against the proto-fascist regime of Miklòs Horthy, which led to his arrest, beating and jailing by the secret police.  The wife of a police chief who was a customer of his parents’ secured Andre’s release on condition he left Hungary immediately.

So he moved to Berlin aged 18 to study journalism at the radical Deutsche Hochschule für Politik.  When his parents’ business collapsed he was forced to find work and so became a photographer, his logic being it would allow him to be a journalist with no need to speak more than one language.  His first famous photo was published in 1932 when he captured Leon Trotsky speaking at a sports stadium in Copenhagen.

As the shadow of Nazism grew longer and darker and Hitler’s Brown Shirts became more violent, Andre, both Jewish and left-wing (and still just 19), fled first to Vienna then back to Budapest before moving to Paris, where he would become both the man and the photographer Robert Capa.  In the French capital, he also met and fell in love with the woman who would become his fiancée Gerda Pohorylle a beautiful polish refugee and fellow photographer.

The pair struggled to make money so when Gerda hit upon the idea that personality was as important as product they created Robert Capa (the name perhaps taken from Andre’s favourite film director Frank Capra, or capa the Hungarian for shark) a rich, famous, talented American photographer whose name alone could boost the price of a photo.  She posed as Capa’s secretary and sales representative, Andre as his darkroom assistant.

Their scheme was eventually discovered by the editor of Vue magazine, Lucien Vogel, but not before Andre had become established as Capa and along with Gerda (who also changed her surname to Taro) he went to Spain in August 1936 to cover the Civil War.  It was here that Capa took his most famous shot, The Falling Soldier which showed a Republican soldier falling backwards the instant after he’d been shot.

It was published in Vu magazine as well as one of the very first issues of Life and cemented Capa’s reputation as the foremost photographer in the field.  Yet in the mid-Seventies allegations surfaced in a book by Phillip Knightley about how war correspondents often distorted the truth.

The water is muddied further by Capa’s admission during the war that he’d asked a group of soldiers to stage an attack for the camera, saying they always looked more aggressive than when they were in actual battle as well as the fact his whole life as a photographer was based on an elaborate lie.

The water is muddied further by Capa’s admission during the war that he’d asked a group of soldiers to stage an attack for the camera, saying they always looked more aggressive than when they were in actual battle.

Capa’s biographer Alex Kershaw claims that either way the ‘truth’ of the photo lies in its representation of ‘symbolic death’ but this does Capa a disservice.  The claim that the photo was staged only ever came from one person many years after the event – not really enough evidence that questions over its voracity should remain.  Had The Falling Soldier been the only photo for which Capa was famous, his legacy might have been tarnished but he would cement his reputation with his D-Day images.

Tragically his time in Spain would deal Capa a huge personal blow when Gerda, aged just 27, was crushed by a Republican tank during a battle west of Madrid in 1937.  Heartbroken, Capa went to China to cover the Sino-Japanese War before returning to Spain to document the end of the Civil War.

The Second World War saw Capa chronicle the invasion of North Africa as well as jump into Sicily with paratroopers but it was in his beloved France that he would capture the other defining image of his career when he landed on D-Day alongside soldiers of the 16th Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division.

If you want some idea of what Capa faced during that landing, checkout the visceral, gruesome opening 24 minutes of Saving Private Ryan, which director Steven Spielberg said were heavily influenced by Capa’s photos on the day.  Of course, what Capa faced was very real.  He stopped to take his first photo at the lip of the barge front and the boatswain, who mistook his delay for hesitation, kicked him into the water.

A hundred yards from shore and with bullets cutting the water Capa was, as he wrote later, introduced to “a new kind of fear, shaking my body from head to toe to hair, and twisting my face.”  It was all he could do to just keep taking photos.

He reached a steel obstacle and briefly shared its cover with a soldier while taking photos of other soldiers also taking cover.  He then made his way to a disabled tank and when he stopped to reload his camera he would try and steady his trembling hands by simply repeating a phrase he had picked up in the Spanish Civil War “es una cosa muy seria” (“This is a very serious business.”)

If you want some idea of what Capa faced during that landing, checkout the visceral, gruesome opening 24 minutes of Saving Private Ryan, which director Steven Spielberg said were heavily influenced by Capa’s photos on the day.

After 90 hellishly long minutes he was out of film and so waded back to a Higgins landing craft holding his Contax cameras above his head.  “I didn’t think and I didn’t decide it.  I just stood up and ran towards the boat.  I knew that I was running away.  I tried to turn but couldn’t face the beach.”  He was pulled onto the craft just before it was shelled, killing and injuring many on board.

Back in England Capa raced to London to deliver his 106 photos to Life magazine’s office where, incredibly a darkroom technician dried the film too quickly destroying all but 11 of them.  Those that remain became blurred classics, almost surreal shots that portray the chaos and confusion of the day and one in particular of a GI struggling through the seawater became the iconic image of the Normandy invasion.

Following the war he outlined his philosophy: “The war correspondent gets more drinks, more girls, better pay and greater freedom to choose his spot… The war correspondent has to stake his life in his own hand, and he can put it on this horse or that horse, or he can put it back in his pocket at the very last minute. I am a gambler. I decided to go in the Company E in the first wave.”

One of the girls he got was Hollywood star Ingrid Bergman whom he followed to Hollywood while she was filming the Alfred Hitchcock film Notorious.  Their affair was brief but passionate and would inspire another Hitchcock film Rear Window.  Bergmann tried to persuade the photographer to marry her, but he didn’t want to live in Hollywood and their relationship ended in 1946 when he left for Turkey.

“The war correspondent gets more drinks, more girls, better pay and greater freedom to choose his spot… The war correspondent has to stake his life in his own hand"

In 1947 he fulfilled a dream, and created his other great legacy when, along with Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour, George Rodger and William Vandivert, he set up the photographers’ co-operative Magnum (inevitability named after the champagne bottle) which is still the only co-operative agency for freelance photographers.

The following year he went to Russia with the author John Steinbeck, whom he had befriended as a war correspondent and to Israel with the then-New Yorker writer Irwin Shaw. Both collaborations produced books but, significantly, on the second trip Capa was grazed and left shaken by a bullet in Tel Aviv.

The gambler became cautious and sat out the Korean War.  After 10 years covering conflict across the world, he was displaying symptoms of post-traumatic stress and so, he turned his attentions to writing, producing several books including his biography Slightly Out Of Focus which he admitted he had written as a movie script, changing certain details along the way (another admission which would call into question truth of The Fallen Soldier).

In 1954 while on a tour of Japan with a Magnum exhibition, Capa was asked by Life to help as they needed a photographer to cover the First Indo-China War.  The gambler took another chance on his life and was lured back to front-line but fatally he backed the wrong horse.

Accompanying a French convoy on a mission to evacuate two forts in the Red River Delta he left his Jeep while the convoy was under fire to go further up the road to photograph the advance.  He stepped on a landmine, which blew off his left leg and inflicted a serious chest wound.   He was declared dead before he reached hospital.

Capa had once said: “If your pictures aren’t good enough you’re not close enough.”  Like Gerda, the love of his life, he had finally got too close.