Through A Lens Darkly: Robert Capa and D-Day

Robert Capa's photo's of the D-Day landings not only exhibit true human heroism, but also provide a unique insight into one man's passionate commitment to his vocation...
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Robert Capa's photo's of the D-Day landings not only exhibit true human heroism, but also provide a unique insight into one man's passionate commitment to his vocation...

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A young infantryman tries to keep his head above the waves on Omaha Beach.

This photo is one of only eight surviving photographs that Robert Capa took on D-Day. Out of the four rolls of film that Capa used that day, most all of them were destroyed by a nervous darkroom assistant back in London.

Heroism is one of those terms which is often abused. When a footballer is called a hero for scoring a decisive penalty, don’t we somehow cheapen the word? After all, isn’t a Premier League footballer only doing his job? But what is real heroism? What word do we use for those people who decide to go to the most dangerous places because it is not only their job, but also their calling?

Steven Spielberg thought he’d found the answer in Saving Private Ryan. Tom Hanks’ character in the Oscar winning film overcomes his visible battle fatigue (the shaking hand) to bravely lead his men into battle where they sacrifice their lives to save Ryan. There is no doubt that Spielberg’s film brought D-Day vividly to life, and to make his film look as real as possible, he identified the work of the only photojournalist who covered the invasion. “I did everything I could to my camera to get June 6 44 to look like Bob Capa’s photographs,” said Spielberg. But the story behind those photos, and of the man who took them, is as extraordinary as any fiction that Hollywood could imagine.

Robert Capa was a man with a gamblers sensibility. Unlike the frontline soldiers he photographed in combat, he knew he had a choice: “The war correspondent has his stake - his life - in his own hands, 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.” Capa weighed the risks of his profession and counted the odds accordingly. The image was the goal, and as he once said: “If your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough.” So when it came to picking his spot on D-Day, Capa shuffled the deck and chose one of the most dangerous missions of the entire operation. “I am a gambler,” he wrote in his autobiography Slightly Out of Focus. “I decided to go in with Company E in the first wave.”

“The war correspondent has his stake - his life - in his own hands, 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.” Capa weighed the risks of his profession and counted the odds accordingly.

When Capa waded ashore Omaha Beach, he was already a legendary figure in the Allied press corp. He had spent the preceding decade recording some of the most important moments of the twentieth century. His first published photograph was of Leon Trotsky addressing a rally in Copenhagen, a picture which was taken when the then Endré Friedmann was only 18 years of age. The photo didn’t make him, but a name change to Robert Capa and his coverage of the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War brought him to international prominence, and by 1938 Picture Post had christened him “the greatest war photographer in the world.” After covering the aftermath of the Blitz in London, Capa recorded the retreat of Rommel’s Afrika Corp in North Africa, the Allied landings in Sicily and the near disaster of the Anzio beach head in Italy.

Capa returned to London in the spring of 1944 badly shaken by his experience in Italy. He retreated to The Dorchester with his girlfriend Elaine Justin – who he affectionately called Pinkie on account of her strawberry blonde hair – and they went about spending his royalty checks and drinking her booze ration in style. That spring in London was like a wake for the last days. Invasion fever was in the air and it was a time of partying, drinking, casual sex and marathon games of poker. Capa organized a mammoth party for friends and fellow journalists, and he put his legendary scrounging skills to good use by ensuring his guests were well supplied by a steady stream of black market champagne and alcohol. One of the guests was Ernest Hemmingway, who Capa had befriended in Spain. But behind the bonhomie and cheer was the knowledge that it was all a distraction. The veteran reporter Ernie Pyle, who had been with Capa in North Africa and Italy, soon got into the habit of drinking himself to sleep to forget about the coming invasion. Pyle wrote that “fear bore down on your heart like an all consuming weight.”

The fear that Pyle so acutely felt was a feeling shared by Capa, but neither man had long to wait before they received orders to head to a staging area in the south of England and a troop ship to France.

Capa would later joke to a Life Magazine colleague that he had to let go of his Burberry raincoat and find shelter behind a tank when he arrived in Normandy. “After twenty minutes I suddenly realize that this wasn’t a good place to be,” he said. Capa had in fact walked into a disaster zone. The first-wave had been scattered along several miles of heavily fortified beach, and the well trained German defenders picked-off American troops and tanks with ease. Casualties on Easy Red were appalling, with a 90 percent casualty rate for the first wave. Capa, a veteran of so much combat, had not seen anything like it. He done the only thing he could do; he forced his way past bodies and floating weapons, took out his camera and began to shoot the first moments of the invasion. “My picture frames were filled with shrapnel smoke, burnt tanks and sinking barges,” Capa would later recall. “Every peace of shrapnel found a man’s body. I dared not take my eyes from the finder and frantically shot frame after frame.”

Casualties on Easy Red were appalling, with a 90 percent casualty rate for the first wave. Capa, a veteran of so much combat, had not seen anything like it.

After spending over an hour on the beach and with the majority of the GI’s pinned down behind a shallow shingle bank, Capa waded into the sea and scrambled aboard a relief ship picking up the wounded from the beach. He knew he was running away.

When he landed back in Plymouth later that day, he handed four rolls of film to a Life Magazine courier, found a fresh pair of combat fatigues and boarded the next boat to the invasion beaches. With his job seemingly completed, Capa was eager to get onto the next assignment. He would later reunite with Pyle and Hemmingway as the Allies headed towards Paris, the town that Capa had made his home before the outbreak of war. But unbeknown to him, a darkroom assistant had left the door of a drying cabinet closed and melted the films emulsion. Almost all the negatives were destroyed except for eight photos, all of which were published in a world exclusive spread.

At the end of the war, Capa said he hoped to stay unemployed as a war photographer “till the end of my life,” but it wasn’t to be. “Can you see me driving down to a fashion salon in a jeep and a three day beard?” Jimmy Stewart asked Grace Kelly in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, in a conversation that Alfred Hitchcock loosely based on one Capa had with his lover Ingrid Bergman. Instead of settling down in Beverly Hills with a Hollywood starlet or passing the days gambling at Longchamps, he grabbed his Leica and packed his bag for the next assignment. The French were losing their grip on Indo-China and Capa was asked to cover the end of the war. Cornell Capa implored his brother not to go.

Robert Capa died near Doaithan, Vietnam, in 1954. After surviving D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge and the jump into the Rhine during Operation Varsity, Capa’s life was taken by a landmine. He was the first American journalist to die in a war that would last another twenty years.

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