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Robert Capa

Although photographer Robert Capa's international reputation was established through his evocative wartime images, the man himself was a devout pacifist who abhorred war. Born Andre Friedmann in Budapest, Hungary on October 22, 1913 to Dezso Friedmann and Julianna Henrietta Berkovits, he enjoyed a comfortable childhood as a child of successful dressmaking boutique owners. His introduction to documentary photography came early when he joined his neighbor, photographer Eva Besnyo, on an assignment in which she was commissioned to photograph poverty-stricken laborers. While studying political science at Berlin’s Deutsche Hochschule für Politik, he worked for a photographic agency, which is where he sold his first photographs.

When his parents were no longer able to finance his college education, young Mr. Friedmann became a professional photographer, with the support of fellow Hungarian photographer Gyorgy Kepes, who lent him his Voightlander camera to get started. He worked as a darkroom assistant for Simon Guttmann's Dephot agency until he was promoted to photographer in 1932, shortly before Adolf Hitler's rise to power. Relocating to Paris after the Nazi takeover of Germany, Mr. Friedmann became friends with influential photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson and Andre Kertesz. In 1934, he met and fell in love with a German photojournalist named Gerda Taro, who had also been forced into exile by the Nazis. The couple worked together and created a new name and affluent persona for Mr. Friedmann - Robert Capa. When they went to Barcelona to photograph the Spanish Civil War for the French magazine Vu, Mr. Capa took what many consider his most famous photograph, known as "Death of a Loyalist Militiaman." The photograph - that of a Loyalist as he is being shot dead by enemy gunfire - symbolizes the Loyalist desire to die for their cause of freedom - is both stunning and controversial. There is no blood or visible head wound and the image is blurred due to Mr. Capa’s choice of shutter speed and camera angle. Critics have charged this photograph was staged, but no supporting evidence has been provided.

In 1937, there was another casualty of the Spanish Civil War -- Gerda Taro -- and a devastated Robert Capa immersed himself in his photography. He became a staff photographer for Ce Soir, a Parisian daily newspaper, and continued covering the Spanish conflict. He also began freelancing for several periodicals including Life Magazine. By 1938, Mr. Capa was being referred to as "The Greatest War-Photographer in the World." His approach to his craft was deceptively simple; he contended that photographs are only effective if taken in close up. He would aim the lens of his 33-mm camera as close to his subjects as circumstances allowed.

After settling down briefly in New York, Mr. Capa and his camera returned to the battlefields of World War II, during which time he photographed several important events, including the famous landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day. After the war, he founded Magnum Photos with Henri Cartier-Bresson and several other photographic contemporaries. Tiring of war photography, he covered what he intended to be his last combat assignment for Life, the growing discord in Indochina. Like the Spanish Loyalists, Robert Capa gave his life for what he believed in - armed only with a camera, he was killed after stepping on a landmine in his quest for yet another wartime close-up. The Robert Capa Award was established in 1955 for "superlative photography requiring exceptional courage and enterprise abroad."


Ref.:
2010 About to Die: How News Images Move the Public (New York: Oxford University Press), pp. 176-177.

2010 American National Biography, pp. 1-2.

2003 The Essential Photography Manual (Mies, Switzerland: RotoVision SA), p. 154.


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