Robert Capa- Perhaps the greatest war photographer that ever lived
Tuesday, 6 February 2018
In 1938 the UK’s Picture Post magazine described 25-year-old Robert Capa as ‘The Greatest War Photographer in the World.’ During his career he covered five armed conflicts in 10 countries, left 70,000 negatives and left behind an extraordinary record that told not only of the darkness of war but of the human condition.
‘I worked with Capa a lot,’ wrote writer and former war correspondent John Steinbeck. ‘His work is the picture of a great and overwhelming passion. No one can take his place. He could photograph motion and gaiety. He captured a world and it was Capa’s world.’
Indeed, the more I have read about the man the more convinced I am of his supreme genius. Not only that, he seems like a chap with whom you would want to hang out, a man who was charismatic, brave, egalitarian and funny, and many others agree.
As journalist Simon Kuper once said, ‘Capa was the perfect hero, equally brilliant on either side of the lens: impish smile, cleft chin and jet-black hair; poker player, champagne drinker and lover of beautiful women; a cosmopolitan so footloose he didn’t even have a favourite hotel.’
Accordingly, two big films about the man are now in production. Paul Andrew Williams’ movie Close Enough is a romantic drama starring Tom Hiddleston as the lensman and Hayley Atwell as Gerda Taro, while Michael Mann’s production, entitled Waiting For Robert Capa, is based on Susana Fortes’s short 2009 novel.
‘I look at [Capa’s] life and see it in heroic terms,’ said Hiddleston. ‘As a man he was fantastically charismatic, dynamic, vigorous, exciting and energetic, too. I plan to go to the places he lived, those places he visited, read books about him, study his photographs and, crucially, learn how he took them.’
Both films are reported to examine the same period of his life (his relationship with Gerda Taro in Paris and Spain in the 1930s) but that is just one small episode in the life of man who truly lived life to the maximum.
Capa was born Endre Erno Friedmann on October 22, 1913, on the Pest side of Budapest, Hungary. The birth was remarkable for three things: his head was still wrapped in the caul (a membrane that covers the neck and face in the womb) which is extremely rare, occurring in fewer than 1 in 80,000 births; the midwife discovered a head of thick black hair more in common with a one year old; and lastly, he had an extra finger on his left hand. All of which suggested that this baby would grow up to be someone very special.
He came from a middle-class Jewish family. His mother Julia was the proprietress of a thriving fashion business while his father, Dezso, was the company’s head tailor. She was the matriarch ‒ demanding, shrewd and hard-working, while he was an extremely well-dressed reprobate who loved drinking, gambling and women. She believed that hard work would get you everywhere. He believed that charm, connections and chutzpah would get one by. Capa was a mixture of both, albeit immensely more curious.
Just a year after his birth, World War I began, inadvertently altering the course of his life. In 1918 Hungary’s prime minister, Michael Karolyi, dissolved its union with Austria and it became an independent republic. In March 1919, communists led by Béla Kun ousted the Károlyi government and declared the Hungarian Soviet Republic.
There was no respite from the political tumult. In November 1919, rightist forces led by former Austro-Hungarian admiral Miklós Horthy entered Budapest and assumed leadership. In January 1920, parliamentary elections were held and Horthy was proclaimed Regent of the reestablished Kingdom of Hungary. Gangs of right-wing thugs roamed the streets beating up Semites. It was an image that Capa never forgot. Accordingly, he spent his adult life fighting fascism in his own inimitable fashion.
As with many people, Capa’s life’s journey was influenced by an older man who inspired and enthused him. Lajo Kassak was 42 when he met the 16-year-old ingénue.
He was a poet, a painter, a novelist , a graphic artist and a Socialist who embraced Futurism. He was also the man around which Hungary’s avant garde revolved. In 1929 Kassak founded a magazine that featured photographs of Hungary’s poor by Tibor Bass and Kata Kalman. This was an undoubted influence on Capa.
At the time, Hungary was under the rule of the right-wing Horthy who wasn’t that accommodating to either Jews or the working classes. As an eighteen-year-old, Capa, with fire in his veins, took to demonstrating against the regime, often ending up in fights with right-wing supporters. He was courted by the Communist Party but after meeting with a representative was unimpressed.
‘He found that I was a fuzzy-headed intellectual with five half-digested books and a bourgeois father,’ Capa wrote in his excellent book, Slightly Out of Focus, first published in 1947. ‘I found that his views were far less radical than I had hoped for and that his looking over his shoulder was a rather pretentious act. I decided not to join the Communist Party.’
After he returned home and went to sleep he was woken by ‘two rather big gentleman in bowler hats.’ They took him to the police station and repeatedly beat him until he passed out unconscious.
‘When I awoke,’ he wrote, ‘I was lying on the floor in a cell…a lot of names were penciled on the wall. The last two were Sallain and Furst, two young Hungarian Communists who after returning from Moscow had been caught and executed.’
Luckily, the police chief’s wife was a customer of his parents, so Deszo persuaded the officer to release his son on condition that he left Hungary. Having suffered enormously since the Wall Street Crash of 1929, their wealthy customers were not so wealthy anymore and they could spare very little, but still he managed to get to Berlin in August 1931.
Here, he studied journalism until his parents’ financial aid stopped entirely. Forced to leave college, he regularly slept on park benches and almost starved, while all around him the Nazis and their brown-shirted antagonists created havoc.
As a foreign leftist Jew, Capa was certainly in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he still persevered. He borrowed a camera, found a job on a newspaper ‒ first as an errand boy then as a dark-room assistant-come-trainee smudger ‒ and was soon photographing local events for the rag as well as wandering the streets capturing whatever caught his eye.
And then he got his big break.
‘The newspapers carried a story that Trotsky would speak in Copenhagen,’ he wrote. ‘But realised that all their photographers were covering events in Germany, so they sent me.’
Capa’s shots were instantly heralded and he was elevated into the publication’s hierarchy as its top photographer. He was 19 . Unfortunately, the photographer’s buoyancy was not to last. On January 30, 1933, Hitler became chancellor and life for anyone of Capa’s disposition was made impossible in Germany. He was jeered at and abused as he walked the streets. ‘Berlin,’ he wrote, ‘seemed suddenly very unfriendly.’
Thus, he left for Austria and then Budapest and eventually arrived in Paris poorer than a junkyard dog.
Capa, who was yet to be called Capa at this point, was known as Bandy, but on entering Paris decided to be called Andre. Still broke, he hung out in the cafes of Montmartre to keep warm and met fellow photographers, Andre Kertesz, David ‘Chim’ Seymour and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
He also met Gerda Pohorylle, a German-Jewish refugee. Love blossomed. They moved in together. She typed his captions and he taught her how to take photographs. Times were tight so the pair came up with the notion of inventing a character, a successful yet elusive American photographer named Robert Capa who was so sought-after, so glamorous and so brilliant that any publication worth their onions would be honored to use his shots, which were of course taken by Andre Erno Friedmann.
The surname was derived from that of Sicilian-born Hollywood director Frank Capra, whose movie It Happened One Night had recently won four Academy Awards, while the Robert was borrowed from Robert Taylor, star of the 1936 film Camille. Gerda, on the other hand, found her second name, Taro, from the young Japanese artist Taro Okamoto. It wasn’t long before Capa became famous and the ruse was discovered, so Andre became Robert Capa full time.
‘Dear Mother,’ he wrote. ‘I am working under a new name – Robert Capa ‒ it’s like being born again but this time it doesn’t hurt anyone.’
Capa had to live up to the persona he had created. It was August 1936 and his answer was to thoroughly and passionately cover the Spanish Civil War ‒ a conflict that touched a particularly raw nerve with the egalitarian young man. This war was between the Republicans ‒ who supported the established democratically elected anti-monarchist Spanish Republic ‒ and the right-wing Nationalists, a rebel group led by General Francisco Franco who had attempted a coup d’état and received support, munitions and soldiers from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.
For Capa, a fervent anti-Fascist, there was no other place to be on the planet. His subsequent photograph of a Spanish loyalist falling after having been fatally shot was published internationally to massive acclaim. Capa had arrived.
‘I think the picture was a fluke,’ reflects John Morris, Capa’s editor at Time magazine. ‘I doubt he knew he’d captured the moment until he saw it published. I think it was a painful subject for him. Who wants to profit from the death of another man – a comrade, if you will?’
And as Capa himself testified, ‘It’s not easy to stand aside and be unable to do anything except to record the sufferings around one.’
Soon Capa was to suffer himself. In July 1937 after he had left for Paris to attend to business, his now fiancé Gerda was accidentally crushed to death by a loyalist tank while she was shooting a battle in Brunete near Madrid. The news reached him in the pages of a newspaper. It was said he never fully recovered.
Disinclined to go back to the war that had killed the love of his life, he instead ventured to China with filmmaker Joris Ivens to record the locals fight against the invading Japanese who, now allied to Hitler, were pushing through the eastern front of the international war on fascism.
‘I am so crazy all I can do is keep myself together and work hard,’ he said but still his feelings slipped through as he now could perhaps empathise with the aggrieved more than ever.
‘Slowly I am beginning to feel more like a hyena,’ he wrote. ‘Even if you know the value of your work you think everyone thinks you are a spay or are trying to make money out of their misery.’
Six months later he was back in Spain covering the departure of the International Brigades and subsequently captured the battles of the Rio Segre and Mora De Ebro. Picture Post devoted eight pages to his shots.
‘Fascist planes backed by German and Italy bombed Madrid,’ reported Capa. ‘People are bombed as they buy bread and sleep. It’s always the same. The bombs stop and the people go off to see if a son or husband or wife is dead.’
And as Milton Wolff of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion ‒ a US faction who fought the fascists in Spain ‒ emphasized in an interview with PBS, ‘You can’t talk about the Spanish Civil War until you see the photographs of Bob Capa.’
The photographer had camped with the soldiers and risked his life on countless occasions to get his images.
‘He’d be there with his camera and the bombs would be falling all around him,’ added Wolff. ‘His photos were then published all around the world and it was the first time the people saw what the fascists were doing, and so people like me came from all over to fight against them. The camera was Bob Capa’s weapon.’
Capa’s fight against fascism was personal, extremely real and enormously relevant. Both he and Gerda had suffered directly at the hand of the fascist machine that was attempting to take over the world, and from 1936 the Spanish Civil War was the undoubted frontline of that conflict.
What exemplifies Capa is his ability to translate the sheer misery of war onto the page and transmit its immutable horror. Many of his Spanish Civil War shots tell of the consequences of war and not the war itself. We see women fleeing bombs, children looking forlornly for their parents, a mother and daughter looking up at the bombers overhead. All force the realities of armed conflict home, devoid of any boys’ own glamour.
Capa knew what to look for and where to find it,’ wrote John Steinbeck, who as a war reporter traveled with the photographer on several assignments. ‘He knew, for example, that you cannot photograph war, because it is an emotion. But he did photograph that emotion by shooting beside it. He could show the horror of a whole people in the face of a child. His camera caught and held emotion.’
Capa’s famous dictum was, ‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough,’ which for him was also a moral sanction in that if you were going to photograph people dying, you had to share their danger.
After Spain, the photographer went back to Paris. It was 1939 and two of Capa’s left-wing outlets, L’Humanite and Ce Soir, had been closed down.
When Germany invaded Poland on September 1 and war was declared, the French began rounding up Communists and German émigrés and putting them in internment camps. Capa, a communist sympathizer and former Berlin resident, was once again skating on thin ice, so decided to join his mother and brother in New York where they had moved after his father’s death that summer.
On the ship over, he befriended actress Geraldine Fitzgerald, best friend of Orson Welles’ wife Virginia.
‘Cap conveyed a sense of inner euphoria,’ she recalled. ‘You got the feeling that he wanted to share this euphoria. You could not offend him. Some people didn’t like his wild appearance or his self confidence and tried to put him down, but after a few minutes they would give up… he always seemed to be having fun and people wanted to join in and share the fun.’
In New York Capa befriended the staff of Life ‒ the worlds foremost photojournalist magazine – but by March 1940, he faced problems with immigration, so when tough native New Yorker and former fashion model Toni Sorel offered to marry him, he accepted. They never lived together or consummated the marriage.
Time Inc sent Capa to Mexico for the six-month Visa waiting period where he was to report the turmoil caused by the presidential elections and Nazi agent provocateurs wishing to destabilize America’s neighbour and distract the US from the war in Europe.
He met up with Holland McCombs, chief of Time Inc Mexico and a documentary-maker called Jack Glenn, instantly forming a mischievous brotherhood with the two men, and embarked on a ‘reckless, rollicking spree of fun, frolics and brutally bruising work.’
‘We chased politics and various stories all over Mexico,’ recalled McCombs in conversation with Capa biographer Richard Whelan. ‘When we were in town we chased the nightspots, the café society, hangouts where the girls were. We dated a lot. One night we‘d had too many hot-buttered rums and we decided to have a fight and we did, mostly rolling about the floor. Of course, the tourists were outraged and called for the manager who came and said, ‘You cannot do anything about this. This is Mr Capa, Mr McCombs and Mr Glenn. I advise you not to try anything with them at all.”’
On August 20, 1940, Leon Trotsky, the thinking man’s revolutionary, was assassinated with an ice pick through the back of his head by Spanish-born Communist Ramon Cader. Trotsky had been expelled by Stalin after he had become more and more open in his disagreement with Communist Party policy. Capa arrived in time for the exiled Bolshevik’s leader’s funeral in Mexico.
He was still there when the Germans entered Paris triumphantly on June 14, 1940. ‘Dear little Brother, European news is miserable and it depresses me very much,’ he wrote to his younger brother, Cornell. ‘The world was never as sad as it is now.’
Three months later, the Germans were bombing Britain. London took the brunt of the attacks. Beginning September 7, 1940, London was bombed by the Hun for 57 consecutive nights, destroying one million houses and killing 20,000 people. Around 18,000 tons of high explosives were dropped. No one might ever comprehend what that was like for your normal family during the Blitz and neither did Capa. Commissioned by Time to shoot the London Blitz, he focused on the Gibbs family ‒ a solidly working-class Lambeth household.
The work was entitled The Battle of Waterloo Road and Capa more or less moved in, spending all his time with them as they tried to carry on regardless as German bombers decimated their city around them, reducing houses and factories to rubble every single night.
‘You didn’t see him taking the pictures,’ explained Lilly Gibbs on camera in a PBS Capa documentary. ‘You knew he was there but he wasn’t up your nose.’
The Gibbs family’s nonchalance was testament to the fact that, no matter how many bombs Hitler threw at the UK, the British people would not kow-tow. All it did was strengthen their spirit and galvanize their resolve. People were often blasé about it, talking about the latest raid in similar terms as the weather, a bombed-out day, for example, being ‘very blitzy’. The Gibbs epitomised this bulldog spirit.
‘When Capa came to do the book, the bombing wasn’t anywhere near over,’ continued Lilly Gibbs. ‘We had an easy night and were all relaxed and dad said we didn’t have to go shelter and it was the worst night we ever had. We used to go to the shelter underneath the church and the church army would make us tea, but most of the ladies and gentlemen were all killed one night. We were near where the bomb came in. It hit the altar and blew. When we came out, the church was devastated, so we all set to, cleaned up the church and sorted ourselves out. What his pictures tell you is what we were like – the faces. Not everyone can take a photo like that and show how we felt. No one. It was in him. It was there.’
Back in the USA Capa, now a US citizen, spent a while shooting people all over the country for Life – cowboys, black jazz clubs, elk hunts, football players ‒ romancing everyone with his special language he called Capanese.
‘He managed to connect with everyone, even though he had this language which was this horrible crazy English and impossible to imitate,’ explained Holland McCombs. ‘Capanese was spoken by one-man in the world and that was Cap.’
He was desperate to get back to the war but as a Hungarian when the US entered the war he was suddenly declared an enemy alien and ordered to surrender his passport and cameras and not leave New York.
In April 1941 he finally got his visa and headed first to London where he got a Bond Street tailor to make him a special uniform. Then he left for North Africa and joined the US troops in Tunisia as they fought against the Germans. Next he went to Sicily for the allied invasion, followed by seven gruelling months with the army as they fought in Italy.
‘I dragged myself from mountain to mountain, from foxhole to foxhole, shooting mud misery and death,’ he wrote. ‘Every five yards a foxhole and in each at least one dead soldier.’
As the army advanced, so did Capa, followed by the tanks of General Patton. They reached Naples and entered without opposition.
‘Taking pictures of victory is like taking pictures of a wedding ten minutes after the departure of the newlyweds,’ he wrote in his book. ‘I walked along the deserted streets, unhappy yet glad I had such a good excuse for not taking pictures. The narrow street leading to my hotels was blocked with a queue of silent people in front of a schoolhouse. The people held only their hats. I fell in behind the queue. I entered the school and was met by the sweet sickly smell of flowers and the dead. In the room were twenty primitive coffins, not well enough covered with fowlers and too small to hide the dirty little feet of children ‒ children old enough to fight the Germans and be killed but just a little too old to be in children’s coffins.’
He added: ‘These children of Naples had stolen rifles and bullets and had fought the Germans for fourteen days while we’d been pinned to the Chiunzi Pass. These children’s’ feet were my real welcome to Europe, I who had been born here. More real by far than the welcome of the cheering crowds I had met along the road, many of who had yelled Duce! in an earlier year.
‘I took off my hat and got out my camera. I pointed the lens at the faces of the prostrated women, taking little pictures of their dead babies until finally the coffins were carried away. Those were my truest picture of victory, the ones I took at that simple school house funeral.’
He had spent a year with the army and was relieved to get back to London. He and every other journalist in the world knew that the invasion of France was imminent and London was awash with scribes. Cap plotted up in the Dorchester Hotel with Pinky, a spoken-for lady friend, and proceeded to spend his year’s wages in style.
Ernest Hemingway, who Capa had known and enjoyed a father-son relationship with since 1937 in Spain, arrived too, so Capa threw a big party for the man.
‘On the day of the event I bought a big fish bowl, a case of champagne, brandy, half a dozen fresh peaches, soaked them in the brandy poured the champagne over them and everything was ready,’ he said. ‘The attraction of free booze and Mr Hemingway proved irresistible. Everyone was in London for the invasion and they all showed up for the party.’
Undeniably, Capa was a humongous party fiend, a great bon viveur, raconteur and comic. But he was also a massive gambler who risked everything to win. On one night at Sun Valley in 1940 he lost $2,000 (about $35,000 today) ‒ his entire life savings. ‘What difference does it make?’ he commented. ‘It’s good for me. Now I have to work harder.’
Gambling was his life. ‘The war correspondent has his stake – his life – in his own hands,’ he wrote in Slightly Out Of Focus. “And he can put it on this horse or on 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 with Company E in the first wave.’
This was the most dangerous mission he had ever taken. He was the only photographer in this wave of troops: Company E, the 2nd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment of the 101st US Airborne. Eventually made famous by the TV series Band Of Brothers, they were the heroes of the now legendary Operation Overlord, which attacked the Germans on Omaha Beach, Normandy, in the early hours of June 6, 1944, and faced their machine gun and mortar fire head on.
As Capa wrote in Slightly Out of Focus:
At 4am we assembled on the deck. 2000 men stood in perfect silence. Everyone was thinking some kind of prayer. The sea was rough and we were wet before the barge left the mother ship. In no time, men started to puke. But this was a polite as well as a carefully prepared invasion, and little bags had been provided for the purpose. Soon the puking hit an all-time low. I had an idea that this would develop into the mother and father of all D-Days.
The boatswain, who was in an understandable hurry to get the hell out of there, mistook my picture-taking attitude for explicable hesitation, and helped me make up my mind with a well-aimed kick in the rear. The water was cold, and the beach still more than a hundred yards away. The men from my barge waded in the water. Waist-deep, with rifles ready to shoot, with the invasion obstacles and the smoking beach in the background I was ready to take my first real picture of the invasion.
I saw men falling back as the bullets hit their bodies and had to push past their bodies. I made for the nearest metal obstacle my picture frame full of smoke and burnt out tanks and barges. Every piece of shrapnel found man’s body and I frantically shot frame after frame.
Unfortunately, the world never got to see most of Capa’s pictures that day. A nervous dark-room assistant ruined 95 of his 106 negatives. Life magazine published them all. The greatest record of one of the most remarkable battles in history was lost forever.
Capa jumped on a barge along with the wounded and was offered a plane back to London but instead returned to the beachhead on the fist boat available. Around 10,000 US troops died that day. The photographer was thought to be one such casualty.
‘Back on the beach that night I found my colleagues….the day was D-plus-2, the drink was a Norman apple jack called Calvados and the party was a French wake in my honor,’ he wrote. ‘I’d been reported dead by a sergeant who’d seen my body floating on the water with my cameras round my neck. I’d been missing for 48 hours, my death was official, and my obituaries had been released by the censor. My friends introduced me to Calvados.’
Still, the mad Hungarian followed the soldiers all the way through France as they pushed the Germans East, putting his life on the line day after day.
‘The closer to death you were, the more alive you felt,’ testified fellow war photographer Myron Davis. ‘When you’re taking risks your adrenaline is pumping so fast it’s like living in a different sphere.’
‘Shells were dropping all around us and I jumped into a ditch and this man jumped in next to me,’ explained World War II veteran Walter Bernstein in a PBS documentary on Capa. ‘He was very calm and started talking about Tolstoy. You’d hear bombs exploding and screams but he paid no attention. When the shelling stopped he said goodbye and left. I never saw him again. I asked a soldier who he was and he said it was a photographer called Robert Capa.’
Capa continued following the soldiers and saw many die as they pressed on and liberated Paris .
‘It was the most unforgettable day in the world,’ recalled Capa. ‘The road to Paris was open and every Parisian was out in the street to touch the first tank, to kiss the first man, to sing and to cry. Never were there so many so happy so early in the morning.’
Cap had found a ride on a tank manned by Spanish Republicans. It was named after a battle that he’d taken part in.
‘I felt that this entry into Paris was made especially for me,’ he said. ‘On a tank made by Americans who had accepted me riding with Spanish Republicans with whom I had fought against fascism long years ago, I was returning to Paris – the beautiful city where I’d first learned to eat, drink and love.’
As General Patton continued his move East, Capa accompanied his troops with his trusty Rolleiflex and two Contax cameras.
It was two days before Christmas during one of the coldest winters in decades, the temperature dropping to way below zero, but Capa and the American relief army pushed on through blizzards. They had marched day and night to bring much-needed manpower to the beleagured boys of the 101st who were holding Bastogne near Luxembourg.
Of course, this was just before the infamous Battle of The Bulge, Hitler’s last-ditch offensive against the allies. Capa was there surrounded by German Panzers, paratroopers and infantry. The German commander had demanded their surrender, only for Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, to deliver a reply that made Bastogne and its defenders famous and confused the hell out of the Germans. It simply read ‘NUTS!’
‘Christmas Day came,’ remembered Lieutenant Ken Koyen. ‘But reinforcements had still not arrived. We, and all of the Third Army, were attacking the left or south flank of the German Breakthrough that had smashed through thinly held American lines in Luxembourg and Belgium. Three German armies, two of them Panzer, had been thrown into the surprise counter attack.
‘The Third Army pressed us to attack night and day,’ continued the Lieutenant. ‘By noon of the next day Capa and I stood on a hillside three miles from Bastogne. The main thrust of our attack had shifted from the main road to the left, or west, to a secondary road where the Germans held the two small towns of Clochiment and Assenois.
‘By 16:50 hours on 26 December, after a rapid advance by our column of nine Sherman tanks pushing through the German lines and an air-drop of supplies to the beleaguered American forces, the German grip on Bastogne was effectively broken and we were able to evacuate 652 of our wounded troops.’
Capa’s next operation was even more reckless and harrowing. He volunteered to join the 17th Airborne and parachute into enemy territory. In short, they would be jumping into enemy fire.
‘It was fearless, even reckless,’ says James Conboy, a World War II 17th Airborne para. ’He would go to any lengths to get the shot. They were shooting at us as we came down. Many didn’t make it to the ground alive. I couldn’t have done what he [Capa] did. We could shoot back. He had only a camera. You can’t shoot [a bullet] with a camera.’
From the Rhine to the Oder, Capa took no photographs. He thought that every shot of the concentration camps diminished the total effect. He wasn’t interested in the defeated demoralised Germans.’ All I wanted to do was meet the first Russian and then pack up my war,’ he declared.
The army moved onto Leipzig where the last of Hitler’s stormtroopers were holed up. Capa decided to take one last picture of a very young corporal firing a machine gun from the balcony at the German snipers.
‘I clicked my shutter ‒ my first picture in two weeks – and the last one of the boy. … He slumped back into the room. His face not changed apart from a tiny hole between his eyes and his pulse had long stopped beating…. I had the picture of the last man to die.’
Capa was 32 and World War II was over. What to do now? He was at The Ritz with writer Irwin Shaw when he saw Ingrid Bergman walk past. He sent a note to the actress’s room explaining that he would have liked to have sent her flowers and take her to dinner but could not afford both. She, of course, could not help but be charmed and a relationship ensued.
Isabelle Rossellini has said that her mother fell in love with Capa. On her return to Hollywood she appeared in Notorious for Hitchcock and Capa was the on-set stills man. ‘This was not easy at all,’ wrote the Oscar-winning actress in her autobiography. ‘I was married [unhappily to Petter Lindstrom] and was so moral and prudish but I wanted so much to be with Capa.’
In Hollywood he embraced the party lifestyle. During the war he had become friends with directors John Huston, George Stevens, Billy Wilder and Anatole Litvak. As the latter exclaimed, ‘After only two weeks here, Capa is getting invited to parties it took me ten years to get invited to.’
In 1946, William Goetz, head of International Pictures, hired Capa as apprentice producer/director. ‘He was socially acceptable, famous, good-looking and single, but he was not happy,’ explained his friend, screenwriter Peter Vietel. ‘He hated to go to people’s houses. He said, “I like to go to cafes, have a drink and leave when I’m bored!”’ In LA he got a part as Hamza ‒ an Egyptian servant in a movie entitled Temptation, directed by Irving Pichel.
‘Hollywood was the biggest mess I ever stepped into,’ he said in an interview.
This was it for Capa and his affair with Bergman. She was ready to marry him but, as he said, he was not the marrying kind.
‘I am a newspaper man,’ he stated. ‘And it is good to be lonely and stay in lonely hotels.’
According to Bergman, Hitchcock wrote his superlative movie Rear Window based on her relationship with Capa, James Stewart being Capa the war photographer and Grace Kelly the beautiful model. ‘Could you see me driving down to a fashion salon in a jeep wearing combat boots and a three day beard,’ says Stewart in the picture. ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’
‘In Paris in the spring of 1947 Capa opened his photo agency, Magnum. ‘He called it that because whenever we met he would open a bottle of champagne,’ explained fellow Magnum founder Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Magnum was a co-operative of independent photographers that began with his old friends Chim (aka David Seymour) and Cartier-Bresson and then Englishman George Rodgers. Capa’s first big scoop for Magnum was shooting Russia and its people. John Steinbeck obtained his visa. The story sold for $20,000 and Magnum held the copyright. Indeed, it was Capa who invented the idea of photographers owning their images and licensing them to publications. He revolutionised the industry.
Other assignments followed. While shooting and getting involved in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 he was almost killed when a bullet pierced his thigh in Tel Aviv. He vowed never to cover war again.
Still, his shots were no less iconic. His photos of Picasso (with wife François Gilet in the South of France) for Illustrated Magazine are arguably the best ever of the artist. The same can be said of his shots of Henri Matisse taken a few months later.
‘He’d come and stay for two weeks and spend all day with you and let you get on with what you were doing,’ recalls Gilet. ‘He didn’t seem like a photographer. Nothing was posed. He would entertain you and it was fun to be with him.’
‘While in the South of France, tales of his drinking, gambling and womanising were legion. ‘You’d forgive him for his indiscretions, but he was so charming you’d lend him two hundred dollars [$1300 in today’s money] to replace the two hundred dollars he’d borrowed from you the night before and lost in the casino in Cannes,’ explained old friend Irwin Shaw whom he stayed with.
Back in Paris his gambling reached new heights. He spent all of his time at the races. He borrowed Magnum money for his bets and when he won he funded the office, which was now at 125 Rue de Faubourg, St Honore. But he was rarely there. He popped in to make calls and pinch the bottoms of the attractive young ladies who kept the office running. Capa conducted the agency’s big business in the cafe downstairs. He would discuss the big stories and where Magnum should place them, usually as he played pinball with a Chesterfield dangling from his mouth and a drink on the side.
‘You’d be standing behind him and he’d be tilting the pinball,’ recounted Magnum photographer Erich Lessing. ‘And he’d shout, “I think you should go to Germany and do a story!” He did this many times with me.’
But Capa was nothing less than unorthodox. When Pierre Gassmann, whose lab processed Magnum’s photos, needed the $400 owed to pay his staff, Capa discovered Gassmann had seventy bucks on his possession and suggested putting it all on a horse that he had a hot tip for. Gassmann refused but Capa went ahead and won enough to pay the lab staff, and more.
As time went on, Magnum became the world’s most respected photojournalist agency. Capa loved nothing better than to sign up young photographers and help them out. One was the incredible Ernst Haas. Eve Arnold was another, as well as Elliot Erwitt and Erich Lessing. Robert Frank was extremely successful, keen to sign up and would have massively benefitted the agency financially. Capa, however, thought him too difficult and lacking humour. ‘He wouldn’t work well with us here!’ he commented.
Magnum, for many of the staff and photographers, was like a family, with Capa as the big daddy. He would encourage his charges, find them work, feed them when hungry, take them to grand parties in New York, London and Paris and gave them tips on horses.
By now Capa was not only the world’s most famous photographer but also a world-famous man-about-town. He dined with lords, ladies, film directors, artists and intellectuals. He shot stories amongst the rich and famous in St Moritz, Biarritz and Deauville ‒ and then it all went wrong.
In 1953 McCarthyism reigned supreme, so the US Embassy contacted Capa once more. He was considered a Communist, and as such his passport was to be revoked. He couldn’t work as a journalist without a passport and so appealed and, after much to do and a $10,000 lawyers’ fee, he won his passport back. But the affair weighed heavily on him. Having grown weary of his superficial playboy lifestyle photographing movie stars and holiday resorts, he saw that his life consisted of ‘none of the good things, just the material ones.’
He wrote to John Morris, ‘I have now definitely decided to go back to work. What and where I do not know but the Biarritz and Deauville and motley movie money period is over.’
His friend Irwin Shaw wrote of Capa at this unhappy time, ‘Only in the morning does Capa show that the tragedy and sorrow through which he has passed has left their marks on him. Then he drinks down a strong bubbling draft, puts on his afternoon smile and sets out carefully light heated to these places where this homeless man can be at home.’
In 1954 he received an invitation to show his work in Japan. Here he was treated like a demi-God as he deserved and thus got his mojo working once again.
‘He took many photographs of children when he was in Japan,’ recalls Magnum photographer Hiroji Kibuta. ‘And these images really stuck a chord with me as they were all taken from the eye level of the children so he’d had to kneel down to take the shots. This explains enough about Capa as a human being.’
After two weeks in Japan, Life magazine, contacted him and asked him to cover the first Indochina War in Vietnam.
‘I called him and told him he didn’t have to go,’ said John Morris Magnum Executive Director. ‘This isn’t our war.’
His family was distraught ‒ even at the thought of him covering another war ‒ but Capa needed to do some proper work. He also needed the money and was worried that David Douglas Duncan ‒ who’d covered the war there for the last few months ‒ was eclipsing him as the world’s greatest war photographer. He thus took the job and arrived in Hanoi on May 9, just after Dien Bien Phu had fallen to the Vietminh.
On May 25, 1954, at 2:55pm he accompanied a retreating French regiment through the Red River Delta. Although advised not to, he decided to leave his Jeep and go up the road to photograph the advance. ‘For a long indecisive minute he crouched behind the protective bulk of our jeep,’ wrote Scripps-Howard correspondent Jim Lucas. ‘He was ready to leap back or spring ahead as if testing the temper of the Viet Minh fire. He decided he would risk it.’
An hour later he stepped on a landmine and died. He was 40 years of age.
Capa’s family were offered a military funeral for him at Arlington but his mother refused, saying, ‘He was not a soldier but a man of peace.’ He was buried in a Quaker Cemetery just outside of New York City.
At the memorial service for Capa, one of the world’s greatest ever photographers, Edward Steichen, stood up and said a few words. ‘He understood life, he loved life intensely. He gave richly of what he had to give to life.... [He] lived valiantly, vigorously, with a rare integrity.’
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