Robert Capa.jpg

Robert Capa: Photographs

Exhibition organised by Aperture, NY

Sat 9 Jan – Sat 10 Mar 1999

This exhibition is the most comprehensive retrospective of Robert Capa’s work to date. Selected by the photographers’ brother Cornell Capa (Founding Director Emeritus of the International Center of Photography in New York) and biographer Richard Whelan, this exhibition is composed of 160 black and white photographs including defining records of the Spanish Civil War, the D-Day landings and the Vietnam War.

Capa constantly risked his own life by working on the front line. Coming ashore with the first wave of American troops in the d-Day landings of 1944, Capa described how ‘the bullets tore holes in the water around me’. For many people, these photograph have come to represent this important event, although their strong sense of movement owes less to ‘ the immense excitement of the moment’, as the magazine Life described it, than to the darkroom worker who turned up the heat in the drying cabinet too high, causing the films to melt.

Yet despite these enormous achievements, Capa cannot solely be categorised as a war photographer. Between assignments, he led a glamorous life and often photographed his celebrity friends. Included in the exhibition is a photograph of Ingrid Bergman on the set of Hitchcock’s ‘Notorious’ – the two year love affair between Bergman and Capa was to inspire ‘Rear Window’ – as well as portraits of Gary Cooper, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Picasso and Matisse.

Mead Gallery Exhibition Guide
ROBERT CAPA (1913 – 1954)

As with many of his equally revolutionary contemporaries, much has already been written about Capa’s life and work. Indeed, his life and work appear inexorably reflexive – his expulsion from Hungary, his time spent studying journalism in Berlin, his fleeing from Hitler’s dictatorship and the death of his lover in the Spanish Civil War. All of this found bizarre bedfellows in the shape of small lightweight cameras and ever improving technology. Parallel to this went a growing profile for photography as a socio-political or fashion vehicle

It remains undeniable, however, that his work is both accessible and challenging in the same instant. This perhaps suggests the kernel of his vision and craft. He made extremely “poetic” images. Those that not only document, reveal and capture a moment in history and peoples’ lives, but also one that for Capa proffers a symbol or parable for the human condition.

What we have before us in this exhibition are opportunities to experience and access a sweeping array of moments. In addition to this social history lesson, we are also provided with comment on each situation through Capa’s artistry. As we progress through the works, we build up not only a wealth of historical and social insight, emphasised by Capa’s pinpointing the precise date of many images, but also a picture of the person who took the shots. His fears, concerns and beliefs slowly emerge before us.

Capa employs key specific repeated vehicles to create his power, voice and poetic language, much as a poet uses repeated words or a painter uses visual motifs. For example, he often uses individuals rather than large anonymous crowds as his windows/narrators on the world. The viewer looks for that individual’s personal story to create meaning and impact – a direct reflection on our own journeys through life.

Another prominent leitmotif, especially in his images of conflicts, is the use of children. The innocent and young being forced to cope with extreme conditions, without perforce comprehending the situation. This throws up the brutality inflicted by war; man’s inhumanity to man.

There are also several images of families and small groups travelling across the frame, often as a direct result of conflict. A pointer to the disruptive forces prevalent in war (e.g. On the road from Namdinh to Thaibinh, May 25, 1954, On the road from Tarragona to Barcelona, January 1939 and Arriving immigrants, Haifa, 1949).

A twist to this theme is his interest in showing humans moving through ruined land and cityscapes. How different we appear when seen against the ravages of warfare! Our own constructed or managed environments cruelly destroyed; rendering progress puny and exposed.(E.g. German farmers fleeing their burning home, near Wesel, March 24, 1945, Agrigento, Sicily, July, 1943 and Men of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division, St. Sauveur-le-Vicomte, Normandy, June 16, 1944).

Conversely a wry, sanguine humour develops through his shots about the ironies of ruins; particular quirks of accident that see some components of constructions perversely left intact. For example, Stalingrad, August 1947 – the frog fountain and The rusting hulk of the Altalena, Tel Aviv, May 1949). Capa is skilled at holding a mirror up to cause and effect and inviting the viewer to connect the two.

Some of his most abrasive images are those of the dead. They make us feel intrusive, as the subjects were powerless to revoke the camera’s gaze. Yet we are compelled to look. Why? Because despite the abhorrent subject, these remain beautiful images. This is a trait that runs through much of the exhibition – his ability (and compulsion) to make ugly things appear visually arresting.

For example, the parachutist, left exposed and prostrate under his tangled chute and the wires that contributed to his death, takes on a dramatic quality. The chute hangs flaccid and feeble, looking more like a ruched domestic curtain than an instrument of war (American paratroopers near Wesel, March 24, 1945). In contrast, the American soldier, killed by German snipers, Leipzig, April 18, 1945 on the balcony exudes a viscous pool of blood, and on closer inspection we see that rigor mortis has set in. This results in his stiff body remaining arched and tortured. Not even death brought him respite.

And finally the exquisite image of civilians leaning out of windows to watch Chinese fighter planes shoot down Japanese bombers, Hankou, April 29, 1938. The shafts of sunlight breaking between the tree and building imbue the image with magical and romantic overtones. While in reality the people were watching carnage.

This keen sense of injustice saw its conclusive illustration in the manner of Capa’s own death. He stood on a landmine in Vietnam. The last photograph he took before his demise gives us a fair idea of what the scene must have looked like. But how is our reaction altered because we know this was his last shot and we know the manner of his death? His last photograph could almost be termed common place – so used are we to images of war. But we are drawn to it because of its story; a story about an individual who suffered the ultimate indignity of warfare whilst trying to show up its horror.

Not all of the stories and images are so serious though. His portraits give us a very different side to his nature and some hugely different stories. He photographed his friends a lot, and through this gives us a chance to examine what he wanted to say about these people. Despite the eminence of many of his subjects, he appears to reveal their private sides to us through where and how he photographs them. Picasso as the sociable philosopher or surreal exhibitionist, Gary Cooper as the dapper and laid back country gent and John Huston as the consummate Hollywood director. The one thing we can glean from these portraits is that he knew these people and we didn’t. Instead we are offered a new insight into these public figures; a different sort of story.

So Capa offers us both the familiar and the foreign. Think about whether your reactions to his images of unfamiliar countries, costume and landscape actually make you look harder or afresh at the subjects. One almost gets the feeling that he is trying to trip us up at times; perhaps as a way of forcing the viewer to reassess prejudices and misconceptions. Nonetheless throughout his oeuvre what does shine through is his superb ability to expose and highlight human nature.

Jac Wilkinson
December 1998.