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Robert Capa on the Battlefield

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Robert Capa on the Battlefield

Hungarian-born photojournalist Robert Capa (1913 - 1954).

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Although he is best known for his war photographs, Robert Capa hated war and openly made his opinion known.  In an interview about his career as a photographer he commented: “To me war is like an aging actress—more and more dangerous and less and less photogenic."  He may not have liked the subject that he covered, but to this day he is credited with some of the greatest wartime shots of all time. 

His Early Days

Robert Capa was born in Budapest, Hungary  in 1913.  His birth name however was not Robert Capa.  He was born Andrei Friedmann. Times were tough in Hungary, so he ventured to Berlin where he obtained a darkroom apprenticeship with a Berlin photo agency.  He realized early on that he enjoyed taking pictures more than developing them, so he made a point of taking as many photographs as he could during his time off.  It was one of these shots that helped him on his way to a career as a photographer.  He took some exclusive shots of Leon Trotsky that earned him some instant recognition.

Moving On

When Hitler gained control Andrei (Capa) decided to move on to Paris.  He had met and fallen in love with a Polish woman named Gerda Taro.  He tried to make his living as a freelance photographer, but he struggled to earn enough to survive. 

A Brilliant Deception

The two lovers decided they had to do something to increase their income so they hatched a brilliant plan.  They created a fictional American photographer who they claimed was visiting France and they named him Robert Capa.  Gerda would be his secretary and sales representative and Andrei his darkroom assistant.  The American was not only a brilliant photographer, but he was rich and famous, and oh so talented.  Andrei took the photographs and Gerda sold them.  Credit was given to the fictional Robert Capa.  She was even able to command rates that were more than three times the going rate, explaining that he was so rich that paying him any less would be an insult. As expected, their secret got out, but it didn’t matter since by this time his brilliance as a photographer had been discovered.

A Famous Photograph

The photograph which started his renowned career as a war photographer was of a dying Spanish soldier.  With his success came heartbreak when his beloved Gerda, who accompanied him, was killed on the battlefield.  With a broken heart he needed to move on to a new location, so Capa ventured to China where he covered the battle of Taierchwang. His photographs were again memorable and further propelled him to fame as a top war photographer. 

Moving to America

When World War II began Capa found himself in America.  In 1942 he joined the invasion convoy to North Africa as a photographer for Life MagazineHis next stop would be Sicily, where he accompanied paratroopers and created more magnificent images. 

One of the most well known events of his life occurred when in 1944 Capa stumbled onto Omaha Beach.  With heavy gunfire around him, Capa managed to take four rolls of film under these extremely difficult conditions. Sadly, a mishap in Life Magazine’s London darkroom ruined all but eleven frames of film.  The remaining images were published in Life although they did not admit darkroom error and instead represented them as slightly out of focus shots taken by Capa.  This did not discourage Capa, who continued as a war photographer seeing the war through to its bitter end photographing the death of one of the last Americans killed in the war. 

His Foot in the Business World

Tired of photographing war he decided to turn his attention to the business world and joined forces with Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Vandivert, David Seymour, and George Rodger in the creation of Magnum Photos. Magnum was the first, and is still the only, international cooperative freelance photographer agency in the world.  At this point in his career he decided to start writing, and penned several articles.  He also has four photographic books to his credit. 

War Was In His Blood

Although he loved his new business venture, and spent much time promoting it, he still found a special excitement in covering wars.  So while in Japan in 1954 promoting a Magnum exhibition a call from Life Magazine sent him back into the trenches.  He headed to the Indochina front.  Unfortunately this is where his luck ran out.  Still clutching his camera Robert Capa lost his life when he stepped on a land mine on a battlefield in Indochina.

A Well Deserved Honor

A well deserved honor was bestowed upon this brave man and exceptional photographer, when The Overseas Press Club established the Robert Capa Award “for superlative photography requiring exceptional courage and enterprise abroad.” 

Robert Capa will forever be remembered for his incredible photographs and the unrelenting courage he displayed to get the memorable images that will forever live on.

 

Sources:
Robert Capa - http://www.photo-seminars.com/Fame/capa.htm
American Masters: In Love and War - http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/robert-capa/in-love-and-war/47

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