Robert Capa (1913-1954)
My brother Robert Capa was born with a language not useful beyond the borders of a small country, Hungary. Yet he managed to travel all over the world and to communicate his experiences and feelings through a universal language, photography. The advice Bob used to give to other photographers was: “Like people and let them know it.” That is what he always did. Five years older than myself, Bob inspired and encouraged me, and he showed me the true meaning of brotherhood. My brother’s life and work constitute a testament to challenges met, and gambles won—except at the end. What he left behind is the story of his unique voyage and a visual testimony affirming his own faith in humankind’s capacity to endure and occasionally overcome…..Cornell Capa
Endre Erno Friedmann was born on October 22, 1913 in Budapest. His birth was marked by three distinct and unusual events. Endre Erno Friedmann was born with his head still wrapped in his caul and when it was removed he had a full head of hair. He was also born with an extra finger on one hand (eventually removed with surgery). Instead of seeing this as a bad omen, Friedmann’s mother read the signs as her son would one day be a famous man. She was right—her son became “the world’s greatest war photographer”, Robert Capa.
Growing up on the Pest side of Budapest, Capa was raised in the liberal Jewish middle class. He spoke Hungarian. His mother, Julia, was a strong, intelligent woman who owned her own, successful, fashion shop. Capa’s father, Dezso, was the tailor in Julia’s shop and characterized as a “slight, dapper man, irresponsible, light-hearted, and good at coming up with excuses for leaving work early and staying out late to play cards”. Together they had three children, Laszlo, Endre and Kornel. Due to Julia, the salon was very successful, but she had very little time to spend with her boys. They were raised by a governess who taught them how to speak German. Although Julia loved all her husband and her boys, she made it obvious that Endre was her favorite. She once said, “his pants were always torn. He was always walking into a lamppost because he was talking too hard. He was a good-natured child, with no rudeness in him. Always the face smiled.” In 1919, after the Rumanian army began to take over the country, fear and panic led to violence. Many Jewish families feared what was being called “White Terror”. After the violence subsided, somewhat of a normal life was resumed.
Endre was a good student, but very independent. He and his friends roamed the streets. One girl he was very fond of, Eva Besnyo, owned a camera. Following her around with her camera, the two became friends. Her influence on him was unmistakable. She once wrote about Endre, “he was a good fellow. If he liked you, he would do things for you. He was warm, but he also had a nice touch of irony. Very smart and eager to learn, sharp-minded, but not too hard-edged. A little cynical. He was very amusing and could tell things in an interesting way—funny and exaggerated. Life was too dull for him. He made it seem more interesting.” Another major influence on his life was Lajos Kassak. Richard Whelan wrote that, “Kassak formulated a political philosophy that was democratic, egalitarian, pacifistic, semi-collectivist, pro-labor, anti-authoritarian, and anti-fascist, with a strong emphasis on the dignity of man and the rights of the individual in society. Bandi (Endre’s nickname) was to adopt this liberal, undogmatic philosophy and to maintain it for the rest of his life.” With both of these influences, Endre decided to become a journalist.
On July 12, 1931, Endre left Hungary because of his political affiliation and because he knew that the rest of his life was not there. He arrived in Berlin three weeks later and worked as a darkroom assistant with a magazine agency. His first assignment outside of the darkroom was to cover a political rally. Press photographers were banned, but he decided to conceal a 35mm camera and shoot inconspicuously. The images were published and his career was launched. He continued to work and study political science in Berlin until the rise of Hitler made him exile once again. From 1933-1939 he worked as freelance photographer in Paris. He and his companion, Gerda Taro, also a photojournalist, were trying to sell his photographs. It was then that he decided his images would be more valuable if an established American photographer had taken them, so he and Taro simply invented this photographer and called him Robert Capa. Surprisingly, it worked and Capa’s images sold for 150 franks each, which was more than the going rate. The deception was soon revealed by the editor of Vue. However, this did nothing but promote him and he was soon sent to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War. He and Gerda traveled to Spain, where she died and Capa took one of his most famous photographs, Death of a Loyalist Soldier. For the first time in history a man, at the absolute moment of death, who had just been hit by a bullet was caught on film. The photograph impacted the public more than any war photograph in history. Based on this image, Capa developed his philosophy, “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough”.
On December 3, 1938 the Picture Post published the images of the Spanish War and declared Robert Capa as “the greatest war photographer in the world”. During his short life, Capa documented five wars, volatile elections and the official founding of the state of Israel. During World War II he accompanied the first wave of soldiers that landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day. With bullets flying and soldiers dying all around him, he still managed to expose several rolls of film. He describes his experience as, “the bullets tore holes in the water around me, and I made for the nearest steel obstacle. It was still very early and very gray for good pictures, but the gray water and the gray sky made the little men, dodging under the surrealistic designs of Hitler’s anti-invasion brainstrust, very effective.” However, only 11 of the negatives survived. An overly eager darkroom assistant at Life turned up the heat on the drying cabinet and it melted most of the negatives. Between assignments Capa lived in a room at the Hotel Lancaster in Paris. His friends included Ernest Hemmingway, John Steinbeck, Irwin Shaw, Pablo Picasso, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and others. Cartier-Bresson wrote of his friend, “for me, Capa wore the dazzling matador’s costume, but he never went in for the kill; a great player, he fought generously for himself and for others in a whirlwind. Destiny was determined that he should be struck down at the height of his glory.”
Along with Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour and George Rodger, Capa was one of the founding members of Magnum and served as President from 1948-1954. Magnum was established as a photo agency to preserve the rights of photographers. The organization still operates today.
On an assignment for Life in Indochina in 1954, Capa stepped on a land mine and was killed instantly, still clutching his camera.
Robert Capa hated war. He once said, “the war photographer’s most fervent wish is for unemployment. It is not always easy to stand aside and be unable to do anything except record the suffering around one.”
Capa has been the subject of many books, has written text and take photographs for others and has been featured in numerous one-man exhibitions. He was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in 1976.