Legacy of the Falling Soldier
Robert Capa Death of a Loyalist Militiaman, Cerro Muriano,
Córdoba front, Spain, September 5, 1936
Controversy has long surrounded the veracity of Robert Capa’s photograph of the Falling Soldier, believed to be Federico Borrell Garcia, at Cerro Muriano on September 5, 1936. Actually, veracity may not be the right word, depending on what kind of truth you are expecting the photo to give up, but whether this picture actually depicts the moment of death of a Loyalist militiaman has been called into question repeatedly, based on visual evidence and the absence of strong corroborating claims.
Capa’s official biographer Richard Whelan, who passed away last summer and was buried in New York next to Capa’s grave, gave an argument for the photo’s veracity in 2002. His reconstruction of the moments surrounding the shooting is published on the PBS website. Horst Faas’ thoughtful discussion of the image addresses Alex Kershaw’s theories and the experiences of Spaniards, for whom the picture is an entry into a discussion of a scarred history.
In his classic Robert Capa: A Biography, the late Richard Whelan writes:
The fact is that we shall probably never know exactly what happened on that hillside…. But in the end, after all the controversy and speculation, the fact remains that Capa’s Falling Soldier photograph is a great and powerful image, a haunting symbol of all the Loyalist soldiers who died in the war, and of Republican Spain itself, flinging itself forward and being struck down. To insist upon knowing whether the photograph actually shows a man at the moment he has been hit by a bullet is both morbid and trivializing, for the picture’s greatness ultimately lies in its symbolic implications, not in its literal accuracy as a report on the death of a particular man. (Whelan 1985: 99-100, my emphasis)
I’m not in a position to say whether the picture was staged or not. However, I do find Whelan’s statement above fascinating, the last sentence in particular, especially after visiting the suite of Spanish Civil War exhibits at the ICP last week. (The centrepieces were six groups of Capa pictures and the work of his friend and partner Gerda Taro ; these were Whelan’s last projects and we are fortunate to have them. Gallery ) Three related ideas come to mind:
First, it does matter whether it is true or not. Falling Soldier is hailed as an icon of photojournalism, a timeless, powerful image. It is indeed powerful, and the absence of visible contextualizing markers aids in producing a timeless effect, as the blurriness and monochrome allow it to be read outside of historical time. However, it’s literally an icon. Whether it speaks symbolically to sacrifices made during the Spanish Civil War depends on how much you know about that war. But either way- whether you as a viewer think about it in terms of death in war generally, or in terms of death in a certain war for certain reasons- it does matter that we believe it to be an image of the moment of death; that may be morbid but I don’t think it’s necessarily trivializing. For the image to be important, it has to be true, at least in the sense that we think of it as being important. It’s “symbolic implications” are brokered on what it attests to report on.
Second, Falling Soldier represents the birth of the kind of action photojournalism that would eventually lead to “f8 and be there” and perhaps of many of the ways of “modern” photojournalism (I use quotes because all photojournalism is modern in some important way). This image signaled a sea change in what the picture press could offer. Publishing a sensational, graphically bold picture of the moment of death in war, must have felt like taking a bite out of the apple in the Garden of Eden- how could you go back? And yet the rules had changed. The magazines could not have asked for this picture but surely they knew it when they saw it.
Shot on the newly available 35mm roll film format and circulated in the weekly picture magazines, it described war as it unfolded, offering an intimacy afforded by small, portable equipment. The exhibition makes a point that the Spanish Civil War was the first “media war” (though think many would say that the Spanish-American War was the first media war: “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war “). The reportage and propaganda of photo coverage of the day focused on the regular activities of soldiers preparing for combat or relaxing, in the picture report tradition. Both Capa and Taro often shot up at their subjects, paused heroically. These compositions reflect the socialist realist typologies and constructivist angles that were used in the prolific magazine publishing activity that became a form of resistance and cause-building during the war.
But Falling Soldier was a kind of decisive moment that was not typical of their photography, of any reportage before that time. Its successful reception heralded a shift from a kind of descriptive story-telling through an accumulation of pictures to a fascination with action and the possibility of recording the moment of death. The power of this moment is that it is both effective as propaganda (a project that Capa and Taro, sympathetic with the Republicans, embraced) and holds the modern authority of mechanically-produced evidence. The fascination with the picture’s veracity is the sign of a struggle between expecting pictures to make arguments, for causes, and expecting pictures to be true by nature of being photographs. Both Whelan and Faas’ hedgings- that the picture is iconic and has had enormous effect- cannot release us from the prejudice that the relationship between photojournalistic objectivity and documentarian intervention seems to be more contradictory now than it was in 1936.
And third- and this is an often repeated but necessary question- this picture raises the question of morbid interest in and the trivialization of death. It’s certainly not surprising that people are interested in and curious about death. And while death is dealt with significantly every day in many, many ways, photojournalism allows us to consider the deaths of strangers in a particularly distanced and unbeholdened way. I’m not saying that it is not legitimate or important to represent dying, but the trivialization of death leads to the trivialization of life. “Dark is the Room Where We Sleep ” is Francesc Torres’ project documenting the recovery of a mass grave of executed Loyalist prisoners is an extraordinary complement to the Capa, Taro, and propaganda print shows at the ICP. Multimedia and immersive, it goes full circle from the death of an anonymous grave to the recuperation of history and memories of lost lives. It’s a powerful pairing, this opened grave, its detail revealed, and the Falling Soldier , surrendering his details to iconicity.