Robert Capa’s War Stories
17 Oct 2008
Robert Capa: American soldier landing on Omaha Beach, D-Day, Normandy, France
June 6, 1944
Three exhibitions at the Barbican Gallery suggest that war, and related imagery, remain high on the curatorial agenda. “This is War! Robert Capa at work” and the smaller “Gerda Taro” occupy the Upper Galleries, while downstairs “On the Subject of War” presents work by Geert van Kesteren (from Why Mister Why and Baghdad Calling), Paul Chan (Tin Drum Trilogy), Omer Fast (The Casting) and An-My Le (29 Palms and Events Ashore) – all made with reference to military action in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the respect that the contemporary material on display is produced at a time when such exhibitions are standard, the film, installations, video projections, and large format photography appear better suited to the gallery environment than the work upstairs. The display of Capa’s pictures, on the other hand, only succeeds to the extent that it vividly demonstrates the contextual primacy of the narrative-led, illustrated magazines for which his photographs were produced.
Robert Capa: Death of a Loyalist militiaman, Cerro Muriano, Cordoba Front, Spain
September 5, 1936
By the time he was sent to cover the Spanish Civil War in 1936 for Vu magazine the Hungarian émigré Andre Friedmann had adopted the pseudonym “Robert Capa” as a means of passing off his own work as that of a more expensive photographer of indeterminate nationality. He hatched the ruse with photojournalist, collaborator and partner Gerda Taro; he was rumbled but the name stuck. (Taro was fatally wounded the following year near Madrid, and was awarded an anti-fascist martyr’s funeral in Paris). The pair flew with a group of journalists to Barcelona, and from there drove to the disappointingly quiet Aragon province. Moving on again they passed through MadridToledo to the Cordoba region where Republican government troops were reportedly engaging fascist insurgents.
As Richard Whelan’s exhaustive and compelling catalogue account demonstrates “Death of a Loyalist militiaman” or “The Falling Soldier” was photographed on September 5th, near Cordoba, soon after Capa and Taro arrived in the area. The picture was first published on September 23rd in Vu; and Regards and La Revue du Medecin followed with other frames from the set, including a second “falling soldier” taken at the same spot. In July 1937 Life magazine used the picture with a caption erroneously stating that the Loyalist was “dropped by a bullet through the head” – a claim probably resulting from the assumption that the tassel of the soldier’s hat was a fragment of skull bone. Capa himself then used the photograph on the dust-jacket, but –curiously- not inside, of Death in the Making, a collection of his and Taro’s work from Spain. In the decades that followed the picture acquired iconic status as an image that appeared to embody the immediacy, proximity and instantaneity of a new kind of war photography. The present participle says it all – falling, not fallen.
But in 1975 a Daily Express journalist claimed that Capa had told him the pictures taken that day were staged by Republican troops after the photographer and others had complained at the dearth of photo opportunities. “Capa told me the way to get lifelike action shots was to have the camera slightly out of focus and to ever so slowly move the camera when making an exposure.”
Whelan rebuts this account, but acknowledges that staged and choreographed news pictures were made. A Daily Express photographer covering the war later recalled being told by a Spanish press officer that “the majority of the pictures which had decorated the back pages of most of the British and foreign newspapers…had been faked.” Indeed Capa and Taro filmed and photographed a staged “attack” on the village of La Granjuela the following year.
In the absence of a sequential contact sheet (as was common practice, the negatives were cut up and distributed amongst clients) a conclusive verdict appears elusive. The falling soldier who died on the day has subsequently been identified…but that of course does not guarantee the authenticity of the frame in question. Ironically, the photograph’s problematic status acts as a point of continuity with some of the exhibits downstairs, including the work of Omer Fast, for example, whose twin screen video projections are described as a “complex meditation on how media – photography, film – mediates the real.”
This is War!Robert Capa at Work
On the Subject of War
at Barbican Art Gallery until Jan 25th 2009
This is War! Robert Capa at work – Catalogue by Richard Whelan (ICP/Steidl)