Capa Two

Just a few more thoughts on Capa before we move on. Larry Walker’s comment about belief and reality strikes home: “If I believe the Capa snap is a picture of a soldier just killed, lacking any evidence one way or the other, does it matter?”

Capa’s job was to report on the war in support of the Republican cause. He was employed by Vu magazine, and the photos appeared in a special issue supporting the Republicans. He was, in short, a propagandist. If he was shooting training exercises and an editor seeing the picture with the caption, The Falling Soldier chose to believe it was a picture of a man dying, what difference does it make? Either way it succeeds in its purpose, which was to create sympathy for the Republican cause.

I doubt Capa set out to deceive, but he gave at least three different versions of the circumstances of the photo. In one he said that he was ducking down beside the hill and holding the camera over his head when he released the shutter. The film was then sent off to France to be developed. If this is true, he didn’t know what he had captured. When the magazine claimed it was the moment of death, what could Capa do?

If he contradicted the editors, he would lose all credibility, probably forever, and certainly lose his job. He would also damage the cause he passionately supported. Capa was a gambler: sometimes poker, sometimes he put his life on the line. In this case, when everyone felt he held the winning hand, and it would have been foolish to fold, he went all in. Was it a bluff? Maybe. We’ll probably never know, but it makes for a very interesting story.

A fascinating and enigmatic man who hated war and was never happy when he was away from it, Capa spent his life surrounded by beautiful women, poker playing artists, and soldiers fighting for their cause, their country, or just their lives. He wasn’t a very good poker player – Huston would win back all the fees he paid him to shoot stills for his films – and he was never able to commit to any of the women he loved. He was a great war photographer and a dedicated anti-fascist who lost his life covering the ridiculously futile French colonial effort in Vietnam for the vehemently anti-communist Life magazine of Henry Luce. The final irony in a complex life.

Here’s a link to Magnum Photos, the cooperative of photojournalists founded by Capa and others where you can view The Falling Soldier and a whole lot of other great images.

Robert Capa

I intend to use this blog to preview themes and develop ideas for a novel-in-progress. Your comments are welcome.

How do you know what to believe about a man who created a false identity, inhabited it with enthusiasm, and willed himself to actually become that person?

He was born Endre Erno Friedmann on 22 October 1913 in Budapest to middle class Jewish parents. Having trouble getting paid photo assignments in Paris in the early 30’s, he and his lover, Gerda Taro (née Gerta Pohorylle) invented Robert Capa, a brilliant but reclusive American photojournalist whose photos commanded very high fees. Editors never met this “Capa” but Gerda, acting as his agent, sold many photos and procured high profile assignments.

So Friedmann became Capa, and Capa became famous. Picture Post called him “The Greatest War Photographer in the World,” and Capa came to believe it. He was never a great technical photographer, but in the words of his friend, Henri Cartier-Bresson: “Capa knew how to tell a story in pictures.”

He also knew how to promote himself, including writing and publishing a memoir that he freely admitted wasn’t always true, but was the way it should have been. The book, Slightly out of Focus, was always intended to be the basis for a film script and Capa followed it up by becoming friends with writers, actors and directors, such as John Huston, Ingrid Bergman, Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn.

He was passionate about left-wing causes and his coverage of the Spanish Civil War is anything but objective journalism, but he was not alone. Writers, artists, and photographers from around the world enlisted in the cause of the Republican government. This was the first battle against fascism and when it was lost, WWII became inevitable.

Capa went on to cover the China-Japan war, WWII, and, finally, the French war in Indochina where he was killed by an anti-personnel mine in 1954.

The problem with Capa is not in his ability or his sympathies, it is in just one photograph, which Capa titled: The Falling Soldier. It’s also been labeled: Death of a Loyalist Militiaman and The Moment of Death. There are a number of questions about the validity of the photo, many stemming from the fact that Capa sent the undeveloped film to Paris, did not provide captions, and the negative has never been found. The name of the subject and the exact location are in dispute, and there is evidence that Capa’s statements on the location and circumstances are false. He claimed in an interview that the soldiers were on an exercise and not expecting combat when a sniper’s bullet hit his subject, but subsequent research has established that there was no combat and no snipers in that area at that time. Some accounts say the man was shot in the head, others in the stomach. Several researchers are convinced it was a machine gun. There is no blood in the photo. There is another photo of a different man apparently being shot in the exact same place. Is this possible, or is it the same scene staged with two different soldiers?

The 1997 discovery of a suitcase with 4500 negatives from the war shot by Capa, Taro and Chim (David Seymour) raised hopes that the controversy could be resolved, but The Falling Soldier was not in the case. Negatives on the same roll shot before and after the famous image are also missing. None of this is very surprising and all of it does not add up to an indictment. Capa was 23 years old in 1936 and still inexperienced as a combat photographer. Spain was in chaos, systems were broken, communication was difficult. There are many reasons why the negative could have been lost and why he might have been confused about the circumstances. And this is in no way meant to denigrate his accomplishments: Capa, Chim, and Taro defined combat photojournalism in Spain, and Capa’s WWII coverage is extraordinary.

But questions remain and that leaves an opening for interpretation. Is it the greatest war photograph ever made, or just an awkwardly composed, slightly out of focus snap of a man tripping on a slippery hillside?

Art lives outside the borders of certainty.



The Return of the Blog

Sounds like a horror movie but it’s only social media. If you’ve found this, you know I’ve moved the blog to and given it a new title: Act II, so that I can defy Fitzgerald’s dictum and launch my next career.

I’m now a writer, feels strange to identify myself that way, but it appears to be true. Most of the cameras are in the closet, and the one I most often carry also makes phone calls. Larry Walker’s been telling me to write a novel for the last 40 years. I finally listened. Thank you Larry. An agent is currently reading it and I really do have high hopes. I think it’s good. I would discount that opinion but there’s been positive feedback from early readers, all of them extraordinary intellects with impeccable taste, most of them very good friends.

We’ll see. I could self-publish but I’m intent on trying the traditional route first. I can’t help it, that’s just who I am. I know self-publishing has worked very well for some writers and I applaud them, and I also know that I can’t expect a traditional publisher to treat me like the second coming of Stephen King, which means that if I do find a publisher, I’m still going to have to work to sell some books. I think it’s a book worthy of publication and I’m proud of it.

It fits in the publishing category of popular fiction, “smart popular fiction” in Barbara’s words. It is somewhat autobiographical in the great tradition of first novels. It tells a fictional story about my time in Maury. Characters are based on people I know, sometimes they’re composites, sometimes the relationship is more direct. The plot is total fiction. There’s a portrait of the village, a bit of a mystery, and lots of stuff about food, wine, and photography.

And the next novel is just beginning to take shape in my brain. More on that in posts to come.

Notice how writer Ron is much more relaxed than photographer Ron:

The Writer ©2014 Jess Holmes

The Writer ©2014 Jess Holmes

The Photographer ©2009 Ron Scherl

The Photographer ©2009 Ron Scherl

All the News

Just because I’ve returned to San Francisco doesn’t mean I’m divorced from France, it’s more a trial separation. A conversation with the Walkers trying to answer the question “what is a novel?” brought up a number of issues about how we fictionalize our lives. Selective memory enables us to rewrite the past and, in the present, we choose what to see and retain, especially when we travel, much as we choose what to include in the frame when we make a photo. So we’re always making stories and a novel is just one way of telling stories, something humans have been doing for a very long time.

J’adore la France, but it’s not easy to explain: I’ll always be a foreigner there and the French do not welcome strangers easily, yet I’m pretty comfortable and could probably live there, although not in a small rural village. I’m too much a city kid.

There’s still lots of Maury in my life: making prints for Tom and Susan, writing about Marcel and Carrie for Helen Tate’s company:

Finding Cuvee Constance in K&L:

followed by a short Facebook conversation with Jean-Roger and Marie.

And there’s fiction too, but that’s not ready for prime time.

San Francisco is home and I’m happy to be here – although I might reconsider if the Giants don’t start playing better – but I miss the friends I made there and I’ll go back.

In the interest of fair play for California wine I stopped off at Tank 18, an urban winery and a new venue for Ann Walker Catering. It’s a nice industrial space South of Market with about six wines purchased and bottled under their own label.

That's bacon caramel corn on the left.

That’s bacon caramel corn on the left.

Mary Ann did some business, Larry and I tasted and then I played with the iPhone’s panorama software and discussed mounting an exhibition here.

Tank 18

Tank 18

Rolling Stones

The boys are touring again and for those of you who can’t remember if you were there, here they are about 40 years ago.

Click on a thumbnail for a larger view.

Sunday Morning

Easter Sunday to be a bit more descriptive, and I set off on a walk to the Presidio to see Andy Goldsworthy’s sculpture: Wood Line. The last time I came here was the day before I left for France, not knowing for sure if I’d ever be back, so this piece resonates with me more than most.

Presidio: Wood Line by Andy Goldsworthy

Presidio: Wood Line by Andy Goldsworthy ©2013 Ron Scherl

Today I was glad to be living here, appreciating a city that could create the beauty of the Presidio out of a former military base, and at peace with the changes in my life.

Wood Line is one of two Goldsworthy pieces in the Presidio and the one I find more effective and evocative. Like much of his work, Wood Line speaks to the intersection of human and nature in defining this space through the placement of eucalyptus logs in a sinuous pattern through a gap in the forest created when the eucalyptus planted by the army overwhelmed the native cypress trees.

He’s created a memory path, a long and winding road that also acknowledges the future in the changes that will inevitably follow. The line has a clear beginning and end, but the sculpture is more about time than form. Nature will determine the ending.

I came home to an email telling me of the death of Richard Schwartz, my oldest friend. We met in high school and while we would sometimes go years without speaking, we were always friends. Richie was a New Yorker, one of those people who couldn’t possibly live anywhere else. He was born on the Lower East Side, but spent most of his life in Queens and that was where he belonged. Richie and his wife, Heidi, travelled extensively, but Queens was home. It was where I always pictured him and the only place I ever saw him. He was formed by New York and part of what makes New York what it is.

Yet, unlike his city, Richie’s life was quiet: husband, social worker, traveler, and collector of what is undoubtedly the world’s greatest collection of Don Quixote tchotchkes. He was a private person, devoted to his wife, and not much of a communicator to the rest of us. He knew my family much better than I ever knew his. When he spoke about himself, unfinished sentences left just enough ambiguity to make me believe I wasn’t getting the full story. Our friendship may have been incomplete, but never ambiguous. He was my friend and I will miss him.

Presidio: Wood Line by Andy Goldsworthy

Presidio: Wood Line by Andy Goldsworthy ©2013 Ron Scherl

Tuesdays with Tom

My friend Tom has a new heart. Modern medicine may have its failings but this is a scientific triumph and a joy to his family and friends. The transplant was less than a month ago and Tom is out and about with more energy than he’s had in years. We spent two hours in Ikea the other day, something most healthy people can’t tolerate, and now he’s planning on going back to work as soon as possible. Of course, there’s a long way to go and some setbacks are expected but his progress is a source of wonder to us all. It’s also a tribute to an unfailing optimistic attitude; Tom’s friend, Jay, calls him “one of those glass half-full guys” and there’s no doubt this attitude is powerful medicine. He’s also a guy who’s always worked harder than most and when told that the better condition he was in going into the surgery, the better he’d be coming out, he pushed himself to remain active despite the terrible weakness of a failing heart.

Out of the hospital, Tom is still in need of constant care, partly to restrain him from doing too much, partly to help deal with the unpleasant side effects of the mountain of medications he must take to ward off infection and rejection. So his family and friends signed up for monitoring duty and I got Tuesdays.

This is not hard work. Yesterday we walked two blocks to a market for a few groceries, then Tom took a nap while I trolled online for furniture for my new apartment, Jay joined us and we went around the corner for a great burger lunch. After a short review of my furniture needs, Tom went to make some phone calls and answer some email while I went back online. We went for a walk, then read a while until some friends arrived and we ordered some great Mexican food for dinner.

It’s all too easy to lose perspective, to focus on the past, to be consumed by the negative, but it’s just not possible when you’re hanging out with a guy who just received a whole new life and is intent on making the most of it.



In yet another example of my spectacular gift for good timing, I’ve returned to San Francisco at the peak of an apartment shortage: highest average rents ever and fierce competition for what’s available. Rental ads list proximity to Google and Apple shuttles and warn you to come armed with all three credit scores, bank statements, pay stubs rental history, references and the name of the surgeon who will remove your right arm for use as a security deposit.

This is truly a nightmare. Think for a moment about 300 square foot studios in dodgy neighborhoods for $2000 per month. There, you didn’t need to think for very long, did you? But if you’re looking to live here, you have to consider it.

iPhone-0372I went to look at a place the other day that was a steal at $1900. I’ve seen prison cells that were larger. What was called the bedroom was a windowless cube that could accommodate a queen-size bed, but absolutely nothing else, so I’d have to crawl into the room from the bottom of the bed because there was no space on the sides. Then, I’d need to fit living room, office, dining room and clothes storage into the other room, which didn’t leave any space for me. And I put in an application and didn’t get the place.

iPhone-0362Then we have the guy who wanted to break his lease but didn’t want to tell his landlord yet because he might change his mind, so he puts an ad in Craig’s list offering to rent an apartment that he had no right to rent and wastes half a precious day of searching.

Scams are plentiful and sometimes clever: there are many excuses for not being available to actually let you see the apartment before forking over the “holding deposit.” Some are unavoidably detained on business in Zurich, others have been called to do the Lord’s work in Alabama, in some cases the photos shown are not of the actual unit available, and then there’s Stacy for whom I always seem to be second choice: The good news is that the rental is still available! We had a tentative agreement from the first person we showed it to, but now it seems that they changed their mind, so we need to lease it as soon as possible. You were the second one to email me about it, so its only fair to give you the first shot.” And to rise to the top of Stacy’s list all I need do is click on the mystery link below.

The search goes on but there are few open houses today because the local boys are in the Super Bowl. I can use a breather.


A nice place, but difficult to heat and the line's already forming. ©2013 Ron Scherl

A nice place, but difficult to heat and the line’s already forming. ©2013 Ron Scherl




David Bowie Photo

Couldn’t resist hauling out a photo of David Bowie ©1980 Ron Scherl

I’m packing up and heading back to San Francisco; 18 months in a village of 900 people is a long time for a city kid. It’s been a good and productive time. The photo book          is now in shape and being considered for publication. The all-text version is progressing and I plan to get out of town before the fictional version appears. So I’ve returned to being a photographer and also begun to discover a voice as a writer. And in a more serious vein, I’ve also become an expert pizzaiolo and make a pretty good bagel as well.

I thought for a while that I would move to Perpignan but the more I thought, the more I realized I really wanted to go back home. That’s what happens here in the winter, you spend a lot of time indoors, in your own head. Actually, it’s amazingly warm here at the moment. I just came from coffee in the garden of some friends, opened the windows and even sat on the terrace for a while. It’s a shock after last year’s very cold winter. Now that I have all the windows covered with Saran Wrap, it’s 72o and sunny.

I’ve been spending a lot of time on Craig’s list lately looking for apartments and it’s like a drug. I see photos that look great and think I could be happy there, and then I feel happy, for a few minutes. As my new friend Claire said, it’s like online dating. Of course as an experienced Photoshop user, I’m very wary of the validity of the photos, although it’s much more likely that they’re photos of another apartment rather than retouched photos of the actual place. But not only are the fees through the roof, there’s enormous competition for what is available, all those facebookers, tweeters and googleites need to live somewhere and they clearly prefer the city to the valley.

Going home is a good thing, so is starting a new chapter. Going back to a familiar and comfortable place feels right, just as leaving it was right at the time, but changing circumstances and a different attitude will bring new challenges. And that’s also a good thing. One of the down sides of a small rural village is that for most people roles are defined by tradition: many of those playing bingo at the seniors club are no older than me, but their roles seem to have been pre-determined; they appear to be following a script. This is what you do when you reach a certain age. Not true for everyone, but the narrow offerings of a small village do limit options and imagination. As I write this, the 5:30 loudspeaker announcement from the Mairie is indeed about tomorrow’s “séance de loto.”

I can, of course, come back here and I will. I still have my share of the house and I have made friends that I’d like to keep. But for now, while the blog will continue, I think I’ll put my bingo career on hold.

Bingo ©2012 Ron Scherl

Bingo ©2012 Ron Scherl