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.

3 thoughts on “Capa Two”

  1. I find this topic I would happily read a whole manuscript about – the thought that perception is reality always sneaks into all my research and fascination. This is a problematic topic within photojournalism because the interpretation is in the hands of the beholder and their frame of reference will always contribute to the outcome of what the photo “IS” — Can’t wait to read more!

    1. Isn’t all art, all communication, in a sense propaganda? I am not at all sure I would want to spend any time with a person who was absolutely neutral. It would be like eating cottage cheese three times a day. A lot of observers tend to think of photographs as showing ‘the truth.’ No, a photo shows a split second of what is on view. Truth is an entirely different thing, no?

      1. My head starts to hurt when I try to define art so I’ll stick to communication, and certainly it is all propaganda. I think we give it a pejorative context because the US press and government used to describe all communication from the Soviet Union as propaganda. In today’s wars we “embed” journalists with combat units. Is that any different than Capa traveling with a Republican militia? It is impossible for anyone to be objective in that situation and equally impossible for their photos to convey the “truth.” The photo only shows what the photographer wanted to show in the way he wanted to show it.

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