A Walk with Bob and Gerda

Not along after Endre Friedmann and Gerda Taro invented “Robert Capa” they established the Atelier Robert Capa on the second floor of this building at 37 rue Froidevaux, (François-Xavier-Eugène 1827-1882, a commander in the Sapeurs-Pompiers, the fire and rescue brigade of Paris), in the 14th arrondisement. It was the closest they ever came to having a home and turns up repeatedly as a touchstone in the invented life of Capa. Most interesting is its appearance in Patrick Modiano’s novella, Suspended Sentences, as the setting for a story about creativity and loss.

rue Emile Richard
rue Emile Richard

I don’t know what was on street level in 1936, now we find a florist and funeral service business because across the street is the cemetery of Montparnasse. That’s where I am, standing on the corner of the rue Émile Richard (1843-1890, a President of the municipal council of Paris), which bisects the cemetery and is now the site of a small tent encampment of the homeless. Several campsites along the street are furnished with modern red office chairs in such good condition they appear to have been recently delivered.

tent and chair
tent and chair

Walk through the cemetery and you come to the Boulevard Raspail, (François-Vincent, 1794–1878, French chemist, physician, and politician), one of the main thoroughfares of Montparnasse.

Turn left on the boulevard and you’ll pass several hotels, a school, and a student residence. Paris is a national education center and the presence of students and scholarship animates and rejuvenates this historical city of imposing architectural monuments. Just a few blocks down is the corner of Boulevard Montparnasse, the site of Le Dôme.

Le Dôme
Le Dôme

In the thirties this café was the gathering place for the growing coterie of photojournalists who were drawn to the city. Some, like Capa and Taro, were Jews who had fled the growing threat of National Socialism in Eastern Europe; some, like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Willy Ronis, were French who came here to meet with their peers. They were joined by André Kertész, Giselle Freund, David Szymin (Chim), and others in what must have been the greatest gathering of photographic talent ever to grace a coffee shop. Photographers aren’t always verbally gifted but I’d guess the competitive banter of this group was lively and amusing. This was their living room, clubhouse, and office where they met to compare notes on editors and assignments and plan coverage of the great stories of the time.

Cafes had personalities then, created by the crowds they attracted, so while you might find Hemingway and Picasso in a raucous scene at Le Select, Sartre and de Beauvoir would be presiding over a quieter discussion at Café de Flore.

Le Dôme was the home for photographers and, of course, it was a very different place then. Now the interior is an upscale seafood restaurant that smells only of cashmere and money. The terrace is more casual, and more democratic. I’m seated next to a well-dressed man in his sixties (I need to upgrade my wardrobe), reading Racine and taking notes: a professor, I’d guess. Next to him is a younger man intensely focused on his MacBook, and obsessively checking his phone. I’d like to think he’s a lovelorn novelist. Why not, it’s Paris? There are several women of different ages, some alone, some in pairs, all having lunch. A middle-aged couple orders the skate wing lunch special and the novelist another coffee. A young woman with a suitcase orders a café crème, tends to her text messages, and leaves a few extra coins for the waiter. The professor finishes preparing his lecture and relaxes with a glass of white wine.

Le Dôme Terrace
Le Dôme Terrace

I order a beer, which comes with a small bowl of olives, then get a little hungry, so I order a sandwich mixte au pain Poilane, without butter (I love this city but don’t want to die here, at least not yet). I ask for a little mustard. It’s a good thing I’m not very hungry. I make a few pictures and a few notes for this essay and order a coffee. I leave an extra tip for the waiter because I think it’s what Capa would have done, even if he had to borrow the money from Cartier-Bresson.

Capa and Taro have gone off to war in Spain. They are photojournalism novices and their quest is not to document facts, but to witness and support Republican victories. Only Capa will return.

I decide to go to Père Lachaise and find Taro’s grave. I ask for directions in the cemetery office but the computer cannot find Taro, then I remember her birth name, Pohorylle, and we get a hit. I’m following my map down a path covered with autumn leaves when I pass an attendant who shouts and points: “Jim Morrison, that way.” I shake my head and walk on.

Père Lachaise
Père Lachaise

Taro is buried in a small Jewish section near the Mur des Fédérés, the group monuments to those unidentified souls who died in wars and Nazi extermination camps.

Gerda Taro Grave
Gerda Taro Grave

Her tomb is small, much smaller than her neighbors, and plain, adorned only with a simple block with her name and dates, and the Giacometti falcon that was commissioned by the Communist Party hoping to profit from her death, although she was never a party member. Visitors have left a few stones, several painted with the colors of the German flag, although she was not German, and a print of a Capa photo of Taro resting by the side of a Spanish road. Some flowers are long gone, but their plastic wrappers remain.

Taro Grave
Taro Grave

She’s mostly forgotten now. After she died in Spain, Capa tried to save her work and he probably did, but credits were haphazard. Many old prints bear stamps that say both “Photo Capa” and “Photo Taro,” and many negatives carry no attribution at all. It’s often impossible to know for sure who made the photos, so the credit usually goes to the famous Capa, who might never have achieved that fame if he hadn’t met and fallen in love with Gerda Taro. It’s a subject that is explored in greater depth in Rivesaltes, a novel in progress.

Gerda Taro
Gerda Taro

©2015 Ron Scherl


Back to work on Novel Two, which means relearning all the acronyms and trying to remember the factions they represented in the Spanish Civil War. So I took time out from multiple flavors of socialism to have some fun imagining a poker game that might have taken place in the Hotel Florida in Madrid sometime in 1937. Madrid was still in Republican hands although the Nationalist bombing campaign had begun. The characters are Robert Capa, Chim (David Szymin), Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ernie Pyle, Ernest Hemingway, and Richard Lenoir, who is a young, entirely fictional French journalist. The game is five-card stud.


Chim: “We don’t have all day, André, Franco’s planes are due any minute.” Chim, who had changed his name from Szymin to Seymour but was known to everyone as Chim, refused to call Capa anything but André, although that wasn’t his birth name either. His parents called him Endre Friedmann.

Pyle: “It would be more accurate to call them Hitler’s planes. The Condor Legion is leading the raids.”

Cartier-Bresson: “That’s not exactly comforting.”

Hemingway: “Your king bets, Capa. What do you say?”

Capa: “I need a minute, where’s Gerda?”

Lenoir, who is not playing, answers: “I think she went upstairs to edit photos.”

Capa: “Lenoir, can you ask her…No, wait. Can you loan me 100 francs?”

Lenoir: “Sorry, Bob. I don’t have it.”

At that moment the concussion from the bombing was close enough to rattle the windows.

Cartier-Bresson: “That does it. I’m going to the shelter.”

Hemingway: “You can’t leave, Henri, Capa has to bet.”

Cartier-Bresson: “I fold. Now I can leave.”

Pyle: “You can’t fold. It’s Capa’s turn.”

Capa: “Henri, if you’re out, you can loan me 100 francs.”

HC-B: “To be returned when?”

Capa: “When I win, of course.”

HC-B, walking away: “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Chim: “I’m beginning to think the war will end before this hand, and neither ending will be pretty.”

Capa: “I raise a hundred.Henri will cover it, but it won’t be necessary. ”

Pyle: “I don’t think I want to know. I fold.”

Chim: “Me too. It’s up to you, Papa.”

Hemingway: “I’ve got to call your ass, Capa. How many of those aces do you have?”

Capa: “Two. That ought to be enough.”

Hemingway, revealing three nines, “Not quite.”

Capa: “Let’s have a drink. Lenoir, can you buy us a drink. What’s that you’re reading, a letter from your lover? Is that a smile. I’ve never seen him smile before. Is he happy?”

“Hard to tell,” Chim said. “That might be a smile on his face, I’m not sure.”

“I don’t think it’s a smile, maybe it’s a rueful smile. What would you call it, Papa?”

“Photographers, totally useless without a camera. You don’t know how to interpret or even describe, you can only record what your machines allow. It takes a writer to truly understand another man. The young man is trying to be happy but that is only part of the picture. When you study him, you see sadness behind the smile, which is not rueful at all. He does not regret; he hasn’t yet done anything wrong, in fact he hasn’t done anything at all. His sadness is not full of remorse, it is empty, unfulfilled. It is the sadness of a man who thinks he knows what he wants but cannot have it. Yet the possibility remains, it might still happen, but he cannot make it happen. He must wait for events to run their course, so he is frustrated, but his love has given him reason to hope. He is still in the running, if not yet in the lead. Gentlemen, our young Lenoir is in love, although he has not yet been able to make love to the woman he desires. He is trying to compensate by devouring, again, and again, the words that give him hope. But it is not enough. Il est triste, oui, but he is also very horny.”

That brought a great roar of laughter and cheers from the assembly of journalists.

“Bravo, Papa.” they shouted, and produced a round of drinks.

Lenoir looked up from his letter. He was not smiling: “Fuck you, all of you. Especially you, Hemingway.”

Papa roared: “Bravo Lenoir, not exactly eloquent, but the only appropriate response.”

©2015 Ron Scherl





I took a few days off from the Rivesaltes book to work on a photography webinar for a medical laser company, which brought me back into the world of cosmetic medicine.

When I returned from France about 18 months ago, I thought I’d be fine if I could pick up a couple days of work per month from the medical device companies I knew before I left. Didn’t happen, rien, nothing. I built a website dedicated to this specialty and got active on LinkedIn trying to rebuild relationships. Nope.

So I got serious about writing and didn’t think much about photography, even spent a few weeks in Paris and, while I did write a journal, I wound up taking more pictures with my iPhone than my camera. When I got back, I decided to take down the medical photo web site and re-start my blog. The same week, I got three calls about medical photo jobs. Probably just a coincidence.

But it feels like when I was a full-time freelance photographer and business was slow, I used to think all my clients were in a conspiracy to torture me, until they decided I had suffered enough and then they all called at once.

So it’s nice to have a few things to juggle, leaves me less time to worry, and hardly any time at all to beat myself up over things I can’t control. I’m back to work on the Rivesaltes book and researching the plight of the Harkis, those Algerians who chose to fight for France in their country’s war of independence.

More about that in future posts, but I want to return to Robert Capa. Actually this is more about Hemingway. I’ve been reading his last novel, The Garden of Eden, and was discussing it yesterday with Dave Sumner. It’s atypical Hemingway for sure and very surprising in that he deals, in very mannered and sometimes abstract prose with his own bisexuality. David and Catherine Bourne, who cut and dye their hair in the same way, tan their bodies to mahogany, trade sexual roles and make love to an openly bisexual woman can be seen as two sides of the same person. Or not. Perhaps they’re Scott and Zelda or Hemingway and one of his wives. It will never be known and doesn’t really matter.

What struck me as most un-Hemingway of all is David’s passive reaction when Catherine burns the stories he’s been writing throughout the novel. It’s an extremely violent act that I thought would beget a violent reaction. Not at all. He just drifts off with Marita, the other woman.

The novel was unfinished, then severely edited and published posthumously.

My friend Dave suggested that Hemingway like Capa may have constructed an image of himself and then felt compelled to live up to it; Capa became the fearless and carefree combat photographer, Hemingway: the macho, brawling, hunter-warrior.

They were good friends, and while I doubt either one was subject to confessional revelations in their conversations, it would have been interesting to be there, to watch and listen to these two master actors.

Any Hemingway scholars out there? Please add a comment.

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.