ROBERT CAPA

by Mario Cutajar 

(Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego) "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough," Robert Capa used to say. It was a simple formula. All it took to adhere to it was uncommon courage.Capa made his name--or, rather, that of his alter ego, Endre Friedman being his real name--by photographing, up close and personal, the defining conflicts and artistic personalities of the 20th century. As Life magazine, one of his employers, boasted about his exploits, Capa "took his camera farther into the fighting zone than had ever been done before," which was no mean feat in itself, but truly significant only because of Capa's uncanny eye for the decisive moment.Part of what made Capa's bold style possible was the availability of the new small and fast 35mm cameras. But, of course, cameras don't take pictures by themselves. To get the images that established him as the archetype of the modern war photojournalist--the suave, existential witness to manmade hell--Capa had to play an extended game of Russian roulette, a game he ultimately lost. Several of his pictures are thus equal parts reportage and mementos of close shaves.Such is the distancing power of photography, and its ability to make us forget that someone had to be THERE, holding a camera and framing the shot, that it takes deliberation to appreciate the risks Capa ran. Consider, for instance, the photograph of the Spanish Loyalist soldier crucified by a bullet on the field of battle. Then consider the short distance that separates him from the man who recorded his unexpected death on film. Or turn to Capa's account of how he obtained his pictures of the D-Day landing at Omaha Beach.He goes in with the first wave, wades in between bodies, forcing himself to go on by concentrating on looking through his viewfinder and repeating to himself in mantra-like fashion a sentence he'd learned in the Spanish Civil War: "Es una cosa muy seria." When he pauses to change film, he gets the shakes so bad he has to leave the beach and is evacuated with the wounded.

 

"Pablo Picasso and Francoise
Gilot, Golfe-Juan, France,"
gelatin silver print, 1948.



"Death of Loyalist Militiaman
Frederico Borrell Garcia, Cerro
Muriano (Cordoba Front), 1936,"
gelatin silver print.
© 1996 Estate of Robert Capa.

Not all the pictures in this traveling retrospective, comprised of 160 images culled from a cache of 70,000, are war-related. Between war assignments, Capa, who was friends with Hemingway, Cartier-Bresson, and Picasso, among other luminaries, managed to find the time to do portraits of several of them. Among these was the famous shot of beach-umbrella-bearing Picasso following Francoise Gilot on the sands of Golfe-Juan. That was taken the same year Capa covered the first Israeli-Arab war and almost got himself killed. Another was of the aging Matisse drawing with a long stick in his studio in Nice. There was also his photograph of his lover, Ingrid Bergman, on the set of Notorious.Capa had vowed to give up war photography after his experience in Palestine, but in 1954 he accepted an assignment from Life to cover the war in Indochina. It was the first war he would cover in which Capa didn't feel he had a stake. It was also a mistake. In May of that year, while trying to get closer to the action, he stepped on a land-mine. At the age of 40, he'd used up all his luck.