Without the shadow of a doubt, Robert Capa is the most famous war photographer of all times.
Born as a jew in Hungary in 1913, Capa left his home country in 1931 for Berlin to escape the oppressive right-wing and antisemitic dictatorship that reigned Hungary during that time. It was in Berlin that he learned photography. He moved to Paris in 1933 due to the rise of Nazism in Germany and it was here that he changed his name for commercial reasons from André Friedmann to Robert Capa. In Paris his career as a photographer took off with his pictures of the Civil War in Spain. In 1939 he fled to the US and would operate out of this country until the end of World War II.
During his working life he covered five wars: the Spanish Civil War, the war between Japan and China, World War II, the first Arab-Israeli War and the early days of the War in Indochina. He was a true socialite and was well acquainted with a number of famous artists, including writers like Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote and John Steinbeck, film directors Joris Ivens (with whom he travelled through China) and John Huston, as well as actors like Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman (with whom he was romantically involved).
In 1947, Capa took the inititative to found Magnum Photos in Paris, the famous and first cooperative photo agency, which exists until this day. In 1954 he died when he stepped up a land mine in Vietnam.
Robert Capa’s biography reads like an itinerary
All in all Capa’s life seems to offer enough ingredients to create a great story, which is unfortunately exactly what Alex Kershaw fails to do in his biography of Capa titled ‘Blood and Champagne’. There are three reasons for this.
First all the biggest issue is that the book fails to bring Capa alive as a human being. Readers are told exactly where Capa was, when and with whom during his life, but does not bring these events to live. In that sense the book looks more like an itinerary than a biography.
Capa as a person is depicted as a charming dare-devil, gambler, womanizer and liar. The problem is that the book fails to explain the why, except hinting at the fact that Capa might have inherited these traits from his father.
Secondly the book covers Capa’s life until the end of WWII in a very detailed manner, but pays less attention to his life after World War II until his death in 1954. This is a pity because this is the period where he founded Magnum and travelled with Steinbeck through the USSR. Although both events are covered, they do not come to live. It is also the period where took pictures of the Dutch Royal family, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, William Faulkner and Truman Capote. These must have been memorable occasions, but the book either does not mention these events at all, or does not share any interesting details about them.
Finally the author does not pay attention to Capa as a photographer. The book mentions multiple times that Capa mainly used Leica cameras, but does not pay attention to his technique, style or choice of subjects. The only memorable quote from Capa related to photography in the book is Capa’s well-know statement ‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough’.
Robert Capa: The Definitive Collection is a definitive ‘must have’
The book I really recommend is “Robert Capa: The Definitive Collection” by Richard
Whelan. This book contains 937 photos taken by Robert Capa and provides a condensed biography of Robert Capa’s life
The photos are selected by Richard Whelan and Cornell Capa, Robert Capa’s brother (who interestingly enough also adopted Capa as a last name). The book provides a great overview of Capa’s work and does not only include pictures of all the wars he covered, but also pictures he took on film sets with Ingrid Bergman, pictures of the rich and famous (including the Dutch royal family, John Huston, William Faulkner, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and Truman Capote) and series of pictures he took of the trip he undertook with John Steinbeck through the USSR in 1947 and of Jewish immigrants in Israel in 1948 and 1949.
Due to the fact that this book does not only cover his war photography, it enables readers to assess Capa’s skills as a photographer in “non-combat” situations. This distinction is important because photography in combat situation obviously offers little or no opportunity to properly focus and frame pictures.
His work depicting the political unrest in Europe during the Interbellum, with pictures of its political rallies, demonstrations and strikes, provides great documentary material and really manages to bring this era to live. The playfulness of Capa’s street photography will remind viewers of the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson (one of the people he co-founded Magnum with). The only disappointing part of his body of work are his portraits. Although they are technically good, there is nothing special about them, especially if you compare them with the work of famous portrait photographers like Irvin Penn or Richard Avedon.
His “non-combat” pictures confirm that Capa was a technically competent photographer . The lightning, focus and depth of filed choices of all his pictures is immaculate. More importantly however is that his “non-combat” pictures are wonderful recordings of hope and optimism. In that sense they are a true testimony of the resilience of the human race.