Robert Capa: The Definitive Collection
Richard Whelan
Phaidon Press, $39.95 (paper)

Sometimes, when I am feeling low, I look at a photograph of Robert Capa’s that I love. You could call it a war photograph, though it shows two men dancing instead of two men fighting. They wear overalls and white shirts; they are almost certainly peasants or workers, and poor. The one who faces us has a black beret and a moustache and a smile; his arms are flung out as he dances; he is caught in a moment of animated delight. In a semicircle behind the dancing couple stand seven comrades, their faces lit with pleasure as they watch. The photograph radiates an ebullient generosity. And it does what every good news photograph should do: it draws us in and, simultaneously, makes us want to go outside the frame to learn more about these men and their lives and the cause for which they fight.

Capa shot this picture on the Aragon front in August 1936, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War; the men it depicts were members of the Marxist militia POUM (with which George Orwell would fight, and many of whose members would be imprisoned or executed by Stalinists).1 Capa covered the war as an exciting news event, and it was. But he covered it too because—as a Jew, a refugee, a leftist, and a democrat—he was passionately pro-Loyalist and passionately anti-fascist, and because he believed that the outcome of this war was of crucial importance to the whole world.

Robert Capa was the world’s quintessential war photographer from the 1930s until the mid-1950s, which is often referred to as the heyday—that is, the pre-television day—of photojournalism. His political commitment, as well as his courage, made Capa not just a famous photographer but a deeply admired one. The British magazine Picture Post, for instance, ran his photos from Spain accompanied by a handsome portrait of Capa, in profile, and the description, “He is a passionate democrat, and he lives to take photographs.” When Capa died in 1954 at age forty, while on assignment in Vietnam, tributes poured in from around the world.

His political commitment, as well as his courage, made Capa not just a famous photographer but a deeply admired one.

Immersing himself in battle with at least seeming fearlessness became Capa’s specialty. Life magazine, one of his many employers, boasted that he “took his camera farther into the fighting zone than had ever been done before.” He was on unusually intimate terms with danger and violence: he filmed the war in China after the Japanese invasion, parachuted into Germany with the 17th Airborne Division in 1945, and was the only photographer to accompany the first, most deadly wave of infantrymen onto Omaha Beach on D-Day. Capa went to Israel just before it declared independence, which means he documented the first Arab–Israeli war, and he photographed the Vietnam War a decade before it was “ours.” His most famous photograph, “Falling Soldier,” shows a Spanish Loyalist partisan, gun in hand, caught in the very moment of dying; it became the iconic war, and antiwar, image of the twentieth century. Yet—as a handsome new collection, Robert Capa: The Definitive Collection, makes clear—Capa was a war photographer who was not primarily interested in atrocity, physical torment, or death.

What did he show instead? In Spain, he shot many portraits of Loyalist militiamen. Their faces are worn, lined, earnest, purposeful—illuminated, in Octavio Paz’s words, by a kind of “desperate hopefulness, something very concrete and at the same time universal.” These are men, Capa’s photos suggest, who view war as a grievous necessity rather than a splendid adventure. Capa showed terror-stricken civilians in the cities and the countryside, looking upwards as they flee the bombs (for Spain was a new kind of total war); two laughing women with a man between them, washing clothes together, which Capa took to be a sign of new social relations (for Spain was not just a war, but a revolution); a Barcelona militiawoman sitting on a chair, her gun propped before her as she reads a fashion magazine; ragged soldiers on the Madrid front, bundled against the coldas they calmly play chess; crowds in Barcelona hanging from their balconies on the crushing day that their international allies were forced to depart. He showed peasants who had formed collective farms; grown men learning how to read; open-air meetings of soldiers debating what kind of army they wished to create. Capa showed a new society being built, and he showed it being destroyed. He showed fear and grief and, eventually, defeat, but he did not document sadism or moral implosion; the Spanish, Martha Gellhorn would report, remained “intact in spirit” even as their republic was smashed. Whether soldiers or civilians, Capa’s subjects were always recognizably, indeed capaciously, human, and their corpses remained, for the most part, buried in private. As for their Nationalist enemies, he virtually never showed them at all. Capa called his 1938 book on Spain Death in the Making, which sounds understandably urgent and dramatic but which is somewhat misleading, for it was the lives of the Spanish that interested him most.

The quintessential war photographer—or what is now more generally called a “conflict photographer”—of our day is James Nachtwey, who works for Time magazine and is a former member of Magnum, the photo agency Capa founded. I never look at Nachtwey’s photographs when I am sad; in fact, I find his pictures harrowing in the best of times. Nachtwey has photographed numerous hellholes of the late twentieth century and the early twenty-first. He has shown us stunned, rag-covered Somalis and Sudanese holding their heads as they writhe on the ground and starve to death; Rwandans hacked to pieces by their compatriots or dying of cholera in wretched refugee camps; an Afghan guerrilla bleeding to death; grotesquely deformed, sore-encrusted Romanian orphans, driven mad through abandonment or dying of AIDS; victims of war like the young Chechen boy who lies, naked, on a hospital bed, his small penis exposed, his legs blown away; stacks of swollen corpses and of skeletons, too. Many of Nachtwey’s subjects are mutilated, emaciated, terrorized, exhausted, burnt, or blasted, and they seem, often, to exist outside of any recognizable community. I do not think their spirits are intact. In fact, Nachtwey’s photographs raise the question posed by Primo Levi’s memoir of Auschwitz, If This Is a Man: at what point do human beings—when deprived of food, shelter, work, family, community, nation, and dignity—cease to be human?

To look at Capa’s work now is to realize how far away the world that he documented is.

Like Capa, Nachtwey is deeply admired for both his skill and his bravery, especially by his colleagues: he has won the Overseas Press Club’s annual Robert Capa Award five times—more than anyone else. Yet Nachtwey is also reviled. His 1999 book Inferno inspired venom, especially in publications like The New Yorker and The Village Voice, whose liberal readers would seem to be his natural constituency. Instead, their critics denounced Nachtwey for the “chaos” and “gruesome hopelessness” he portrays; his subjects were described as “civilization’s mutants” and “ghosts.” One critic compared Nachtwey to a “sniper”; another charged him with “holding a gun to our heads.” His photos were criticized, also, for not looking enough like Capa’s. And in truth, his book—in which atrocity is heaped upon atrocity, cruelty upon cruelty, despair upon despair—is unbearable, almost. Rather than drawing us into the frame, Nachtwey’s photos make us desperate to look away.

But Nachtwey’s images don’t look like Capa’s images because Nachtwey’s world doesn’t look like Capa’s world. This doesn’t mean that good people are scarcer today, but good causes to align with may well be. Of course, “the good fight” hasn’t disappeared; many reporters and photographers have found it (depending on their politics) in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the rise of Solidarity in Poland, the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, and, more recently, the Bosnian war. But in many of the conflicts that Nachtwey and others document, nobility—or even recognizable political aims—seems hard to come by. One can still be on the side of the powerless; but one must recognize that the powerless are not necessarily struggling for justice, equality, or the brotherhood of man. In fact, what Nachtwey and others photograph—what they must photograph—is the savage nihilism that defines many of the conflicts of the past three decades. Think, for instance, of the civil wars in Algeria, Lebanon, Sudan, Congo, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Chechnya; the mass butchery, torture, and deliberate starvation of civilian populations that accompany them; the adoration of the gun and the frenzy of martyrdom (Beirut and the revolution in Iran may have been turning points); and, increasingly, the depravity of terrorist attacks. (As luck would have it, Nachtwey returned from his travels to his downtown New York apartment on September 10, 2001; he was on the scene at Ground Zero soon after the second plane hit to record what he would later call the “avalanche of history.”) I have been appalled, shaken, and unforgettably moved by some of Nachtwey’s photographs, but the man has never taken a picture that I love.

The contrasts between Capa’s photographs and Nachtwey’s seem to illustrate a shift in the nature of photojournalism, and in some sense they do. But they are more telling, I think, of shifts in the nature of war, of violence, and of politics themselves. To look at Capa’s work now is to realize how far away the world that he documented is. (His first published photograph, in 1932, was of Leon Trotsky making an impassioned speech in Copenhagen on “The Meaning of the Russian Revolution.”) Paradoxically, though, many of the underlying political issues that Capa’s photos reflect are very much with us today.

• • •

Robert Capa was born André Friedmann in Budapest in 1913; his parents were secular Jews who owned a prosperous dressmaking shop. Capa didn’t excel in school, but interwar Budapest was an education in itself. The city, and the country, were roiled by strikes, unemployment, and food shortages; social tensions were acute, political instability rampant, strife between right and left open.2 Budapest was a proletarian city. But it also incubated a vibrant, highly educated community of artists, scientists, and intellectuals—including the writers Arthur Koestler and Georg Lukács, the filmmakers Alexander Korda and Michael Curtiz, the photographers Brassaï and André Kertész, the physicists Edward Teller and Leo Szilard, the composer Béla Bartók, and the mathematician John von Neumann—who would flee the country and profoundly influence the modern culture of the West. (In later years, Capa would quip, “It’s not enough to have talent; you also have to be Hungarian.”) One could say the intelligentsia was Hungary’s main export in the 1920s and ’30s, especially as political repression and anti-Semitism intensified.

As a teenager, Capa was drawn to the Munkakör (Work Circle), a group of socialist and avant-garde artists, photographers, and intellectuals, and he was a regular participant in the demonstrations, sometimes violent, against the protofascist Miklòs Horthy regime. Political commitment didn’t rule out irreverence, though: at one demonstration, Capa led the crowd in a nonsensical demand for “Scrap iron! Scrap iron!” just to see, he said, if he “could get them to shout anything.” In 1931, he was arrested by the secret police, beaten, and jailed; a police official’s wife—who happened to be a good customer of the Friedmanns’—won Capa’s release on the condition that he leave Hungary immediately. He went to Berlin to study journalism at the radical Deutsche Hochschule für Politik, which was more welcoming of Jews than the Hungarian universities;3 throughout his life Capa would consider photography, or at least his kind, a form of journalism rather than of art.

Photographs became a key part of the new journalism, and illustrated magazines, tabloids, and newspaper supplements poured forth.

In Berlin, Capa knew hunger for the first time. The worldwide depression had spread to Hungary; the Friedmanns’ business went bankrupt, and they could no longer subsidize their son. Though nominally a student, Capa needed a job, badly, and he decided to switch from journalism to photography because, he would later explain, photography “was the nearest thing to journalism for anyone who found himself without a [widely spoken] language.” Besides, it seemed easy: with the introduction of the new lightweight cameras, anyone could do it. Not necessarily well, though: there is no doubt that Capa had something unusual, what we might call a “natural eye” for dramatic impact, narrative drive, and the telling detail. But it is also true that his photographs lack the formal perfection of James Nachtwey’s or the daringly unsettled compositions of a contemporary master like Gilles Peress. (In 1950 Eve Arnold, then a young Magnum photographer, told the journalist Janet Flanner that she didn’t think Capa’s photographs were “very well designed.” Flanner looked at her with pity and replied, “My dear, history doesn’t design well either.”)

Capa arrived in Berlin as the Weimar Republic was imploding. Two news photos (not Capa’s) capture the feeling, and the contradictions, of that bewildering, terrifying process. One blurry photograph from 1932 shows a large, chaotic hand-to-hand street battle between Communists, Nazis, and the police on the outskirts of Berlin—though one might argue that the far greater tragedy was the ferocious antagonism between socialists and Communists. A clearer, weirder 1932 photograph, quieter but more shocking, shows the alleyway of a tattered Berlin tenement along with a few of its inhabitants, including several children and a man with a baby carriage. The caption tells us that the residents of this building are waging a rent strike; we see their slogan, “First Food!—and then rent,” painted on the wall of the courtyard. And we see, too, the flags of the building’s tenants hanging from their windows. Swastikas and hammer-and-sickles fly side by side, as if in some grotesque parody of coexistence; apparently both parties supported the strike.

Much has been written about the explosion of creativity—in social mores, sexuality, literature, philosophy, theater, art, architecture, film, photography, and music—that characterized Weimar culture; Weimar was, as the German curator Claudia Bohn-Spector has written, “a laboratory for modernity.” Less frequently noted is what a wonderful town Berlin in the Weimar years was for journalism, both print and visual. Germany’s abolition of censorship in 1918 released a torrent of newspapers, magazines, and tabloids; by the 1920s Berlin boasted a phenomenal 47 daily newspapers, 33 daily locals, approximately 50 weeklies, and 18 magazines. A photo of the time suggests the rich abundance of the Berlin press: it shows a wide Potsdamer Platz newsstand veritably dripping with papers, like a plump bourgeois lady loaded down with jewels.

Photographs became a key part of the new journalism, and illustrated magazines, tabloids, and newspaper supplements—liberal democratic, socialist, Communist, conservative, Catholic, Nazi, and nonpartisan—poured forth. Like the weekly movie newsreels, they documented everything from the latest fashions and film stars to social problems, natural catastrophes, and political crises, while pioneering editors like Kurt Korff of the “Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung” and Stefan Lorant of the “Müchner Illustrierte Presse” developed a new narrative form, the photo essay. (Fittingly, one was called “Spellbound by the Newspaper.”) To feed the new publications, photo agencies sprang up; one of the most prominent, called Dephot, was founded by Simon Guttmann, who was close to both the Dadaists and the Sparticists and who gave André Friedmann, a fellow Hungarian émigré, his first job.

In Berlin’s newly democratic culture of journalism, which nurtured Capa for two crucial years, words and images, radical politics and avant-garde experimentation, reporters and intellectuals, all mixed.

The new visual journalism was abetted by technological advances: in 1926 the telegraphic picture transmitter was invented; at the same time, fast, light cameras such as the Ermanox and the Leica were introduced, making street photography, candid photography, and documentary photography as we know it possible. (Like many modern inventions, the Leica could be put to morally disparate uses: it was treasured by Capa, by the Bolshevik artist Alexander Rodchenko, and by the Luftwaffe, which used it for aerial reconnaissance.) The German illustrated magazines would inspire the founding of scores of others throughout the world, including Regards, Vu, and Match in France; Picture Post and Illustrated Weekly in Great Britain; Life and Look in the United States; and, in the Soviet Union, periodicals with slightly more didactic titles like Let’s Produce! and USSR in Construction.

In Berlin’s newly democratic culture of journalism, which nurtured Capa for two crucial years, words and images, radical politics and avant-garde experimentation, reporters and intellectuals, all mixed. (Capa and Egon Erwin Kisch, known as “the rampaging reporter,” frequented the same café as Walter Benjamin.) Weimar was home to members of the astonishingly fertile Hungarian diaspora of photographers, including Lászlò Moholy-Nagy, Martin Munkácsi, and Gyorgy Kepes; of creative editors like Lorant, Korff, and Theodor Wolff; of photojournalists like Erich Salomon, Tim Gidal, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Felix Man, and Umbo. Hitler set out to eradicate this vital, rambunctious press, which he saw as “too Jewish” in its skepticism, its personnel, and its ownership.4 Starting in early 1933, Berlin’s journalistic community was destroyed with breathtaking rapidity, though by the standards of the time—a time when, as Brecht wrote, refugees changed countries “oftener than our shoes”—many of its members were lucky, escaping to Palestine, England, or the United States. Many, but not all: Wolff was killed by the Gestapo; Salomon and his family were murdered in Auschwitz. And as the Reichstag’s embers glowed, Capa—then only 19, still called André Friedmann and decidedly unknown—fled to Vienna, which soon went fascist; moved back to Budapest, where anti-Semitism was flourishing; then went to Paris, where he would come of age as a photographer and a man.

• • •

In Paris, Capa met the three people who would become most important to him: Gerda Taro (née Pohorylle); David Szymin, who changed his name to David Seymour but was known as Chim; and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Taro was a German-Jewish refugee, a communist activist, and a budding photographer who became Capa’s great love and his workmate. Chim was a Polish-Jewish intellectual who would photograph many of the same struggles as Capa (and who Capa always considered the better photographer of the two). Cartier-Bresson was an haute-bourgeois Frenchman, drawn to surrealism but also to the left; many now regard him as the twentieth century’s greatest photojournalist. Taro’s photography career, and her relationship with Capa, were brief: in July 1937, at age 26, she was killed in a freak accident while covering the Spanish Civil War, a death from which Capa never recovered. Chim and Cartier-Bresson would found the Magnum cooperative with Capa shortly after World War II. (Nine years later, Chim would be killed covering the Suez War of 1956.)

And in Paris, André Friedmann became Robert Capa. The idea for the transformation came from Taro, who had become his manager—but alas, there wasn’t much to manage. Capa’s talent had been at least nascently recognized in Berlin (Guttman regarded him as “a master,” though he criticized Capa’s work mercilessly); in Paris, though, editors took scant interest in his pictures, and penniless Hungarian photographers were hardly a rarity. Taro, brilliantly intuiting that persona could be as important as product, came up with the idea of transforming Friedmann into Capa (the name probably taken from the film director Frank Capra)—who, she assured potential employers, was a rich, famous, glamorous American whose pictures she was generously offering to them, albeit at inflated prices. And it worked; apparently, rich, famous, fictitious Americans were more attractive than poor, anonymous, all-too-real Hungarians. Even after the ruse was discovered, Capa kept the name; Taro changed hers too, taking the short, sharp, modern-sounding surname of a Japanese painter living in Paris. Capa never became rich, but he would become famous, American, and undeniably glamorous, and throughout his life observers were fascinated by the connection—or contradiction—between the self-creation of his personality and the stubborn realism of his photos. In a 1947 profile, John Hersey wrote: “Capa, who has spent so much energy on inventions for his own person, has deep, human sympathy for men and women trapped in reality.”

The Paris years were key to Capa’s growth: as a photographer who sees the world, as a political person who lives its history, as a human being who loves deeply, and who would therefore know inconsolable loss. Throughout his life, Paris—not Budapest, Berlin, Barcelona, or even Madrid—was Capa’s lodestar, and as he slogged through Europe with Allied troops in the closing months of the war, it was to a liberated Paris that he was determined to return. And he did, riding into the city on a tank with some of his old Spanish republican comrades on August 25, 1944. His photos from those days record something simple yet rare: the particular exuberance of people who have become free citizens once more, and consequently no longer need to grovel. “Never were there so many so happy so early in the morning,” Capa would later write. By then he had seen a lot, by then he was very tough, but on that day his viewfinder blurred with tears.

The Paris years were key to Capa’s growth: as a photographer who sees the world, as a political person who lives its history, as a human being who loves deeply, and who would therefore know inconsolable loss.

If in the Paris of the 1930s Capa found his soul mates, he found something else too, which I believe sustained him through the many wars and the many sorrows he would document. Capa was an ardent Popular Frontist—especially after witnessing the German catastrophe—and the French Front’s electoral victory in 1936 gave him, and Chim, a great subject. Capa, still largely unknown, and Chim, already a staff photographer for the Communist magazine Regards,5 were everywhere: out on the streets for the almost daily, massive demonstrations; in workers’ cafés for drink and debate; at meetings and conventions, polling stations and workers’ funerals; and wherever the strikers were. A particularly lovely photo of Capa’s from this time shows five women sitting in a semicircle on a sunny rooftop; neatly attired and utterly respectable, they wear stockings, black dresses, hair ornaments, though they are probably quite poor. Four of the women smile as they cradle the fifth, who is perhaps exhausted, on their laps; they are shop girls in the midst of a sit-down strike against their employer, the fancy department store Galeries Lafayette.

French politics, of course, were no picnic: fascist and anti-Semitic groups were gaining strength; the left was torn over the Soviet Union; another war seemed imminent; and the country lurched from political crisis to political crisis as the Great Depression, and the desperation it engendered, deepened. Yet there is a zesty sense of pleasure in Capa’s photos, and those of Chim, from this time. (Also, it’s nice to see demonstrators carry portraits of Zola, Voltaire, Diderot, and Gorky rather than of brooding ayatollahs or teenage “martyrs.”) Capa and Chim lived in dark times: each would see family and friends murdered and his old world obliterated. But the Popular Front years gave Capa and his contemporaries something invaluable, which I suspect present-day photojournalists lack: the lived experience of hope for the future, of politics as solidarity, and, at least for a brief time, of victory. In politics as in everything else, the experience of goodness makes the experience of badness more bearable.

This lived knowledge of political possibility marked Capa forever. For it was politics—broadly defined as the ways in which people try to make their world juster, freer, more their own—that seem to have interested him most. War was sometimes a necessity—and the sooner one realized this, the better—but it was never the goal, nor cause for celebration: war was what happened when politics failed. This doesn’t mean that war didn’t engage Capa, challenge him, even excite him; as he once wrote, “For a war correspondent to miss an invasion is like refusing a date with Lana Turner after completing a five-year stretch in Sing Sing.” And Capa clearly believed that fighting back—and fighting for—could occasion pride. Yet Capa could never have said, as did James Nachtwey, that he wanted to be “not a photographer, but a war photographer.” For Capa, it was imperative that war be documented, witnessed, exposed, especially as it became the main fact of life, and of death, for millions of people between 1936 and 1945. (Looking back on that time, Martha Gellhorn wrote that “war was our condition and our history, the place we had to live in.”) But to Capa, it was the lives people lived and the worlds they created that were of utmost interest; for Nachtwey, it is the ways people die and the worlds that are ruined that most strongly compel.

Capa could never have said, as did James Nachtwey, that he wanted to be “not a photographer, but a war photographer.” It was the lives people lived and the worlds they created that were of utmost interest.

It is impossible, for instance, to imagine Nachtwey, or other contemporary photojournalists, passing up the chance to photograph the concentration camps—a choice Capa made in 1945. In his autobiography, Slightly Out of Focus, Capa explained, “From the Rhine to the Oder I took no pictures. The concentration camps were swarming with photographers, and every new picture of horror served only to diminish the total effect.” But this is not, I suspect, the whole story. Capa was not a socialist-realist or a triumphalist: he did not shy away from sadness or suffering; he did not mistake life, much less history or politics, for a series of glorious victories; he did not not scorn the fact that human beings can be easily broken. Certainly he knew that war means fear, filth, disease, starvation, and degradation of all kinds: “misery and death,” he wrote. But from all the evidence of his work, he was almost characterologically averse to photographing the absolute powerlessness and utter humiliation of those who, tortured beyond recognition, have become pure victims, musselmen, the living dead. It was not that he denied the camps, or turned away from them—as a Hungarian Jew, if nothing else, that would have been impossible; it was just that, in the camps’ flat negation of all that is human, he could do nothing with them. “In classical tragedy,” Irving Howe has written, “man is defeated; in the Holocaust, man is destroyed.” It was the former vein, not the latter, in which Capa worked.

Though Capa’s D-Day pictures are his most famous of the war, it is the pictures he took behind the front that demonstrate both his greatest skills (as opposed to his greatest bravery) and his most nuanced understandings. Two photos from the Italian campaign illustrate this best.

On October 1, 1943, Capa entered a decimated Naples with the Allied forces. The next day he photographed the funeral of twenty teenage partisans who had taken up arms in the days preceding the Allies’ arrival. The funeral took place in a school; a teacher had been the boys’ leader. Capa focused on the faces of the black-clad women mourners, and the intensity of this image is so great that we almost hear their wails. Most striking about the photo is its ability to convey not the abstraction of grief, but the specific, variegated ways in which it shows itself.

In the foreground are three women, their black hair pulled away from their faces, their hands knotted together more in torment than in prayer, their faces contorted with pain. One woman epitomizes grief as utter desolation: the wide stretch of her open, sobbing mouth tells us she will never again know comfort. Next to her is a woman holding a photo of a partisan, probably her son; her mouth, opened in a round O, suggests not just sorrow but anger and disbelief too. Beside her stands another mourner; but this one does not cry. Her eyes squeeze into slits, her mouth stretches tight into a sneer of pure rage. Here is the avenging angel of death, the Jean Améry of Naples, for whom forgiveness will be not just an impossibility but an eternal sin. Capa later wrote of these photos:

I entered the school and was met by the sweet, sickly smell of flowers and the dead. In the room were twenty primitive coffins, not well enough covered with flowers and too small to hide the dirty little feet of children—children old enough to fight the Germans and be killed, but just a little too old to fit in children’s coffins. . . . These children’s feet were my real welcome to Europe, I who had been born there. . . . I took off my hat and got out my camera. I pointed the lens at the faces of the prostrated women . . . Those were my truest pictures of victory.

Another picture, taken in Sicily a few months before, is a visual guide to why the war was fought. For democracy, freedom, self-determination? Well, sure; but what do these grand ideas look like? They look like this: a middle-aged man and woman, probably in their fifties, almost certainly husband and wife, stroll down a sunny street in the town of Cefalu two days after its liberation. The woman, with her wide shoulders and large bosom, is pleasantly plump but not fat. She wears a not-timid polka-dotted dress with a white collar, and white platform shoes; her jet-black hair, neatly combed and parted, shines in the sun. Beside her is her smaller, slimmer, nattily dressed partner. He sports a white straw hat with a black band; his suit is neatly buttoned, his tie perfectly straight. The man’s left arm is bent at the elbow, and in his upturned left hand he delicately but firmly carries a piece of bread, which he holds like a valuable gift. The woman’s left arm mimics his exactly, and her small, clasped black pocketbook drapes over it. In her other hand she too carries bread. The couple stands perfectly erect, staring directly and confidently at Capa’s camera; the woman squints slightly at the sun. Here is an image of people who, in their quiet but entirely unapologetic pride, have regained a sense of themselves, of their world, of their place in the universe. Their simple promenade is more moving than a victory parade: they have not only survived but have remained recognizably, implacably, undeniably themselves, and in doing so they have defeated defeat. Theirs is the heroism of everyday life.

• • •

The politics of the Popular Front may seem very far from ours. Yet Capa’s photographs, and Chim’s, remind us of political quandaries that are surprisingly up-to-date. Take, for instance, the most serious question, moral and political, in every time and place: war or peace.

The left of Capa’s day was antiwar; indeed, staunch aversion to another world war was a bedrock principle of leftists, who distinguished themselves from the glorified militarism espoused by the right. (An eerie 1929 photograph of a Communist-led antiwar demonstration in Berlin shows six protestors facing the camera in costumed gas-mask goggles; they look both deadly and carnivalesque.) In July 1936, Capa covered a large international peace rally commemorating the battle of Verdun. Among the delegates were German veterans and blind ones from France; some of the vets, protesting the political and military madness of the First World War, refused to march in step. Throughout the French left, “Paix au Monde” was a slogan of the day—shouted at demonstrations, painted onto posters, printed in leaflets, demanded by party platforms. One of Chim’s most striking photos from this time shows a peace rally in St. Cloud in which we see a series of larger-than-life, starkly modern, graphically powerful posters. One shows a helmeted soldier, head drooping, nailed to a cross; another insists, accurately, that “War is Insanity!” A third poster shows a huge, muscular man—a modern-day Samson—with a bare, bulging chest, breaking a rifle over his knee. Above him is a single word: “Disarm”; behind him are various national flags, including those of Japan and the United States.

Unlike today, much of the left in Capa’s time was not pacifist, isolationist, or suspicious of using military power, especially as the fascist movements gained strength.

Yet unlike today, much of the left in Capa’s time was not pacifist, isolationist, or suspicious of using military power, especially as the fascist movements gained strength. Certainly, with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, it was the left that demanded international military intervention and the right that was associated with isolationism or, depending on one’s view, appeasement. (The left did flirt with non-intervention after the Hitler–Stalin pact, but most of us, I suspect, regard that as a huge mistake on political and moral grounds.) This is a distinction that has largely been lost in our time, despite the carnage in Rwanda, Bosnia, Sudan, Congo, Liberia . . . Perhaps inevitably, the debacle-laden war in Iraq has vastly strengthened the left’s isolationism, which is sometimes a thoughtful principle and sometimes a sober position, but at others is closer to a knee-jerk response or to moralistic self-love. Writing shortly after America’s post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan, Ellen Willis criticized what she called the “vulgar pacifism” of the left, which, she charged, amounts “to little more than the conviction that war is a yucky nasty thing we shouldn’t have to deal with. . . . Whatever the circumstance, the dogma remained constant: violence is bad; any military action by the United States is imperialist.” Willis noted her dismay at an antiwar sign from the first Gulf War that read, “Nothing is worth dying for”—a sentiment that would not only have vexed Capa but puzzled him, too. One cannot look at Capa’s photos—of France, of Spain, of China, of the Second World War—without engaging the thorny problem of how to be pro-peace and anti-tyranny, and without realizing that one cannot always be both.

• • •

Capa’s photographs from Spain plunged viewers into the heart of battle in ways that now seem iconic—or clichéd—but at the time were radically new: unsettling, nerve-wracking, even terrifying. But it was also in Spain that Capa learned how the real story, the best photos, and the meaning of the war would be found not in a hail of bullets but “at the edge of things,” as Richard Whelan has written. (This was even more true of Chim, whose need to wear eyeglasses largely kept him from the front.) Capa’s photos zipped around the world—appearing in Vu, Regards, Picture Post, and Life, among others—and made him a star. (After Taro’s death and that of the Republic, this may have shamed him.) And such photographs had a moral and political impact that may be hard for us to imagine, living as we do in a picture-glutted, violence-glutted age. Capa’s viewers lived, in contrast, before the avalanche—of history, and of images. As the media historian Caroline Brothers has written, “With seemingly everyone from writers to politicians to the Liverpudlian unemployed taking sides over Spain, the civil war took on an unprecedented urgency in the way it was lived and believed in and represented. More than in any previous war and possibly any war since, photographs of Spain became images not just of but in conflict. And none of them was indifferent.”

In Spain, Capa developed his style, especially the ability to endow seemingly mundane details and moments with symbolic import. A photo he took in Bilbao in 1937 shows a stout, middle-aged woman and a small girl, probably mother and daughter, hurrying to find shelter at the start of an air raid. The mother, in a flowered dress and an open black coat, looks toward the sky as she holds the girl’s hand; the daughter, in black Mary Janes and white anklets, frowns with worry. Her coat is buttoned, but buttoned wrong: one side, crooked, hangs too low. Appearances, this photo suggests, must be kept up even in wartime—except they can’t be, for everything that happens is too fast and too scary.

Another Bilbao photo shows how amiability and fear, the everyday and the abnormal, coexist in war. Four women and a child sit on a sandbag, waiting to see if the danger suggested by a warning siren (there were sometimes 20 per morning) merits going underground; the women pass the time knitting and chatting, their feet dangling, their heads protected from the sun by paper napkins. Capa himself denied that he had any style to develop; in Spain he insisted, “The pictures are there, and you just take them.” This may have been false modesty or anti-intellectualism on his part, but it was also an accurate assessment of how it felt to work, quickly and instinctively, in a place where everyday life was endowed with high drama.6

Rubble is rubble: it says nothing about circumstance; it does not assign blame. With faces the question becomes more complex.

And where, Capa felt, right and wrong were so obvious. Capa went to Spain less than three weeks after the war broke out, and his take on it was unabashedly partisan. And although Spain certainly had a native intelligentsia that was pro-Franco (though much of it was on the left), most of the foreign intellectuals who flocked to the war shared Capa’s pro-Loyalist sympathies: reporters such as Gellhorn, Egon Kisch, and Vincent Sheean; novelists such as Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos; poets such as Octavio Paz and W.H. Auden; the Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens; and writers such as George Orwell and André Malraux, both of whom wrote about Spain but fought there first. (In our time, the closest analogy to this may be the Bosnian War, which produced fierce, partisan, pro-intervention works from the journalists David Rieff, Peter Maass, and Ed Vuilliamy, the filmmaker Marcel Ophüls, and the photographers Ron Haviv and Gilles Peress, among others.) For Capa, partisanship wasn’t a problem: it was the purpose. “In a war,” Capa told Gellhorn, “you must hate somebody or love somebody; you must have a position or you cannot stand what goes on.” A political stance didn’t occlude vision but instead made it possible.

Spain became Capa’s template. Each subsequent war he covered—China’s fight against the Japanese, Europe’s fight against Hitler, Israel’s fight for independence—was viewed through the Spanish prism: viewed, that is, as a struggle between fascism and democracy, or between tyranny and freedom, or between oppression (including anti-Semitism) and justice. (The battered but idealistic refugees flocking to Israel reminded him of the Spanish Loyalists; the biographer Alex Kershaw wrote that Israel in 1948 was “Capa’s most personal war.”) Capa never doubted—or even had to ask—which side he was on, and he sat out conflicts, such as the one in Korea, that didn’t speak strongly to his conscience. The exception, ironically, may have been the war in French Indochina, about which he was not known to have strong feelings; some friends were surprised that he went there, and the reasons he did are still in dispute. Capa had great respect for the French army and affection for the French, but it’s doubtful that he would have supported their colonial adventure. Still, in 1954 he was not necessarily a “premature anti-colonialist” as he had been an early and resolute opponent of fascism.

• • •

Capa’s pictures from Spain raise, in a particularly pointed way, the question of how much a photograph can actually tell us and how much we endow it with our own subsequently gained knowledge—or project onto it our preexisting beliefs, prejudices, and feelings. In some ways this is an impossible question: separating the dancer from the dance—or the image from its context—is particularly hard when it comes to photography. A long line of critics, from Bertolt Brecht to John Berger to Susan Sontag, has argued that photographs contain no inherent meaning, especially when it comes to political ethics. “Moral feelings are embedded in history,” Sontag wrote. “The images that mobilize conscience are always linked to a given historical situation. . . . What determines the possibility of being affected morally by photographs is the existence of a relevant political consciousness.” And certainly this is true of some of Capa’s photos: the blasted ruins of Madrid, which he photographed in the first winter of the Civil War, don’t look much different than would the blasted buildings of Dresden eight years later. Rubble is rubble: it says nothing about circumstance; it does not assign blame.

With faces—and it was the individual face rather than the group in battle that most interested Capa—the question becomes more complex. Certainly it would be hard to tell who is who—not to mention what he did, and why—from some of Capa’s portraits. Capa’s autobiography contains, for instance, a shot of a young Resistance fighter taken on the day Paris was liberated. He is handsome, with high cheekbones, a strong chin, and a shock of thick hair, and he stares with a slight frown at something in the distance. He looks determined and thoughtful; perhaps he is remembering the many things he wishes he had never seen or done. But in age, facial type, and even expression, he looks strikingly similar to another young man pictured in the book: an equally handsome, equally chiseled, equally serious SS officer captured at Normandy, though the latter’s expression might suggest a bit more anger. (The most obvious difference, though, is purely material: the résistant wears homemade medals.) We can safely surmise that Capa’s attitude toward these two young men was different. But there is little in the pictures alone to tell us so.

Capa’s portraits of Loyalist militiamen have been widely reproduced (though not as widely as “Falling Soldier”). The Loyalist army was a ragtag, unusually democratic affair, composed in the main of workers and peasants; it was amateur, ill equipped, badly trained, politically committed, and highly egalitarian if not anarchist. It was also, at least until the spring of 1937, “disastrous” from a military standpoint, in the words of the Spanish historian Juan P. Fusi Aizpùrua.

To me, these are among Capa’s most moving photos. The men brim with a kind of gentle seriousness, their faces suggesting humility without submission, strength without rancor, conviction without cruelty. These are men who have lived hard lives—Spain was among the poorest, most backward countries in western Europe—but they do not look hardened to the world, nor to the future; their faces affirm the coexistence of compassion and principle. The men look, somehow, rooted in the world, irrevocably committed to a cause yet without that ugly tinge of fanatical rage we have come to know so well: if brotherhood had a face, this would be it.7 But do these men look like this because I already know what I know and think what I think (and because I want to)? Taking away the ragged clothes and improvised getups, did fascist soldiers, or supporters, look any different?

It’s not what’s in the frame or what’s outside the frame that matters most; it’s in the relation between the two that the meaning and strength of documentary photographs can be found.

In some sense this too is unanswerable. Vast numbers of images were taken during this period—Spain was the first war that was “covered” in the modern sense—and any generalization invites refutation. Some avowedly pro-Franco papers, such as Le Matin, did send their own photographers to cover the war, though I know of no pro-Franco photographer with a body of work to compare to Capa’s or Chim’s, just as I know of no fascist counterpart to Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia or Malraux’s Man’s Hope8; indeed, the history of documentary photography has been predominantly if not overwhelmingly located in a left-liberal humanism. (Sontag, perhaps a bit too tartly, described this as “hovering about the oppressed.”) Certainly, though, photographers supporting the Nationalist side frequently depicted their soldiers—as did Capa and Chim—as courageous, committed, and stoic: they too were fighting for a cause. George Orwell himself claimed that “photographs of groups of defenders” of the Alcazar—a reference to pro-Franco troops and civilians—“are so like groups of Republican militiamen that if they were changed round no one would know the difference.”

This was sometimes true. Yet photographs taken by pro-Franco photographers were often distinct from those of and by Loyalists—especially when the subject was not groups of soldiers, or battles. (Warfare, like prison and illness, is a leveling experience.) Capa’s aim was persuasion, but persuasion of a particular kind: he sought, as Richard Whelan has written, to “repersonalize war”—not to dazzle us, as fascist images often do, with the might of the state or the triumph of the will. Capa wanted us to support his cause, but he wanted us to do so, at least in part, by sensing the prosaic realities of the people behind it: by sensing, that is, the beauty, the difficulty, the decency, and the human connections of their daily lives. It’s not that Falangist soldiers didn’t kiss their babies before leaving for the front; it’s just that they probably didn’t take photos of themselves doing so or, if they did, display them prominently, as did Chim on the cover of his book War in Spain, Vol. 1 and Capa on the frontispiece of Death in the Making.

In Capa’s iconography, a Loyalist soldier was not a ruthless warmonger but an ordinary man (and, occasionally, woman) who had been forced to defend what he loves; the threadbare Loyalist militias were depicted as the essence of an organic people’s army. In contrast, writes Caroline Brothers, pro-Franco photographs were notable for “the lack of connections drawn between the [Francoist] Insurgents and the people of Spain. Instead these publications promoted a paternalistic ideology. The army was a class apart . . . while their rapport with the rest of the nation went virtually unexplored.” Rather than the sense of spontaneous joy and dignified hardship that characterize the photos of Capa and Chim, pro-Franco photographs often focused on scenes conveying discipline, military prowess, and, above all, victory.9 But even victory was defined differently by the opposing sides. An ordinary yet striking photograph taken in Falangist Malaga shows a group of women raising their right arms in the fascist salute. The women look not just somber but grim, their mouths taut, their eyes wary. Some have draped their heads in long black scarves. One woman, prominently displayed in the front row, has a narrow, sad face with high cheekbones; her black hair is severely parted in the center; her head, modestly covered, tilts slightly to one side. She looks like a Spanish Madonna. But a Madonna of abjection: chillingly, she kneels on the ground as she gives the salute.

The more we look, the more difficult it becomes to evade the crucial ways that photographs are insufficient: seeing may lead to believing, but it does not lead to knowing.

And while Capa focused on the devastation to civilians caused by the bombing raids, pro-Nationalist photographers focused on the Loyalists’ desecration of churches, especially as Franco framed the war as a holy crusade against the enemies of Christ.10 Most of all, though, despite Orwell’s claim, I have never seen the particular blend of tenderness, humility, determination, sorrow, and fervent hope that characterize Capa’s portraits reproduced by Falangist photographers; indeed, that “look” has come to be associated, in an almost Pavlovian way, with republican Spain. And this is no accident, both for political and aesthetic reasons. First, the Loyalist cause did create a particular kind of idealistic commitment which, though not entirely sui generis (what is?), was nonetheless uncommon. Second, pro-Franco photographers, and their editors, were seeking—and therefore finding—something different than were Capa and Chim; for fascist aesthetics, as Sontag observed, are fixated on “two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude.” What could interest Capa less—or repel him more?11

Still, appearances don’t tell us everything, and they can be notoriously deceptive. Criminals can look innocent, liars honest, cowards brave. (And everyone loves their babies.) But while appearances don’t tell us everything, they must tell us something; if not, who would ever bother to look at a photograph—or, for that matter, at the world? What the photograph offers us—and this is true of no other form of either art or reportage—is a unique, and uniquely powerful, dialectic between immediate appearance and the longer-standing associations, subtexts, and bodies of knowledge that we bring to it. It’s not what’s in the frame or what’s outside the frame that matters most; it’s in the relation between the two that the meaning and strength of documentary photographs can be found.

That relation, however, is neither linear nor easy. Look, for instance, at Alfred Eisenstaedt’s 1933 portrait of Joseph Goebbels, taken at the League of Nations meeting in Geneva. Goebbels sits outside on a chair, a pleasant lawn with a gracious building behind him. But the picture is not pleasant or gracious and suggests, at the very least, intense anxiety. Goebbels tightly grips the chair’s arms; behind him stands an aide, looking down, while on his right stands another, bent over, handing him a paper. Shrunken and enclosed, Goebbels looks up at the camera with a scowl; his eyes are hooded, his cheeks hollow. It’s no wonder that this picture has been said to show, as one writer put it, “exactly what educated evil looks like.” And Goebbels does look creepy and morose, with a sinister hint of the ressentiment that would prove so costly to so many.12

Yet what strikes me about this photo, looking at it some seven decades after it was taken, is how far it falls short—as it must—of evoking, much less showing “exactly,” how evil looks. Rather than personifying evil, the image reveals how inadequate photographs often are: how often, that is, they fail to capture the reality of the world. For what facial expression or body language, what scowl or sneer or glare, could possibly convey the barbarism that would culminate in Auschwitz? The human face and the human body are simply not that capacious: the bad things we do are infinitely worse than the bad ways we look. Even the photographs taken at Auschwitz cannot communicate what happened there, much less why; even the faces of the victims only hint at the anguish, only skim the surface of the depravity, only begin to suggest the cruelties that remain unimaginable though they are real.

Indeed, the more we look, the more difficult it becomes to evade the crucial ways that photographs, including those as powerful as Eisenstaedt’s, are insufficient: seeing may lead to believing, but it does not lead to knowing. And this insufficiency feels less like an innocuous shortcoming than like a type of treachery—and, like many betrayals, has bred an unforgiving anger. Brecht, for instance, believed that all photographs were gross simplifications—part of the problem rather than of the solution—and insisted that “photojournalism has contributed practically nothing to the revelation of the truth about the conditions in this world.” Roland Barthes chastised the photograph as “stupid,” “stubborn,” “heavy,” “flat,” and “undialectical.” And who can say they’re entirely wrong?

Capa’s images are anti-fascist in both subject and substance: not just because they are of anti-fascists but because they honor complex, imperfect, deeply scarred, and heretofore unpraised humanity.

Still, it seems churlish to continually deride photographs for their inability to tell us more than they do. Photographs are radically imperfect, in that they cannot express complete truths; their failure to do so continually disappoints us. But then most things in life are radically imperfect; and their deficiencies, too, are sources of deep frustration. (In this sense, photographs, far from being a kind of magic, are entirely ordinary.) When it comes to documentary photographs, the attempt to make them into something they are not, or to punish them for what they are, bears less and less fruit. So too does the effort to separate image from context, or to anoint one as more vital than the other. Why choose between the emotional immediacy of the photograph and the larger, more complex histories that underlie it? Better, instead, to recognize what each can—and cannot—offer us as we try to make sense of our poorly designed world.

Capa’s images help us do that, which is why we return to them again and again. His photographs—in Spain, in France, in China, in Israel—record the twentieth century’s moment of militant humanism; and they do this partly through what he, working at the time, brought to them and partly through what we, looking back, bring to them. They are anti-fascist in both subject and substance: anti-fascist, that is, not just because they are of anti-fascists but because they honor complex, imperfect, deeply scarred, and heretofore unpraised humanity. They show us that human beings suffer, and make us want to know why; they show us that human beings endure, and make us want to know how.

Capa gave us scenes from a broken world, but he never suggested that destruction is our natural state. He believed that men and women could unite, at least in some times and in some places, on the basis of camaraderie, hope, and intelligence rather than hate, fear, and stupidity: he had seen it himself. He believed that politics could be simultaneously democratic and collective and that history, especially good history, could be made from the bottom up—democracy really was in the streets—and he wanted, naturally, to show what this type of freedom, and the people who made it, looked like. Octavio Paz wrote that the faces he had seen in Spain were “open to the transcendent,” and that he never saw such faces anywhere again. This may strike our postmodern, anti-utopian, proudly disillusioned selves as ridiculously if not unforgivably romantic; perhaps it is. But it also may be true; when I look at Robert Capa’s photographs, I think so.

 

Notes

1. The persecution and “liquidation” of the POUM is utterly indefensible; but I am still not sure, pace Orwell and latter-day defenders such as Christopher Hitchens, that the group’s political strategy was the right one.

2. In March 1919 a Communist regime took power, to be overthrown 133 days later; it was followed by the “White Terror” invasion by Romania and a series of impotent governments. In addition, the Treaty of Trianon in 1920 dismembered Hungary, taking away two thirds of its land and 58 percent of its population. Visiting Budapest in 1930, H.L. Mencken wrote, “Budapest is magnificent, but it looks like an empty ballroom.”

3. Jews constituted six percent of Hungary’s population but 34 percent of its university enrollees in 1917–1918. By 1935–1936 that number had fallen to eight percent, due to quotas passed in 1920 and other factors.

4. In August 1933 an extraordinarily ugly document—a list of working photographers identified as German, Jewish, or foreign—was published in the magazine Deutsche Nachrichten, leading to purges of the undesirables. But as early as 1920 the ethnic cleansing of the German press was part of the Nazi platform.

5. Other contributors to Regards included the writers Ilya Ehrenburg and Tristan Tzara, and the German photomontage artist John Heartfield.

6. Years later, the combat photographer Kyoichi Sawada would say of the Vietnam War, “If you’re there, you get good photographs.” He won a Pulitzer.

7. None of this is meant to deny that the job of the Loyalist militias, as of all armies, was to kill; this they did, sometimes with great brutality. Nonetheless, forging a moral or political equivalence between the fascist and Loyalist factions is, in my view, impossible. In every war, each side kills the other, but this is not to say that each side’s motivations, world view, overall behavior, or ultimate aims are necessarily the same.

8. Pro-Nazi novels and memoirs of the war were written in Germany, though they have been largely and probably mercifully forgotten. As the historian Peter Monteath wrote, “One may search in vain for a work of literary quality on the Civil War published in Hitler’s Germany.” Similarly, the Nazi papers’ coverage of the war is described by the media historian Joachim Schmitt-Sasse as “a discouragingly large quantity of uninspiring material.”

9. The German curator Sigrid Schneider, in her analysis of Spanish Civil War photographs carried by the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung (which was by then a pro-Nazi paper), noted the absence of “peacetime photos, such as village or school scenes. There are no touching shots of soldiers taking leave of their children; no everyday happenings.”

10. A grisly picture, taken in the earliest days of the Barcelona uprising, shows the skeletal corpses of nuns—some in open coffins—littering the steps of a church. It is possible, however, that this picture was originally taken to show not the perfidy of the sacrilegious Loyalists, but rather in celebration of the act. Not only church buildings were destroyed: thousands of priests and hundreds of nuns were massacred by the Loyalists, especially in the early days of the war.

11. For the most part, fascist photographs and films—at least those we have inherited as canonical—were not characterized by the kind of individual portraits at which Capa excelled; they tended, rather, to concentrate on monumental, regimented groups that would shock and awe. It was the perfectly coordinated, overwhelming, undifferentiated mass—preferably one that had been whipped into an almost orgasmic frenzy—that interested fascists most. (Goebbels lauded the “delirium of unconsciousness” that characterized Nazi rallies, and he loved Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will for its presentation of what he called, not inaccurately, “the ecstatic event of our political life.”) In this scheme, the ordinary individual—vulnerable, flawed, unpredictably herself—is both dangerous and uninteresting. It is therefore no surprise, and certainly no accident, that the Nazis stopped, and destroyed, the work of August Sander, the German portrait photographer who, in the 25 years before World War II, exhaustively recorded the diversity of ordinary Germans, from cleaning women to aristocrats. Sander was not a radical (though his son, Eric, was a Communist and died in a Gestapo prison). But his vision—modest yet insightful, cool yet thoughtful, and above all curious—clearly had no place in the glorious new reich.

12. Eisenstaedt later said of his portraits of Goebbels and other Nazis, “I have been asked how I felt photographing these men. Naturally, not so good, but when I have a camera in my hand I know no fear.”