Biography of Robert Capa
Childhood and Education
Robert Capa was born Endre Friedmann into a working-class Jewish family. His parents, Dezsö Friedmann and Julianna Berkovits, ran a dress salon in Pest, Hungary where his father worked as a tailor. His brother Kornel was born five years later.
Capa had a relatively happy childhood and while he did not excel in school, he made friends easily and had an affable charm. As a teenager, he fell in with a group of student activists. Although he was not politically active, his affiliation with the group brought him to the attention of the Hungarian police, who later hauled him in for questioning regarding his presumed Communist sympathies. While in custody, he was beaten by interrogators, but they ultimately let him go when they found nothing for which to convict him. It is believed that a wealthy and connected client of his father's arranged his release on the condition that Capa immediately leave Hungary.
At just seventeen-years-old Capa was forced into exile. In 1931 he arrived in Berlin and quickly applied for, and received, a scholarship to begin his studies in political science at the Deutsche Hochschule Für Politik. Before long, he had grown bored with his classes and was struggling to pay for his food and lodgings. His parents were no longer able to send him money and it was necessary for him to find a way to support himself financially. Despite his interest in journalism, he turned instead to photography as a means of steady income. Explaining the decision Capa stated, "while pursuing my studies my parents' means gave out, and I decided to become a photographer, which was the nearest thing to journalism for anyone who found himself without a language." A friend introduced Capa to photographer Otto Umbehr (Umbo), who gave him work in his Dephot (Deutscher Photodienst) photography agency. Capa started as a darkroom assistant and quickly worked his way up, teaching himself to shoot with the agency's Leica cameras. By the summer of 1932 had left college to pursue a career as a photographer.
In November 1932 Capa received his first big assignment from Dephot to photograph a Leon Trotsky lecture in Copenhagen. The Trotsky images were part of a major magazine story that included his name with the photo credits for the first time. Although his assignments increased, he was forced to leave Berlin in 1933 with the rise of Hitler's Nazi party. He received permission to return to Hungary over the summer to visit his family, and several months later he settled in Paris.
Capa's first months in Paris were not easy. According to journalist Alex Kershaw, he was forced to sell his Leica camera for money on numerous occasions and even tried to fish in the Seine river for food. His luck eventually changed when he met photographer David "Chim" Seymour at a Paris café. Through Chim he was introduced to fellow photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. The three men would become lifelong friends.
Still struggling to get work, Capa's fortunes began to change when his friend, and former colleague from Dephot, Simon Guttmann, arrived in France and helped him get his first major assignment since his move to Paris. The assignment took Capa to Spain, where he photographed boxer Paolino Uzcudun and hot-air balloonist Emilio Herrera.
It was also at this time, in 1934, that Capa met Gerda Pohorylles (later Gerda Taro), a Swiss woman living in Paris. Like Capa, she had fled Germany the previous year when Hitler rose to power. The two quickly fell in love and began living and working together. Pohorylles played an important role in changing Capa's career trajectory. During her time at the international picture agency Alliance Photo, she began promoting his photographs as those of a mythical American figure named Bob Capa. She sold his images for three times that of the average European photographer by claiming that they were by a well-known American photographer who believed the French would pay too little for his work. Intrigued, agencies began buying his photos. Only when the ruse was discovered was he forced to come clean and permanently change his name to Robert Capa. Not long after, Gerda Pohorylles changed her last name to Taro. Capa's brother Kornel, also a photographer, followed his brother's lead and changed his name to Cornell Capa.
Following his name change, demand steadily increased for Capa's images. Working as a freelance photographer, he received numerous assignments in and around Paris. His first significant assignment as a war photographer came in 1936, when Lucien Vogel of Vu magazine sent him to cover the civil war raging in Spain. He went with Taro, and the two were in a plane crash but, remarkably, they were both unharmed. It was in Spain, in September 1936, that he took his famous photograph, The Falling Soldier. Of this time, Capa said, "no tricks are necessary to take pictures in Spain. You don't have to pose your camera. The pictures are there, and you just take them. The truth is the best picture, the best propaganda." His coverage of the Spanish Civil War led to a feature spread in Life magazine in November of 1936, thus initiating a long working relationship with the magazine.
Although his time in Spain was a professional high point for Capa, it was also marked by personal tragedy. His partner Gerda Taro, who stayed behind in Spain while Capa traveled to Paris for work in July 1937, died when the car she was traveling in was struck by a tank. Widely considered to be the first female photojournalist to die while covering a war, Taro's death profoundly impacted Capa. Racked with grief, he never fully got over the loss and while he went on to have numerous relationships, he never married. Years later, when referring to Taro, he often called her his wife. According to Kershaw, "in Henri Cartier-Bresson's eyes, it was if a veil had been thrown over Capa. The man who eventually emerged from behind it was, as others saw him altogether different: cynical, ever more opportunistic, at times deeply nihilistic, afraid of attachment, permanently brokenhearted."
Having made a name for himself with his coverage of the war in Spain, Capa's career began to thrive. Beginning in early 1938, he spent six months in China filming a documentary about the Sino-Japanese War and then stayed to photograph the action, shooting the first ever war images in color. He then returned to Spain to cover the country's fall to General Franco. While in Spain he befriended writers Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, who were both there on assignment. When Life magazine published a story about Hemingway's time in Spain, it included a series of photographs by Capa. By this time his work was widely popular and in December 1938 a photo spread of his images of war-torn Spain included the caption "The Greatest War-Photographer in the World: Robert Capa." Many years later, in 2007, a suitcase containing some 4500 negatives of the Spanish Civil War by Capa, Taro, and Chim, was discovered in Mexico. Assumed lost since 1939, the images and the story behind them were the subject of a documentary film, The Mexican Suitcase, and a traveling exhibition at the International Center of Photography (the museum founded by Robert Capa's brother Cornell).
In 1939, as World War II broke out across Europe, Capa fled persecution once again and travelled to New York City to visit his mother and brother who were now living there. Taking a job at Life magazine, he spent several months on assignment in Mexico covering their presidential elections. Nevertheless, Capa's hunger for action could not be quenched and he returned to England in 1941 to begin covering the war. He was sent to the front in March 1943 with the Allied forces in North Africa and later covered the fighting in Italy. He took many important photographs during the War, but none more famous than his image of the first group of American troops to come ashore in Normandy on D-Day. His final WWII images were taken when he parachuted with American troops to capture the German city of Leipzig.
The stress of the war and watching people die around him ultimately took its toll on Capa. In addition to a bout of malaria in Italy, he suffered from battle fatigue and depression. But, after years of covering the horrors of war, he was elated to cover the liberation of Paris with Ernest Hemingway. While in Paris, the two friends had a falling out over a picture Capa took when the author was thrown into a ditch during an accident. Hemingway felt that Capa should have retreated, but instead he stayed and took photos of the accident, which Hemingway took as an attempt to make him look like a fool. While they remained friends, they were never as close again after that incident.
Despite the seriousness of Capa's work, he knew how to enjoy life and had a large group of celebrity friends. In addition to his friendship with Hemingway and Gellhorn, he spent time traveling with author John Steinbeck, hung out with director John Houston and actor Gene Kelley, and he knew Pablo Picasso and his family. He also had numerous affairs with beautiful women; most notably his years' long affair with the then-married Ingrid Bergman, who he met in Paris. Although they had to keep their relationship out of the public eye, he followed her to Hollywood in 1946 and became an American citizen. During this time he wrote his memoir Slightly Out of Focus: The Legendary Photojournalist's Illustrated Memoir of World War II, which he hoped (but never managed) to turn into a screenplay.
After his brief stint in Hollywood, a place where he never felt entirely at home, Capa returned to Europe eager to get back to his work as a photojournalist. By this time, he and his cohort were tired of the ongoing exploitation of freelance photojournalists by large magazines. Capa and his friends sought to change the situation after his return to Paris. In 1947, working with Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger, David "Chim" Seymour, and William Vandiver, he founded Magnum Photos, a cooperative photo agency, which allowed its members to maintain copyright of their own images. Regarding the creation of Magnum he later stated, "why be exploited by others? Let's exploit ourselves." Magnum Photos, which now includes nearly one hundred photographers from around the globe, is still in existence today and continues to promote Capa's work and legacy.
Capa's significant post-World War II assignments included covering Russia with John Steinbeck and a return to Israel to document the country's independence and the subsequent fighting that began in the days after. The photographs he took in Russia ultimately landed him in trouble with the government. Even worse, the money he made from selling his Russia photographs to Ladies' Home Journal drew the attention of the FBI. They had been keeping a file on him since the 1930s that questioned his links to Communism. The Russia photographs were enough, it seems, to merit further scrutiny. As a result, in 1953 his passport was suspended by the United States for several months, which limited his ability to work. He was later forced to make a formal statement to the FBI that he had never been a member of a Communist Party. His passport was eventually renewed with the restriction that he could no longer visit any "Iron Curtain countries." This unpleasant experience was exacerbated by his severe back pain and a brief hospitalization.
Capa's last major assignment began in April 1954 when he traveled to Japan to work for the Mainichi Press. While there he received an offer from Life magazine to fill in as a replacement photographer to cover the French war in Indo-China. Although he had grown tired of covering war and its atrocities, he accepted the assignment. While traveling with a convoy on the Red River Delta (Vietnam), Capa was killed by a landmine as he photographed soldiers advancing through a field. He was forty-years-old. In the end, Capa died as he spent much of his career: on the frontlines with his camera. As General René Cogny stated after his death, "Capa fell as a soldier among soldiers."
The Legacy of Robert Capa
Robert Capa defined what it was to be a war photographer, laying the foundation for future generations of photojournalists working in the field. According to journalist Alex Kershaw, "Capa was the first photographer to make photojournalism appear glamorous and sexy." Not only was he among the first photographers to bring his camera onto the battlefield, he was also often embedded with the troops, traveling with them from one war zone to the next. His proximity to the stories he told through his photographs, succeeded in bringing the realities of war and conflict to the viewer with an immediacy that was previously unheard of. This proximity also, importantly, signaled the very real dangers of life as a war photographer. Part of what made Capa's images so powerful and visually engaging was his ability to humanize his subjects and tell something of their stories. It is this approach that has come to define photojournalism in the years since.
Another, equally important, aspect of Capa's legacy was the creation of Magnum Photos. Still thriving today, Magnum Photos, a collective photo agency that provides images to publications around the world, allowed freelance photographers to better control their images, how they are used, and the money made from them. At Magnum, Capa's legacy is still very much alive. His influence can be seen in the next generation of Magnum photographers, including Eve Arnold, Elliott Erwitt, Burt Glinn, Inge Morath, Marc Riboud, and such contemporary photographers as Susan Meiselas, Tim Hetherington, Philip Jones-Griffiths, Don McCullin, and James Nachtwey.
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
First published on 20 Oct 2019. Updated and modified regularly