Robert Capa and
the Spanish Civil War

Courage, loyalty and empathy

From 1936 to 1954, robert capa photographed five wars and set the standard by which photojournalists are judged. Of all the conflicts he covered, it was his first, the Spanish Civil War, that established his defining characteristics: passionate commitment, readiness to take sides, a willingness to share the hardships of the people he photographed and an ability to reconcile great ideals with sympathy and respect for individuals.

Growing up in Budapest, where he had been born Endre Friedmann in 1913 to middle-class Jewish parents, Capa (he took the more dramatic name in 1936) never dreamed of becoming a war photographer—or, indeed, a photographer at all. He was, however, interested in social and political reform. His mentor was poet and painter Lajos Kassák, who led a group dedicated to socialism and avant-garde art. Their magazine, Munka (Work), published the work of the American reformer photographers Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine.

As a teen-ager Capa planned on a career as a reporter. Journalism, he thought, would enable him to combine his loves of politics and literature.

As a result of his participation in leftist, pro-labor demonstrations against Adm. Miklós Horthy’s conservative, anti-Semitic and authoritarian regime, Capa was exiled from Hungary in 1931, at the age of 17. He went to Berlin to study journalism, but the international economic depression soon forced him to leave school.

Through Hungarian friends he got a job as an errand boy and darkroom assistant at Dephot, a photographic agency that concentrated on human interest themes and represented an impressive list of photojournalists, where he was soon initiated into photojournalism. Dephot’s founder, Simon Guttmann, an eccentric character active in German avant-garde art and radical politics, became one of the most influential in a succession of mentors for Capa.

Hitler’s seizure of dictatorial powers after the Reichstag fire, late in February 1933, forced Capa to leave Germany. He first went to Vienna, where he stayed for a few months with the family of Dephot photographer Harald Leichenperg. He returned to Budapest briefly in the summer and then moved on to Paris.

In the spring of 1935, Capa’s former boss at Dephot arranged for him to go to Spain to work on several assignments for German magazines. He went first to San Sebastián, where he did a story on the daily life of boxer Paolino Uzcudun, whose third fight with the German champion Max Schmeling was scheduled to take place in Berlin on July 7. Then Capa went on to Madrid to photograph Juan de la Cierva, who, in 1923, had invented a forerunner of the helicopter. Unfortunately he refused to show Capa his machine, saying that he was now interested only in linguistics.

Having covered the great parade in Madrid on April 14 to celebrate the fourth anniversary of the Spanish Republic, Capa proceeded to Seville for Holy Week. He felt a great affinity with the warmth, exuberance and generosity of the Spanish people, and his letters to his family, filled with accounts of his misadventures, read like a picaresque Spanish novel. With his dark good looks and his Spanish-sounding pseudonymous surname, Capa easily passed for a Spaniard—all the more so once he picked up a smattering of Spanish and began calling himself Roberto.

In july 1936 an alliance of monarchists and fascists, led by Gen. Francisco Franco, launched a civil war to overthrow the legitimately elected government of the Spanish Republic. Because Franco received aid from Germany and Italy, many young men and women in Europe and America felt that if they volunteered to aid the Republic, they would have an opportunity to fight fascism with more than words—and perhaps even to inflict a defeat so decisive that the international fascist movement would be universally discredited, thereby preventing the world war that otherwise seemed inevitable.

Both Capa and his girlfriend, the vivacious, clever and ambitious Gerda Taro, whom he had taught the rudiments of photography, were eager to use their cameras to win worldwide support for the Spanish Republic and the anti-fascist cause. They got their opportunity slightly more than two weeks after the outbreak of the war. Because Capa had recently had several very strong stories published in the French photographic magazine Vu, the owner of the magazine, Lucien Vogel, invited him and Taro to join a group of journalists he was flying to Barcelona to work on a special issue covering the Spanish Civil War.

After photographing in Barcelona, Capa and Taro went to the stalemated Aragón front, where they visited the militia of the Trotskyite POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista) that George Orwell would serve with that winter. Capa and Taro then moved south toward Andalucía. Republican forces had begun an offensive to recover Córdoba, and the Madrid government reported new advances daily, even emptily boasting that its troops had entered the city. For photographers eager to cover Republican victories, the Córdoba front was a compelling destination.

There, just outside the tiny village of Cerro Muriano, on September 5, 1936, a 22-year-old Capa made one of his most famous images, perhaps the greatest of all war photographs—that of a Republican militiaman who has just been shot and is collapsing into death.

The internal evidence of the series of photographs to which that picture belongs suggests that Capa ran down a barren hillside with the vanguard of a Republican attack, and, as they came into range of an enemy emplacement, he threw himself down and hugged the ground (as we can see from the camera angle); from there he photographed several men as they were shot in succession. “Falling Soldier” received its first publication soon afterward in the September 23, 1936, issue of Vu.

In 1975, a controversy began over the authenticity of Capa’s great photograph when O’Dowd Gallagher, an elderly British journalist of failing memory, charged that the photograph was staged. The claim was published in Phillip Knightley’s book The First Casualty: From the Crimea to Vietnam: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker.

In a world always eager to believe the worst, Gallagher’s allegations spread rapidly. Refuting evidence was largely ignored. In September 1996, however, the controversy was definitively settled in Capa’s favor by the discovery of the identity of the man in the photograph—Federico Borrell García, whose death at Cerro Muriano, on September 5, 1936, is recorded in the Spanish government’s archives and whose identity in the photograph was confirmed by his younger brother, Everisto.

Through circumstantial evidence, which I pieced together while working on my biography of Capa, we know for certain that Capa and Taro were in Cerro Muriano on that day. Indeed, on the vintage prints preserved in the files of Capa’s estate with their original chronological numbering, the numbers on the sequence of pictures to which the “Falling Soldier” belongs immediately precede those of a Cerro Muriano refugee series. The numbering on the vintage prints clearly suggested that Capa made his “Falling Soldier” picture at Cerro Muriano on September 5, 1936. Capa repeatedly confirmed during his lifetime that he had made his photograph on the Córdoba front.

Out of the kind of exploits that produced “Falling Soldier,” Capa earned an enduring reputation for bravery. At a time when a photographer was lucky to get any credit line at all, the front page of the December 10, 1936, issue of the French weekly Regards acclaimed Capa as “Our special envoy to Madrid.” Inside the editors said, “Regards, wanting to give its readers a faithful, irrefutable image of the tragic life of the inhabitants of Madrid, bombarded by the fascists, sent one of its most qualified and audacious photographers to the Spanish capital. ... At peril of his life, he made a prodigious series of unique documents.” Going even further, in December 1938 the prestigious British magazine Picture Post published 11 pages of Capa’s Spanish Civil War photographs and proclaimed him “The Greatest War-Photographer in the World.”

What inspired and sustained Capa when he went into the middle of battles—voluntarily and unarmed—to take photographs? First and foremost, he had the courage of his convictions. The Spanish Civil War was as much anti-fascist as it was Spanish, and that made it his war. He had a tremendous personal stake in its outcome, and he was willing to die for the cause if necessary. Throughout his career Capa maintained that he was unwilling to risk his life covering any war in which he did not love one side and hate the other. Moreover, he always felt that it would be immoral to photograph men in combat without sharing their risks and hardships. That attitude happened to serve his work very well, for the trust and respect it won for him enabled him to get more intimate and revealing pictures than he could ever have gotten otherwise.

Capa’s courage had several other bases as well. One, certainly, was ambition. During his first two years in Paris, Capa had had little success in getting his work published. In the spring of 1936, he adopted as his own the name Robert Capa—which he and Taro had originally made up as the name of an alter ego, the imaginary character of a glamorous and fabulously successful American photographer.

The young Hungarian was eager for success, and he understood that the surest way to get it was to make pictures better than anyone else’s. But doing that was at least partly a matter of taking risks greater than anyone else was willing to take. From the start, he worked in accordance with what would become his most famous dictum: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Close enough to the action, that is. (Of course, just being close to danger would never guarantee good photographs. In Normandy he would write that the most dangerous situations—such as mine fields—sometimes yield the least exciting pictures.)

Capa also had the courage of the supreme confidence that comes from winning the primal oedipal contest, from being the son whom the mother loves above all other males in the family. He felt lucky and blessed, as if he had a guardian angel protecting him. Unlike his friend Ernest Hemingway, Capa never felt he had to prove his courage—to himself or to anyone else. Indeed, Capa never boasted about his exploits. He was almost always the butt of his own stories, including one about how he left his first major battle to change his pants, joking that it was his first engagement and that his bowels had been weaker than his feet.

In contrast to his insecure yet boastful friend Hemingway, Capa was very much a gentleman of the old school—and gentle-men didn’t brag. Capa was also, like many others who are routinely exposed to danger, rather superstitious. He believed that one shouldn’t tempt fate by bragging. Or by winning at poker. (He used to say that if he ever started winning, that’s when he would really get worried.) Translated into practical terms, Capa knew that being overconfident is the surest way to get killed in battle. In fact, the risks he took were carefully considered, never reckless. During World War II, generals Matthew Ridgway and James Gavin would praise Capa as a very shrewd judge of military danger.

Yet for all his fame as a front-line photographer, Capa’s pictures of Madrid during the Spanish Civil War make it clear that he was beginning to understand that the truth about war was to be found not only in the heat of battle, but also at the edge of things—in the faces of soldiers enduring cold, fatigue and tedium behind the lines and of civilians ravaged by fear, suffering and loss. Throughout his career, Capa was primarily a photographer of people. Many of his pictures of war are not so much chronicles of events as extraordinarily sympathetic and compassionate studies of people under extreme stress. He rarely photographed the dead or the grievously injured; instead, he focused on the survivors going on with life despite numbing losses and staggering destruction—the triumph of the indomitable human spirit.

In addition to his often-repeated advice about getting close to the action, he had another suggestion that was equally important and equally revealing: “Like people and let them know it.” Whether Capa’s photographs show soldiers or civilians, the pictures are characterized by intimacy and immediacy, by compassion and empathy. The horrific tendency of modern warfare is to depersonalize. Soldiers can use their terrible weapons of mass destruction only because they have learned to conceptualize their victims not as individuals but as a category—the enemy. Capa’s strategy was to repersonalize the war—to emphasize that those who suffer the effects of war are individuals with whom the viewer of the photographs cannot help but identify. Confronted with overviews of a battle or of vast movements of refugees, one may feel simply overwhelmed and paralyzed. But the natural impulse of anyone who sees a photograph of an individual in pain or in need is to reach out and help.

Yet Capa, Gerda Taro and thousands of other anti-fascists from around the world could not save the Spanish Republic. Near the battle of Brunete in July 1937, Taro was mortally injured when a Loyalist tank sideswiped a car she was riding as she was standing on the running board. Capa, who was in Paris when he received the news, was overcome with grief. He traveled, covered Chinese resistance to the Japanese invasion in 1938, then returned to Spain to photograph the slow death of the Spanish Republic: the withdrawal of the International Brigades, the desperate attempts of Republican soldiers to defeat Franco’s columns and finally the terrible plight of the refugees fleeing before the relentless Insurgent advance.

Capa went on to photograph the European theater of World War II (including the D-Day invasion), the first Arab-Israeli War and the war between French colonialists and the Vietminh in Indochina. The Indochina conflict, his fifth and final war, tested his belief that he was unwilling to risk his life covering a war in which he did not love one side and hate the other. Capa was by then the bearer of a United States passport but culturally French. As he rode through the countryside with a French convoy, he saw a French motorcyclist deliberately ride so close to the roadside that he forced some peasants to jump out of the way. Capa scornfully remarked to his colleague, Time correspondent John Mecklin, “Look at that s.o.b. making new Vietminh.”

Later that day, while the stalled French traded fire with the Vietminh, Capa left the relative safety of the convoy to photograph troops advancing across a field. As he began to walk up the grassy slope of a dike, he stepped on a Vietminh anti-personnel mine. The explosion almost blew off his left leg and gave him a gaping chest wound. French troops rushed him to a Vietnamese doctor who pronounced him dead.

At a ceremony in Hanoi, a French honor guard stood by Capa’s coffin. Draped over the casket was an American flag; pinned to it was one of France’s highest military honors, the Croix de Guerre avec Palme, Order of the Army. More appropriate for Capa, who never cared much for military decorations, was a wreath from La Bonne Casserole, a Hanoi restaurant he frequented, inscribed simply, “A notre ami.”

Capa’s mother turned down the U.S. Army’s offer of a plot in Arlington National Cemetery, saying that her son was not a soldier but a man of peace. At her request, a friend eventually arranged for Capa’s burial in the cemetery of a Quaker meeting house.

Capa left behind an extraordinary body of work that showed war as it had never been shown before and displayed a tremendous sympathy for individuals in all kinds of circumstances. He also left a legend that would long continue to inspire other photographers and to delight and sadden his friends. In 1955, the Overseas Press Club and Life magazine created the Robert Capa Award for “superlative photography requiring exceptional courage and enterprise abroad.” Among the recipients have been Horst Faas, W. Eugene Smith and Susan Meiselas. More than half a century after he ventured onto the battlefields of Spain, Capa still sets a standard of bravery and compassion for all war photographers.

Richard Whelan has written biographies of Robert Capa and Alfred Stieglitz. He is also author, with Evan Cornog, of Hats in the Ring: An Illustrated History of American Presidential Campaigns (September 2000).

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