Robert Capa (1913-1954) was one of the most celebrated photographers of the mid-twentieth century and, with André Kertész, Brassaï, Martin Munkácsi, and László Moholy-Nagy, formed part of a group of influential Hungarian photographers whose impact on the medium was profound. He is particularly well known for his photographs of the Second World War, and for co-founding Magnum Photos.
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Robert Capa was born Endre Friedmann on October 22, 1913 in Budapest, Hungary. He was born into a Jewish family that were co-owners of a hair-salon, and had two brothers.
When he was eighteen Andre Friedman (as he began to call himself) was exiled from Hungary, for political differences, and went to Berlin. With the support of his parents he enrolled at the German Academy for Politics to study journalism. However, the increasingly depressed Hungarian economy caused his parents’ business to falter, and funding for his studies came to an end. In need of money, Friedman got a job at a photo agency as a darkroom assistant, and so began his career in the photographic industry.
His talent for photography began to develop, and he was given his first camera by the agency’s director, Simon Guttmann. Guttmann was also responsible for Friedman’s first large commission when, in December 1932, he sent him to Copenhagen to photograph the great Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.
Friedman remained in Berlin for two years until Hitler’s rise to power meant that, in 1933, he was forced to flee to Vienna. Soon after, he gained permission to return home to Budapest where he stayed for a few months before going to Paris in September that year. He took up variety of photography assignments and it was there that he met a fellow Hungarian, the photographer, André Kertész.
Kertész and Friedman became good friends, with Kertész becoming a mentor. He introduced Friedman to the Leica camera, and filled him with confidence as a photographer. Friedman remained in Paris trying to further his photographic career, however his poor French restricted his success, as did being mistaken for a more established photojournalist who shared the same surname. Frustrated, Friedman decided to change his name to something more unique, and ‘Robert Capa’ was born. This new name, with a hint of American flare, added excitement and mystery on the Parisian photography circuit.
Commissions increased and, in July 1936, he was sent to cover the Spanish Civil War. It was there that he took one of his most enduring photographs, Death of a Loyalist Militia Man, Spain, 1936. The photograph is perhaps one of the most talked about photographs of all time. The question of whether the subject has genuinely been shot, or whether it is a staged photograph, has never been proven either way. However, the evidence shows that the man in question did indeed die that day on the same battlefield. This, combined with the fact that his left hand remains tightly clenched as he falls – contrary to normal human instinct – suggests that the photograph is likely to be genuine.
Capa remained in Europe until the outbreak of World War II when he fled to New York. He joined LIFE magazine as their war correspondent, and was sent to areas of Europe and Northern Africa to cover the action on the front line. In particular, on 6 June 1944, Capa covered the D-Day landings in Normandy, riding in the landing craft with the soldiers. He captured every detail, taking eleven rolls of film and risking his life for the photographs. With LIFE desperate to publish the pictures, the films where quickly ferried to their London office. Unfortunately, the laboratory technician felt under such pressure that he made a mistake, and set the drying temperature for the film too high. This subsequently melted all the negatives save eleven frames, which were shaky and out of focus. Despite this, and perhaps even because of this, the surviving photographs had a visceral energy that captured the raw horror of warfare like never before. Their impact was unparalleled, and they have become some of the most important war photographs ever taken. Capa’s bravery, and the brilliance of these photographs, secured his reputation as one of the most exciting photographers of his time.
When the war was over Capa returned to Paris where he met, and fell in love with, Ingrid Bergman. His affections were so strong that he followed her back to America, and attempted to start a new career as a Hollywood film director. However, he met with little success and soon returned to working for LIFE.
In 1947 Capa, with fellow photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour, William Vandivert and George Rodger, decided to establish a cooperative photographic agency, to give themselves control over commissions. They called it Magnum Photos, and Capa devoted his life to the new agency, both in New York and Paris, and enjoyed nuturing new talent in the same way that he was helped by Kertész. Magnum Photos remains a powerful, photographer-owned agency to this day.
Robert Capa’s final assignment for LIFE unfortunately lead to his death. He was in Japan working on an exhibition associated with Magnum. From there, LIFE sent him to South East Asia to cover the First Indochina War. On 25 May, 1954 he stepped on a landmine and was killed.
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