Robert Capa

Blood and Champagne – book review

I recall approaching this book with the thought that Capa was not really a very good photographer. I came away thinking otherwise, realizing that what makes a war photograph ‘good’ is not beautiful composition or perfect lighting or wonderful technique. No, the act of being there and recording the moment is what makes a war photograph good and no one bested Capa at that.

This book does not include any of Capa’s pictures, being an unauthorized biography. No problem. Just go to the Magnum Photos web site to see hundreds of examples of his work. Alex Kershaw does a fine job of writing a gripping narrative which at the same time is well researched. While the book could do with fewer asterisked footnotes, the quality of research is never in doubt and the writing never dry or academic.

Capa, the man, clearly suffered from what we would now call an addictive personality. His determination to be at the latest war front speaks to his addiction to adrenaline. In between, there was the incessant gambling, the boozing and the women. The gambling nearly bankrupted the agency he founded with Cartier-Bresson, Chim Seymour and George Rodger, Magnum Photos. The boozing was tediously incessant. The women ranged from Ingrid Bergman to Parisian streetwalkers.

Yet what a life the man lead. From the Spanish revolution, where he was in the thick of the action on the Republican side, to the D-Day landings on murderous Omaha Beach, to Viet Nam which took his life, he swallowed his fear and waded into the front lines of action. Kershaw forthrightly addresses the question of whether the famous picture of the Spanish Republican soldier at the moment of death was faked, coming away uncertain. I think it was, having seen some purported contacts of the film roll years ago in a reputable British photography magazine which showed the soldier ‘dying’ half a dozen times in succession, but it’s hardly likely that Magnum, or whoever owns the negatives, is going to release them if that is the case. No matter. One or two fakes in a life as prolific as Capa’s can be forgiven.

He also recounts at considerable length the D-Day story, where Capa went in with the first wave on June 6, 1944, carrying two Contax cameras and a Rolleiflex, taking but 79 pictures. Not surprising he took so few. Capa was a studied photographer who knew not to waste film and knew even better that the goriest images would never pass muster with the censor at Life, whose audience was Middle Americans who wanted their war sanitized. Kershaw relates how a darkroom technician fried the films when drying them, leaving but 11 frames useable, 9 of which were published. To Life’s eternal discredit, the magazine blamed Capa in print, saying the majority of pictures were too blurred to reproduce.

Later, having taken the required five training jumps, Capa parachuted in, yes parachuted in, with the 17th Airborne over Wesel on the Dutch border, in March 1945. Stunning courage. He was armed with his cameras and a spare pair of underpants into which he admitted having to change upon landing!

That his life ended in 1954 at the age of 41 is hardly surprising. First, he was feeling pressure from up-and-comers David Douglas Duncan and Larry Burrows. That meant just one more war. Second, he was, as ever, broke and in need of money. Third, his unwavering dedication to being in the front lines meant that sooner or later the inevitable would happen. So Capa, his best work done, trod on that fatal land mine.

“It’s not enough to have talent”, Kershaw quotes Capa as saying, “You also have to be Hungarian”.

This is a gripping story. The book is available from Amazon.