[First published April 2006]
One of the fundamental problems of photography not necessarily encountered by any other type of artist is the problem of access: to photograph something, you ordinarily have to be in proximity to it, or in a position to see it, or at least at the proper standpoint—and being there is not always easy or safe. The ultimate example of the exclusivity of access is probably pictures taken on the surface of the moon, but Danny Lyons' insider photographs of a motorcycle gang in The Bikeriders and Larry Clark's documentation of a violent drug subculture in Tulsa are good examples as well—more recently, it was a big part of Taryn Simon's An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar. One of my own mentors in photography, the late Steve Szabo, once answered a student's question "What should I photograph?" by asking back, "What can you photograph?"
Above every other genre of photography, however, war photography is the one which makes the most demands in return for access. Robert Capa (below, in 1945) was born in Budapest, Hungary, and lived most of his life as a "citizen of the world." He was in a gully with a number of other Spanish militiamen when he took the picture variously known as "Falling Soldier," "Falling Loyalist Soldier," or "The Death of a Loyalist Soldier." (The true title is given above.) Remorselessly specific and yet as symbolic as a flag, surprisingly simple, undyingly powerful, it is an authentic picture of very nearly the exact instant of a man's death. Originally published in LIFE in 1937, it is also in Capa's book about the Spanish Civil War, Heart of Spain.
It was not faked as has sometimes been claimed: forensic analysis suggests that the soldier, identified as Federico Borrell García, was already dead as he fell. The author of the best book about Capa, Richard Whelan, explains the research in depth in an excellent article about the picture originally published in Aperture magazine. To me, it's not a question worth discussing. My judgement is that by most indications Robert Capa was direct and honest as a man and a photographer. He was not interested in falsehoods and not petty about his ego. We have no reason to doubt his word now, looking back. The novelist John Steinbeck, who knew Capa well from their collaboration in Russia in 1947, said the goal of their collaboration was "honest reporting, to set down what we saw and heard without editorial comment, without drawing conclusions about things we didn't know sufficiently."
At only 22, Capa was the age of most graduating college seniors when he took the falling soldier picture. He lived one of those comet-like lives—bright, and brief, as well as vivid and romantic in the best mid-century movie-star tradition. He was hard-partying, handsome, invariably described as "dashing," a womanizer, a risk-taker—an outsized personality, much loved, eventually much missed. Unlike Henri Cartier-Bresson, with whom he founded the international freelance agency Magnum Photos with their friend Chim (David Seymour), Capa cared little for careful organization or the veneer of art in his photographs. He sought immediacy and authenticity.
Having already photographed four wars, Capa professed to have given up war photography before he was killed, famously saying that war was like "an actress who is getting old—less and less photogenic, and more and more dangerous." (How can that not bring to mind mad Norma Desmond of Sunset Boulevard?) He was in Japan for a Magnum exhibition in 1954 when LIFE called needing a photographer in Indochina. Once there, Capa left the column he was with to go up the road so he could photograph the advance. He stepped on a land mine. When he was reached moments later, his leg blown off and a gaping hole in his chest, he was still alive. He died clutching his camera, one of the very first of 135 photographers killed in the Viet Nam war. He was 39.
Copyright 2006, 2014 by Michael C. Johnston
[Note: This post is a "rerun." Since your usual host is recuperating from a health event and trying to minimize workload, the comments Section, usually lively, is closed, but only for these "Vintage TOP" posts. Join us in a few days when comments will be welcomed as usual. —Ed.]