Robert Capa (born Endre Friedmann in Budapest in 1913), was the greatest black-and-white war photographer and photojournalist of his generation. As Cynthia Young, Curator of this exhibition and the Capa archive, notes, he “documented some of the most important political events of Western Europe in the mid-twentieth century.”
Capa leapt to fame in 1938 with his haunting images of the Spanish Civil War. He covered four more wars – the Sino-Japanese War, World War II, the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and Indochina, where he died in 1954 by stepping on a land mine. A humanist who loved the people he photographed, he forever set the standard for war photographers, and is famous for saying, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, it’s because you’re not close enough.”
This is a landmark exhibition – with 100 contemporary prints and related materials drawn exclusively from ICP archives — and part of ICP’s yearlong celebration of the 100th anniversary of Capa’s birth. As Young points out, Capa’s color work is “essentially unknown”. It completely disappeared from view until this show, in part due to the technological challenges of preserving and reproducing crumbling film negatives. Digital technology came to the rescue,
Capa was an early adopter of color film. In 1938, two years after the invention of Kodachrome, he carried two cameras with him to the front lines and pioneered its usage as a photojournalist covering the war. But Kodachrome, still a secretive process, took a lot of time to develop. The turnaround for a war photographer in Europe was two weeks, which made it less than ideal for newspapers and magazines rushing to print fast-breaking stories. Discouraged by the slow speed of color film, the long processing time and reluctance of magazines to use color, Capa returned to black-and-white in 1944 to cover the rest of the war.
But Capa did not give up on color. He used it lavishly for his postwar magazine stories that appeared in Holiday, Collier’s, and Ladies’ Home Journal, among others.
In 1947, Capa founded Magnum, the first cooperative agency for worldwide freelance photographers, along with Henri Cartier-Bresson, Chim, and others. And one of the fascinating aspects of this exhibition is his business correspondence as a freelance photographer, complaining about fees, editors and the daily vexations of even a well-known photojournalist’s life. Despite his fame, he is still haggling about prices and assignments, and confronting less than glowing reactions to some of his work. In particular, as the exhibition makes clear, the fruits of his color assignments — though filled with iconic images that have stood the test of time — were less well received by editors than his black-and-white images.
Capa had a warm, ebullient personality and his range of famous friends and lovers – from Ingrid Bergman to Irwin Shaw – was legendary. So it’s not surprising that his peacetime color photography is replete with images of glamorous movie stars, beautiful models and feature stories focused on his personal passions, among them fashionable ski resorts and European racetracks.
Nevertheless, one thing is clear from this exhibition. Whether using color or black-and-white film, whether in battle or on a street in Paris or Jerusalem, Capa had an unerring eye for beautifully composed shots and remained a passionate observer of people.
Capa loved life, and hated war, but believed his coverage of conflicts around the world was his “real work,” and few would disagree. He died in Vietnam on an assignment from Life. Interestingly, his last color shots of soldiers advancing through the fields of Vietnam, were never printed by the magazine, perhaps due to the extra time needed to process the color film. We see them here, in all their melancholy beauty, for the first time.
These days, the stigma of color photography as a medium for serious work has long vanished, which makes it easier to appreciate the long-ignored side of this black-and-white master. For those of us who have long respected Capa, the artist, and admired Capa, the man, this is a fascinating and satisfying show.
Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag
Capa in Color: International Center of Photography
Through May 4, 2014