When we recently spotlighted Josef Koudelka’s career, we noted that it was defined by both its extraordinary length and the artist’s preference for isolation. Save for Prague in 1964, Koudelka spent decades working almost entirely alone. By contrast, Robert Capa’s work is defined by the photographer’s deep immersion in his subject and by his career’s brevity. Beginning with his first published photograph in 1932, Capa’s career spanned just 22 years, but in that short span he cemented himself as one of the premier combat and adventure photographers of all time.
Many of Capa’s photographs are well known as some of the most iconic images of the 1930s and 1940s, including those taken at Omaha Beach on D-Day (the “Magnificent Eleven”) and his controversial photo of the falling soldier in the Spanish Civil War. But to focus on those images would do a disservice to the rest of his work, where Capa proved a master of making the unfamiliar and challenging feel weirdly intimate.
Hemingway Family Picnic
Ernest Hemingway, then working as a journalist, first met Robert Capa during the Spanish Civil War in 1936 or 1937. For the next five years the pair seemed nearly inseparable. Numerous photos exist of Capa and Hemingway together (typically not taken by Capa himself), and Capa gained very privileged access to the life of one of America’s most mythologized writers.
This photo, taken in Idaho in the early 1940s, shows Hemingway picnicking with his soon-to-be third wife and her children. Hemingway traveled to Idaho to write For Whom The Bell Tolls as the landscape reportedly reminded him of Spain. Seeing a man whose professional and personal life are so often marked by violence at peace in such a pastoral scene is a privileged view on a little-observed facet of Hemingway.
American Soldier Treats German POW, Italy, 1944
When Robert Capa entered Naples in 1943 and 1944, it was the most-bombed city in Italy. Overhead the 12th Airforce, including novelist Joseph Heller, pounded the city into submission. On the ground, Capa experienced a much more personal version of the Italian Front, and regularly got closer to both the allied and axis soldiers than any other photographer in the war.
This photo, one of several that Capa published of captured German soldiers, depicts a wounded German soldier being treated by an American. The difference in posture between the two is striking, with the American leaning in close over the wounded German. Even with his eyes closed the German still appears defiant, consistent with the attitude German POWs were known to display to their Allied captors.
[The image discussed here depicts a dead soldier. Since some readers may be reticent to see such a grisly scene, we have linked to it via this text rather than display it openly. The above photo, taken moments earlier, is another from the series published in LIFE.]
Last Man To Die, April 18, 1945
Victory in Europe was officially declared on May 8th, 1945. Though the war in Europe still had several weeks remaining (indeed the final documented allied casualty occurred on May 7th) Capa dubbed Robert Bowman, killed April 18th, the last man to die. Capa had the unfortunate distinction of photographing Bowman’s final minutes, first setting up a machine gun, and ultimately losing his life to a German Sniper a few moments later.
When this photo and the other photos in the series were initially published in LIFE Magazine the faces of both Raymond J. Bowman (left) and Clarence Ridgeway (right) were blurred out. Though Bowman’s photo was among the last photographed American deaths of the war, the sight of a dead GI was still unusual in American media. The American public had only seen the first published photos of dead soldiers in September of 1943, following the Battle of Buna Beach, and sights like this were still very much a shock.
Bowman, a native of Rochester, New York, was identified by his family later on due to a pin he wore on his uniform. This series, particularly the final photos of Bowman, are unusually close and intimate for photos taken in an open combat zone, and Capa himself was clearly fully exposed moments before Bowman was killed.
The apartment in Leipzig where Bowman was killed was partially burned in 2011, and has since been restored. The building is now known as the Capa house.
From A Russian Journal, 1947
Hemingway was not the only iconic American author Capa considered a friend. Author John Steinbeck took Capa with him to Russia in 1947, and the pair toured Moscow, Stalingrad, Tblisi and other Soviet locales in the wake of the Second World War. Steinbeck’s goal was to report honestly on what he observed in post-war Russia, “without editorial comment, and without drawing conclusions on things we didn’t know sufficiently.” The photos that accompanied the work centered on ordinary people, and focused on the average Russian’s fear of yet another global conflict.
For Steinbeck, this work became a turning point. Following A Russian Journal Steinbeck would publish East of Eden, his most ambitious novel, and his most engrossing non-fiction work; Travels with Charley, finally divorcing him from his roots in the Great Depression.
For Capa this diversion into Russia would prove a decisive turning point as well, and by 1952 the photographer was disinclined to ever photograph combat again. Of course, despite his best intentions, his obligations to LIFE Magazine would bring him back into the fray.
Capa died young, at just 40 years old. While working for LIFE Magazine, Capa was embedded with the French Army in French Indochina. In order to photograph the advance, Capa got out of his Jeep and ran up the road under fire ahead of the advancing troops. While out ahead of the troops, he stepped on a land mine and was instantly killed.
This photograph is among the last he ever took, and compositionally is one of my favorites in his whole body of work. The advancing column is met by a Vietnamese citizen walking the other way. The advancing vehicles are set to the right of the frame, and are counterbalanced in the image by their own dust cloud being blown from right to left in front of the photographer. It’s a beautiful shot, and one that American combat photographers would evoke time and again throughout the 1960s and ’70s.
Though Capa’s career was short, his penchant for embedding himself as close as possible to every kind of action produced some of the most evocative images of the 1930s, ’40s and early ’50s. Robert’s brother, Magnum photographer Cornell Capa, has endeavored to preserve his brother’s legacy through the Fund for Concerned Photography, an effort which has been continued by the ICP.