Robert Capa: 20th Century War Photographer

Images and videos of war have become more commonplace in today's digital age compared to the situation years ago. It's now possible for ordinary citizens armed with a camera phone to shoot an armed conflict scene, upload it to Facebook or Youtube, and have thousands of views the next day. Decades ago, only a select few has the technology and willpower to do that. Here is the story of 20th century war photographer Robert Capa.

Robert Capa was born Endre Friedmann in 1913 in Hungary. He left the country because of his activist stand against the government and settled in Berlin, finding himself working with photography and art. The rising Nazi threat forced him to move again, this time to France where he changed his name to the more American sounding name "Robert Capa" in order to market his photographs better.

Capa then traveled to Spain at the start of the Spanish Civil War, and it was here that he made a name for himself as a war photographer. His famous "Falling Soldier" photograph became an instant classic, although its authenticity would be questioned later on. Capa also traveled to China to document the Japanese invasion there. The photographer was slowly building a name for himself as a photojournalist, but his greatest achievement would happen later on during the Allied liberation of France starting with D-Day.

Some of Capa's most famous war time pictures include his Magnificent Eleven, a series of black-and-white photos showing the American forces landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day. Capa was in one of the landing crafts together with one of the invading platoons. He shot 106 frames of films that day, and was in London the next day to have his film developed.

The story goes that the darkroom technician assigned to process the film was so excited to see the resulting pictures that he applied too much heat to the film drying process, accidentally melting almost all of the frames. Only 11 images survived, and these precious 11 were among the first pictures of D-Day to be published and seen by the American public.

Capa continued to travel after the war was over, and in 1947, he co-founded Magnum Photos, one of the most prestigious photographic cooperatives in the world alongside other imminent photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson.

While Capa is considered to be one of the greatest photojournalists of the 20th century, some of his work's  integrity have been questioned, especially with his most famous photo, the "Falling Soldier" showing a Spanish Republican loyalist soldier falling to the ground as he's hit by a bullet (the header image above). When it was first published in Life magazine, it was described as the exact moment of the soldier's death, and quickly became one of the most famous war photographs of its generation.

Recent studies strongly suggest, however, that the scene was staged at a different location far away from the purported battlefield. These studies also invalidate the rest of the photos Capa's took around this time. Despite these recent findings though, Robert Capa's legacy has allowed newer generations of photojournalists to aspire to get closer to the action, because in his words, "If your picture isn't good enough, you're not close enough".

Magnum Photos has more images by Robert Capa. His 20th century war photographs can be found in Robert Capa: The Definitive Collection, Robert Capa at Work: This is War, Blood And Champagne: The Life And Times Of Robert Capa. For a 21st century look at war photography, check out James Nachtwey.


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