New York

“Spain: 1936–1939”

International Center of Photography Museum (ICP)

The legend of the photographer hero, of the photojournalist’s own life as the true subject of his exhibition, is presented more explicitly and more engagingly in another ICP show, “Spain: 1936–1939.” This includes the work of three photographers—Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour (“Chim”)—but it is clearly Capa who dominates both the show and our imaginations. Capa was born André Friedmann in Hungary in 1913. A student in Paris struggling to establish a reputation as a free-lance photographer, he invented a glamorous persona for himself as an already successful American photographer named Robert Capa. (One reason this pretense was necessary, I suspect, was that Paris was already so jammed with successful Hungarian photographers—André Kertész, Brassaï, Lucien Aigner, et al.—that Capa had to differentiate himself from the crowd.)

The pose succeeded, helped by the quality of the pictures. Capa’s photographs began to appear in Ce Soir, Regards and Vu. It was in this last that his most famous picture, The Falling Soldier, was first published. Capa had finagled press credentials and gone to Spain as soon as war broke out there. The contact he had at Vu was a young picture editor named Alexander Lieberman, later to become editor-in-chief of Vogue. Part of the romance surrounding Capa’s career is the feeling we get that every expatriate photographer in the Paris of the ’30s, like every writer ten years before, was destined to be famous.

The Falling Soldier made Capa’s career. The following year it was reprinted in Life along with other Capa photographs of Spain, and thus began his association with the magazine, which lasted until his death in 1954 when he stepped on a land mine in Indochina. Handsome and daring to the point of foolhardiness, Capa had a simple motto: if your pictures are no good, you’re not close enough. He was the photographer’s version of the “Foreign Correspondent,” the journalist whose adventures are a mixture of intrigue and personal courage. An assumed identity is almost a prerequisite for becoming a legend, and the fact is that David Seymour had also changed his name, as had Gerda Taro. Less well-remembered now than Capa, Taro, who was Capa’s lover, was an even more legendary figure at the time of the Spanish war because she died in it.

A passionate German Marxist, Taro had gotten to know Capa in Paris and helped him cook up the fiction of his American identity. When he went to Spain, she did too: and when he had to return briefly to Paris in the summer of 1937, he left his Leica with her so that she could keep photographing. In a smoky, disorderly retreat from the village of Brunete a month later, a Republican tank blundered into the car in which she was riding and killed her. In Paris, the Popular Front made her funeral and the outpouring of left-wing sentiment that accompanied it the occasion for a mass demonstration.

Though Taro had never taken pictures before that summer in Spain, the handful of her pictures in the exhibition make it clear that she shared Capa’s abandon with a camera. So did Seymour, who was also to share her and Capa’s fate as a war casualty. He was killed in the Suez in 1956 four days after the cease-fire had been declared. Although Seymour may have preferred intimate, human scenes behind the lines to those of combat itself, this was not because he lacked any of Capa’s recklessness under fire. A picture of his in the exhibition shows Republican troops firing from a gully at the moment one of their cannons goes off down the line. Although the troops barely peep over the top of the gully as they return a Nationalist fusillade, Seymour seems to have jumped right up on the embankment, in plain view of the enemy, to get the picture.

Capa’s Falling Soldier was also taken from in front of its subject, where the photographer must have been in an even more exposed position than the soldier himself. The authenticity of that picture has recently been called into question by some photography historians in England, although Georges Soria has reaffirmed its genuineness in a new book, Les Grandes Photos de la Guerre d’Espagne (Paris: Editions Jannink). Embarrassing as it would be to the Capa legend if that photograph had been faked, the question is almost irrelevant to the truth. The truth is that Capa risked his life constantly—risked it until he finally lost it—in order to get his pictures. Perhaps more important, the style of photojournalism he helped invent was the real thing whether there was an instance of fraud or not.

Last year in this magazine I said, referring to Walker Evans’ subway portraits, that I think there’s a point where ethics and esthetics meet. It’s the point at which the way the photographs look grows out of the exigencies of their making, the point where the circumstances impose the style. The blurry, rough images that Capa made as a consequence of the conditions under which he worked are another instance of this. The sense his photography gives us of the immediacy of war, of chaos and terrible commitment, comes directly from the necessities of the situation in which those photographs were made. We can hardly ask more of pictures.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.