Robert Capa, by Richard Whelan

Yes, I know, not the most original book for me…

 

Summary as written on the book

The legendary war photographer Robert Capa carried into his personal life the same remarkable vitality that characterizes his pictures. Driven from his native Hungary by political oppression, he was first recognized for photographing the Spanish Civil War. In 1938 he was in China recording the Japanese invasion. During World War II he was in London, North Africa, and Italy, and then in France covering D-Day on Omaha Beach, the liberation of Paris, and the Battle of the Bulge. When the new nation of Israel was founded in 1948 he was there. In 1954 he was in Vietnam, taking photographs until the moment he was killed.

Away from battle, Capa gather about him such famous people as Ernest Hemingway and his wife (the war correspondent Martha Gellhorn), Gary Cooper, Irwin Shaw, and Gene Kelly. Whelan shows Capa photographing the street life of Paris, crisscrossing America on assignment from Life, in Russia with John Steinbeck, in Italy with John Huston, on the Riviera with Picasso, and with Ingrid Bergman.

 

Summary if I had written it

A thorough account of the life and art of Robert Capa, from his childhood and early political engagement in Budapest, to his early years in Paris, his meeting with Gerda Taro and finally to him becoming « the greatest war photographer in the world ».

The life of a talented man who from the moment he lost his great love at the age of 23 realised that his life as a war photograph would only bring him loneliness and constant wanderings.

 

Review

Capa’s life has all the ingredients of a Hollywood story: the poor Jewish emigrant stealing food in Paris cafés in the 1930s who becomes the « greatest war photographer in the world », creates the first independent agency run by photographers for photographers (Magnum), hangs around famous people like Hemingway and dates Ingrid Bergman. Whelan also drew heavily from testimonies from Capa’s brother (Cornell) for this very well research biography. In short, it had all the ingredients to be a eulogy and not a proper biography.

However, Whelan is good enough to avoid this pitfall. His portrait of Capa is positive, mainly because Capa was a loveable man, but he does not hide the failings and contradictions of the man. Whelan is also ruthless in exposing the lies or the embellishments behind Slightly out of focus.

Whelan’s treatment of the Capa-Taro affair is very touching. There is not too much sentimentality, but he is very clear on the impact she had on him and on his career and rather dramatically, the impact her death had on Capa’s life. The feeling I got was that it was Taro’s death that made him realise that life as a war photographer was dangerous and that if he let anyone too close to him (i.e. as close as he had been to Taro) he could one day cause them terrible pain. Taro’s death made Capa a lonely wanderer who put on a brave and smiling face on for the entire world to see.

The story behind the creation of Magnum and how far the idea came back (1938 more or less) was also fascinating. With Capa as its head it’s a miracle Magnum survived its first years.

The book has, in my view, two downsides:

  • the fact that Whelan (who died in 2007) didn’t have the time to update it following the (re) discovery of the Mexican suitcase*
  • it lacks pictures. Descriptions of famous or powerful pictures are very well written but sometimes they’re not enough. Many times I found myself reaching for my ‘definitive Capa’ (ed Phaidon) to see exactly which photo was being discussed. Which is fine if you’re reading on your sofa. Not so if you’re on the train as it’s not possible to carry the Phaidon book along (its weights a ton)

But these two downsides aside, it’s a really good book and I understand why it’s considered as the definitive Capa biography (somehow I don’t feel like reading Kershaw’s Blood and champagne. I find the title too bling, too sensational. I may be doing it a disservice.).

 

 

ISBN 978-0803297609

*Originally published in 1985, some 20 years before the discovery of the Mexican suitcase.

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