Archive for the ‘Photo History’ Category

In The Eighties

Thursday, September 14th, 2017

In The Eighties‘ is the title of a new book by Derek Ridgers, an old friend of mine, being launched tonight (14 Sept 2017) at The Library Space in Battersea Park Road, London.

You can see a preview of the book and read some of Derek’s views in the feature ‘Documentary Photography: A Masterclass from Derek Ridgers‘ on ‘Another Man’.

Derek gives a straightforward account of how he took these sometimes remarkable portraits in the article: “I just walk straight up to people and say ‘Do you mind if I take your picture?’”. The people he chose were those who caught his attention, particularly as he walked along the King’s Road, then the epicentre of young London’s trend-setting young fashions. Since most – but certainly not all – of those he chose were very deliberately presenting their image to the public I imagine most were more than pleased to be asked to pose for a photograph, and cooperated with him as he moved them into a suitable place nearby to find the kind of background he liked, “something that’s very plain, without anything to detract the eye, and yet something that still possesses an element of time and place.”

The quote about backgrounds comes from one of five tips for aspiring documentary photographers in the article – you’ll have to read it to find the others.

Derek and I were for some years a part of a small group of photographers who came together monthly to bring our latest pictures and discuss them. We all I think benefited from the sometimes frank appraisals, and Derek’s were usually franker than most, often saying bluntly what others of us were thinking but trying to find more delicate ways to express. ‘Framework‘, as the group became known as, was something of a hard school, and one that some could not take. Elsewhere I’ve described it as “a pionering UK group of independent photographers until its demise in 1993; together we organised around 20 group exhibitions almost all of which included some of my work. (Among many UK photographers to exhibit with Framework were Terry King, Carol Hudson, John RT Davies, Derek Ridgers and Jo Spence“), though Jo was never a member, but one of a number of others we invited to take part in our shows.

Framework had started life as a group inside a photographic club, but became a separate organisation after than club appropriated a gallery space and exhibition opportunity we had arranged for wider club use, changing its name from ‘Group Six‘ to ‘Framework‘. Derek had designed the orginal logo for Group 6, and it was one of his pictures on the poster for our first exhibition in 1984.

You can read more about Framework on an unfinished web site I began about it some years ago. Since I wrote this, at least two of the members, its main organiser Terry King and Randall Webb have died. Framework itself came to an end with the formation of London Independent Photography in 1993, which most of us joined. It was the experience of Framework that led me when a LIP committee member a year or two later to argue for the setting up of the local groups which now form a vital part of that organisation.

Looking at Lens

Wednesday, August 2nd, 2017

Although I regularly take a quick glimpse at the New York TimesLens‘ blog, often just with my newsreader that doesn’t actually show the pictures, I don’t that often find things that are of enough interest to comment on here. Much of what they publish is interesting, but generally I only write about things if there is something I feel I can add to in some way or take a special interest in.

In the last week or so, there have been quite a few posts there that interested me, and I particularly warmed to some of Nathan Farb‘s pictures in 1967’s Other Summer of Love, perhaps because they reminded me of when I was young and a student, though Manchester in England was very different to the New York Lower East Side of his pictures. But there was just a little something of the same spirit of counter-culture in the air.

The slide show with this piece has 21 pictures, enough to get a good idea of the work, whereas sometimes on Lens I find there just isn’t enough. Usually of course you can find more pictures elsewhere – and Lens sometimes provides a link or you can search for yourself, but then things can get rather time-consuming.

That piece led me on to the large format and very posed portraits of Harf Zimmermann, who, inspired by Bruce Davidson’s book ‘East 100th Street‘ took his camera into the homes and onto the streets to photograph his fellow residents and workers in the East Berlin neighbourhood where he lived. His pictures have for me a kind of dissonance like I often feel in dreams between the people and place and perhaps seem more like theatre sets with actors rather than real people – whereas the colour images he took when he returned to the same area in 2010, judging by the couple of examples in the article, Exposing Life Behind the Berlin Wall, simply look like high-quality versions of family snaps.

East Germany was of course a police state, where it was healthy to assume that everyone except you was a Stasi agent (especially if you were not.) Rather like living in G K Chesterton’s nightmare novel ‘The Man Who Was Thursday‘. Though working as I do with many protest groups I find I often look around and wonder which of us present is one of the 144 undercover UK police stated recently by the authorities to have infiltrated more than 1,000 political groups since 1968 – around the time I first got involved in such things.

But there is also something very German about the pictures – and not just in some of the obviously German backgrounds. They didn’t remind me of Davidson, but they did remind me of August Sander and his attempt to study and classify the people of his country, interrupted by the Nazis who seized and destroyed his ‘Face of Our Time‘ in 1936.

I then went on to find several more ‘Lens’ posts worth looking at, including Fighting For Basic Rights in Morocco, Amid Crisis and the remarkable Venezuela’s Youth Wait to Live Again.

John Morris 1916-2017

Monday, July 31st, 2017

Many words have been written and said about the photo-editor John G Morris who died last Friday, 28th July 2017, and he has obviously played a large role in photography over so many years. Probably the most widely read of the obituaries is by Andy Grunberg in the New York Times, and although excellent in many respects it is a shame it was not more carefully brought up to date after being retrieved from the ‘morgue’ where it had been lying for some years in waiting for Morris’s death.

His was a long career as a photo-editor, working for some of the greatest names in photographic publishing – Life,  Ladies’ Home Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic and Magnum Photos.

His was a career in which he undoubtedly recognised the power of a number of images which subsequently became iconic. Although we now can be sure that the legend that he wove around Capa’s actions on D-Day was almost entirely false, he saw the power of one of the 11 frames that Capa exposed which many editors would probably have rejected out of hand for being unsharp – and it was an image that was only more widely recognised for its expressive potential quite a few years later. Had Morris told the truth about it and given the facts that the investigation by A D Coleman and his team have made clear, the image might have been published and long forgotten.

Again, while working for the New York Times, it was Morris who recognised the power of two of the iconic images from Vietnam, and fought to get Eddie Adam‘s picture of a summary execution of a suspected Vietcong by a Saigon police chief on the front page, and fought the paper’s ‘no-nudity’ policy to get  Huynh Cong (Nick) Ut‘s image of a naked young Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm bombing raid published – again on the front page.

It was Morris too who invited W Eugene Smith to join Magnum following his break-up with Life, and apparently suggested him (after Elliot Erwitt had turned it down) for an assignment to photograph Pittsburg – which almost ruined Magnum financially after Smith turned what had been meant as a three week assignment into a year working on what he believed to be his ‘magnum opus’, though it only really got an adequate publication as ‘Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project‘ in 2001, 23 years after Smith’s death.

A D Coleman in Alternate History: Robert Capa on D-Day (36): John G. Morris Dies (Update) has written about some of the obituaries for Morris, including the New York Times one, pointing out some of their many errors. Its also worth reading the comments on his piece, particularly one by Robert Dannin, who calls the story that Morris made up “nothing more than an unprofessional excuse to conceal his apparent embarrassment at Capa’s work on the Normandy beachhead.”

It’s perhaps a little harsh. I can imagine Morris’s immediate shock on looking at the processed film and seeing only 11 images. And then looking a little more closely and seeing that those eleven were all blurred. A little fabrication to protect his friend’s reputation would be understandable. But to invent such an elaborate story and to keep up the deception for as long as Morris and Capa did was clearly unacceptable – and something of a stain on the reputation of both.

Morris was obviously a man who cared about photography and cared for photographers – and you can read a tribute to him by one of those he helped and was a friend to, Peter Turnley, on The Online Photographer. We can remember him for that and should also put the record straight over Capa’s D-Day pictures.

Hugh Edwards

Friday, June 30th, 2017

As friends including regular readers of these posts will know, I don’t generally have a very high opinion of curators – except for a few that I’ve known and have worked with. Too many have put on shows that server largely to illustrate their lack of knowledge and real interest in the medium and are clearly concerned only with building their own careers. And far too often money that would be better spent on photography and photographers goes into their pockets and into creating fancy displays which might enhance their reputation but often take away attention from the work presented.

But of course there are exceptions. Actually quite a few of them, including the obvious ones like John Szarkowski. Many of the best have been, like him, photographers and have had a real appreciation of the medium.

Thanks to a recent post Hugh Edwards: Unknown Icon by Kenneth Tanaka on The Online Photographer, I have now been made aware of another fine curator. Edwards (1904–1986) was Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he had already worked for 30 years, for his last 12 years there from 1959-70, during which time he organised 75 exhibitions, as well as regularly showing new acquisitions.

This was an important time in the evolution of photography, and one in which Edwards played an major role, giving Robert Frank his first American museum exhibition in 1961 and promoting many emerging photographers as well as building up a fine study collection of work by nineteenth and twentieth century masters. And his contribution is finely and extensively documented in the web site on him and the photography he championed and bought for the Art Institute collection by photography curator Elizabeth Siegel and a team of researchers.

Photography was one of his many interests; David Travis, Curator and Chair of the Department of Photography from two years after Edwards retired until 2008 writes about him at some length and remembers the rare and memorable evenings at his home when he would show his own colour slides made at “a roller skating rink in Harvey, Illinois”. In in a letter to Frank, Edwards wrote “I ran away from ‘culture’ and accelerated education to spend all my evenings in a large skating rink on the outskirts of Chicago for five whole years. There were many wonders there and I used to wish someone would catch them so they could be kept. Then I found your book and saw you had done it.” Travis comments that having seen Frank’s work “published, Mr. Edwards felt his own mission as a photographer could end.”

Those who can make it to Chicago can see the extensive show at the Art Institute also curated by Seigel, The Photographer’s Curator: Hugh Edwards at the Art Institute of Chicago which runs until October 29th 2017. But otherwise the web site is a fine tribute to an amazing curator and his legacy.

D-Day Wrap

Thursday, June 29th, 2017

Something which I meant to acknowledge earlier but slipped my mind after I read the post was the announcement by A D Coleman, ‘It’s a Wrap‘ marking the official end of “our team’s deconstruction of the myth of Robert Capa’s D-Day experiences and the subsequent fate of his negatives“.

The end came exactly three years after the investigation began with the publication of photojournalist J. Ross Baughman’s critique of the TIME video celebrating the 70th anniversary of Robert Capa’s D-Day photographs, and included further contributions from Baughman as well as from photo historian Rob McElroy and combat veteran and military historian Charles “Chuck” Herrick as well as Coleman’s own major contribution.

During its course it also referenced the work of others on this and related matters such as Capa’s ‘Falling Soldier’, and included a number of other guest posts, including one by Jim Hughes who in 1986 was the first to publicly challenge the Capa D-Day myth (and his review was quite probably the origin of my own total scepticism about the alleged ‘darkroom disaster’.)

It has been a remarkable series of posts, and quite rightly has received awards and nominations, and has changed entirely our view of one of the best-known events of photographic history, but also shed light on how that history is manufactured and by whom. History isn’t just facts, but a point of view (rather like any photograph) but in this particular case we know also know that much of what was claimed as fact is in fact fiction.

Of course we always knew that Capa was himself an invention, and a great inventor of stories as well as someone who photographed them powerfully. But even when we know more and can dismiss the embroidery the image remains. Of course like all photographers Capa took many weak images, some of which have found their way to gallery walls and books but there certainly remain enough to sustain his reputation.

We will still look at his pictures and be moved by them even when we know that the captions may be unreliable and some events may have been staged. And Capa did certainly put his life at some risk – even if rather less than he made out – on D-Day and probably more so on various other occasions, and of course later paid for the risks with his life, stepping on to a landmine in Indo-China. And his advice “If you’re pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” is still worth remembering.

Although officially the end, it certainly isn’t, and Coleman gives a number of areas that he or others will pursue, both about D-Day and Capa’s other work, and more widely in a critical look at the medium’s institutions, particularly the ICP.

Coleman states he considers “the basic research complete and the case effectively proven” and is “developing this material into a book, an exhibition, and a multimedia piece” about which he will give occasional progress reports, but apart from this unless there are some unforeseen discoveries or unpredictable surges of interest there will be no further posts in the series. I hope the exhibition will tour to some of the more prestigious institutions both in the USA and Europe and will perhaps help to end the promulgation of the myth.

Coleman concludes his piece with a comment on a New York Times article by Geoff Dyer, a man who writes about photography and who prides himself on not being a photographer; “I don’t just mean that I’m not a professional or serious photographer; I mean I don’t even own a camera” (in ‘The Ongoing Moment’ a book given me by someone who had probably read on the previous page “I suspect, then, that this book will be a source of irritation to many people, especially those who know more about photography than I do.” It was, though I’ve never managed to read to the end, always throwing it down in disgust at some idiocy within minutes of picking it up.)

Dyer’s ignorance clearly extended to never having heard of the doubts about Capa’s D-Day legend (despite a previous feature in the newspaper for which he was writing) and he writes “we know the precise historical moment they depict, what happened before and after, the reasons the pictures are so blurred” a statement untrue in every detail.

As Coleman comments “This uninformed balderdash of Dyer’s exemplifies the lamentable condition of writing about photography today. If you wonder why I have persisted with this investigation, consider Dyer’s elegantly phrased but fact-free nonsense a sufficient answer.”

It’s a Wrap

Magnum Capa

Friday, April 21st, 2017

As regular readers will know, I’ve followed with interest the long series of investigative articles by A D Coleman and his team of co-workers ferreting out the truth about Robert Capa’s D-Day pictures. There are after all few more iconic photographic images than Capa’s grainy and blurred US soldier in the surf of Omaha beach, and the story surrounding it must thus be of great interest in photographic history.

So while to learn about the whole nest of stories that have been deliberately built up to hide the facts came as something as a shock (even though its central story of the darkroom mishap had never been believable) it was good that at last we were getting to the true story. And while it isn’t always one that reflects well on Capa, it doesn’t alter my assessment of him as a photographer.

The latest instalment, Alternate History: Robert Capa on D-Day (32), does include a mention of my post here, A Capa Controversy, and describes it as “thoughtful, balanced, and closely attentive to the specifics.”

Mostly it looks at the recent re-publication on the Magnum site of D-Day and the Omaha Beach landings, a chapter from the 2004 book ‘Magnum Stories‘, edited by Chris Boot, which begins in a bad way with the sub-head declaration “The only photographer landing with the first wave on Omaha Beach, Robert Capa’s iconic photographs provide a unique documentation of the event“.

It’s hard to make a great deal of sense out of some of the introduction to a lengthy quotation from Capa’s own ‘Slightly Out of Focus‘ story of D-Day, although it does remind us that Capa’s book was written “with film rights in mind” and that on its rear cover Capa tells readers that he has allowed himself to go “slightly beyond and slightly this side” of the truth. His was a radically different approach to Gene Smith’s ‘Let Truth be the Prejudice’.

Of course it’s impossible to know exactly what happened on D-Day, though there are some other relevant eye-witness accounts, but I think that we can be sure that “my friend Larry, the Irish padre of the regiment, who could swear better than any amateur” and the “Irish priest and the Jewish doctor” are simply a part of the Hollywood treatment rather than Omaha beach, along with much of the rest – and that Capa took only ten or eleven of the 106 pictures he mentions.

My other complaint about the Magnum chapter is that by mixing pictures taken by Capa before leaving for France and with others from after he left Omaha beach along with half a dozen of the 10 images it attempts to mislead readers as to his actual work on D-Day, though careful attention to the captions would probably clarify things for the careful reader.

As Coleman says, Capa remains an important asset to Magnum, who offer “second- or third-generation derivatives” of two of his D-Day pictures at $3500 each which he describes as “nothing more than posh, high-priced posters.” Copyright normally extends only to 70 years after the artists death, so unless Magnum have some way to extend their monopoly, others could market such prints from 2024.

Of course it goes beyond this. Capa was the driving force behind the foundation of Magnum and something of a deity so far as the organisation is concerned. I’m not quite sure what “he created a narrative myth for Magnum too that has helped propel it over more than half a century” means, if anything, but I think it is more religious dogma than rational thought.

Another Maier?

Monday, April 17th, 2017

Although I think we can disregard the hype, the negatives bought by holidaying American Tom Sponheim at a Barcelona flea market in 2001 are of interest, like those I’m sure of many unknown photographers in countries around the world, and certainly it was a $3.50 well spent.

Sponheim scanned them and put them on a Facebook page, Las Fotos Perdidas de Barcelona, in 2010 and the few I’ve seen show the work of a competent photographer and some interesting subject matter, though like Maier’s certainly nothing that is going to change the history or trajectory of photography. Though if those examples I’ve seen on the Mashable page where I read this story are typical, possibly some would benefit from better scanning and retouching. Along with the pictures he posted this text:

In 2001 I bought a few envelopes containing negatives at a flea market in Barcelona, Spain. When I got back to the US, I scanned the negatives and discovered that the photos were taken by a very talented photographer. Can you help me identify the people in the photos and the name of the photographer?

Sponheim also advertised in the Barcelona area to try to find information about the photographer, but it was earlier this year that Begoña Fernández saw the page, was thrilled by the pictures and decided to investigate. It took a while for her to find the vital clue and recognise a particular elementary school as the location for some of the images, and then further research in archives of the Agrupació Fotográfica de Catalunya, where finally she found a 1961 magazine with an image she recognised from the Facebook page.. and image by Milagros Caturla that had won 4th prize in a photographic contest.

Back in the late 1970s I was a member of one of the UK’s leading photographic clubs (I usually say we later parted company on sartorial grounds, which is almost true – like many photographic stories) and Caturla’s images would certainly have done well in their monthly competitions. Which is perhaps somewhat faint praise on my part, since many pictures that did well were extremely tedious and clichéd, though their were occasional pictures which rose above this- as hers would have done.

Often more interesting than those club competitions were the occasional jumble sales, where I picked up the occasional bargain, particular among old photo books and odd pieces of equipment, including an old Rolleiflex, but also some junk, including a large stainless steel sink which I had every intention of converting into a print washer, but has actually just cluttered up my loft ever since.

But sadder than these were old exhibition prints from the collections of deceased members, some I think of similar quality to the work of Caturla (and probably representative of other work by the photographers concerned.) A few of these went for as much as a pound or two (and being pretty impecunious at the time, I was outbid on the few that interested me) but many went for pennies or remained unsold – and almost certainly ended up in landfill.  It’s the fate of most photography – including much that would be of interest to later generations and some that might lead to a little posthumous fame.

Black Lives Matter

Thursday, April 13th, 2017

Sir Henry Tate, looking down on a part of the crowd in Windrush Square, Brixton was a sugar manufacturer who made a fortune out of refining and selling cane sugar here in the UK. Although his business had no connection with the slave trade, which had ended in the British colonies around 1840, a few years after the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act and Tate only began in the sugar business in 1859, his was clearly a colonial business, making its profits from the sugar grown by freed slaves and their descendants in the colonies, notably Barbados.

Tate was a great philanthropist, giving generously to colleges and hospitals and endowing south London with four free libraries, at Streatham, Balham, South Lambeth, and Brixton and treated his own employees well, building a dance hall and bar for them opposite the Silvertown factory. And of course in 1897 he gave his art collection to the nation, paying most of the cost for a gallery to house on Millbank – which has officially borne his name since 1932.

Although the sugar he made the profits on came from workers in the Empire, I’m not aware that any of Tate’s philanthropy extended to them, but he did provide the library outside which the protest I was photographing took place, and the gardens, now known as Windrush Square in which we were standing were given to the public by Tate’s wife after his death, in keeping with his wishes.

Many of those who came from the Caribbean to Britain in the post-war period, starting with those on board the Empire Windrush in 1948, found work in and around Brixton after the first arrivals were housed temporarily in the no longer needed deep shelter on Clapham Common. And for some, that Tate Library was their university and the gardens outside a popular meeting place. It was renamed Windrush Square as a part of the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the ship, but a few years later was the subject of a savage makeover by Lambeth Council (whose offices are opposite) designed largely with the objective of making it an unpleasant and windswept place to discourage any gatherings there.

Despite this it remains a centre for the community, and several hundred gathered there for a rally and march in Memory of Alton Sterling, shot several times at close range while held on the ground by two white police in Baton Rouge, and Philando Castile, killed by a Mexican-American police officer in St Paul, Minnesota, two of the latest black victims of police violence, and to show solidarity with those murdered by police brutality, both in the US and here in the UK.

Police, here and in the USA, don’t just kill black people, but the victims of police killings are certainly disproportionately black, and Brixton has history of such events, including the deaths of Ricky Bishop, Sean Rigg and Olaseni Lewis. The situation is clearly even worse in the USA than here largely because all police carry guns, but at the annual commemoration of the lives of those killed in custody in London a list of several thousand who have died in suspicious circumstances is carried at the front of the procession down Whitehall.

One poster in particular – I think from a US source – had a message worth quoting in full:

“Yes, ALL Lives Matter. But we’re focused on the Black Ones right now OK? – Because it is very apparent that our judicial system doesn’t know that. Plus if you can see why we’re exclaiming #BLACKLIVESMATTER you are part of the problem.”

Speaker after speaker, all I think black, though there were a significant number of white supporters in the crowd – mainly at the back, wanted to have their say, and the rally went on much longer than had been planned.  So long that I was unable to stay for the march, which later I was told went to Brixton Police Station, where several young black men have died over the years in suspicious circumstances, blocking the road and bringing traffic on the busy road through Brixton to a stop for several hours.


Brixton stands with Black victims
(more…)

Fink notes

Thursday, March 23rd, 2017

Although many photographers have worked with square format cameras, notably those made by Hassleblad and Rollei, few have really taken to the format and worked with it. Many always cropped their images, and saw the square format simply as enabling them to shoot in the same way for either a portrait or landscape format, with none of the problems of needing to tune the camera on its side. And some cameras really did make this a little of a problem. For those photographers who work with a camera on a tripod or stand it can also present some difficulties. But with the square format you just took the pictures and cropped whichever way you wanted afterwards.

What I like about Larry Fink’s photographs – most of them on square format ands presented as square is how he really gets the frame to work, getting in close to his subjects and using those edges in a really dynamic way.

The front page of his web site contains the text:

Viscerality is my perceptual mode. Simply spoken,it means that I want to touch everything that I love. Hopefully my pictures are a testimony to the love of the senses.

I’ve long thought of photography as being a very tactile medium and I’m at my happiest photographing people and groups of people at the kind of range where I could reach out and touch them, though often I have to work from a rather longer range.

Fink’s best-known work remains Social Graces, a book published by Aperture in 1984 (with a later Powerhouse edition in 1999.)

Born in Brooklyn, like others of a similar generation he studied paintings in the museums of that city, as well as photography with Lisette Model at the New School for Social Research. And he got to know many of the artists and literary figures living in the city.

Visura has a great portfolio of his images of ‘The Beats‘, taken in the late 1950s and published as a book in 2014, and you can read more about him and the book in The New Yorker. Olivier Laurent wrote about him on Time LightBox in 2015, and there is an interesting interview with him by Julie Ma on The Cut.

What prompted me to write this post was Fink on Warhol: New York Photographs of the 1960s which appeared recently in L’oeil De La Photographie.

I’ve owned several square format cameras over the years, including an ancient Rolleiflex (it cost me £35) but never really got into the cameras or the format.

The Capa Controversy

Tuesday, February 28th, 2017

Regular readers will have seen (and perhaps got rather tired of seeing) my frequent posts about the persistent detective work by A D Coleman and his co-workers, Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist J Ross Baughman, photo historian Rob McElroy and military historian Charles Herrick. Together they have succeeded in putting together a minutely detailed and evidenced examination of Robert Capa‘s exploits on D-Day and the subsequent processing and publication of the ten or eleven frames he took before leaving Omaha beach along with the stories fabricated around this begun by Life‘s then assistant picture editor John Morris within hours or days of the events and shortly after by Capa himself but with later embroidery by others.

It was of course obvious to any photographer who looked at the published images and thought about the story that was being told that it was absolute bunkum – film just doesn’t melt like that – but that didn’t stop it being repeated in book after book after film and web site, even those of some of the most prestigious organisations in photography (or perhaps especially them.)

I return to it because of a post by Coleman in iMediaEthics, Conflict of Interest, Cubed: Robert Capa’s D-Day Photos, John Morris, and the NPPA in which he looks at the article in the US NPPA’S (National Press Photographers Association) publication, News Photographer, The Fog of War – D Day and Robert Capa by Bruce Young. You might like to read both before continuing with my comments, though if you have been following the story I think you may well agree with me.

Young got considerable cooperation from Coleman and Baughmann who hoped he was going to acknowledge their work and put the record straight, but he does the opposite, muddying the water, adding some half-baked and unsubstantiated suggestions and parading a great deal of ignorance while somehow pretending to make some kind of objective overview that would put the matter to rest. NPPA members surely deserve better – we all do.

When Young gets down to business, he quotes at length from Capa’s own published account, written in Capa’s best story-telling mode, a fictionalised Hollywood version of his life story, followed by John Morris’s totally unbelievable account of the darkroom mishap. Young’s next paragraph is interesting, beginning by stating that this was the established story and legend for 70 years (which isn’t quite true – many of us challenged parts of the story long ago) and goes on to say “but if the devil is in the details, this story carries enough demons to populate all nine rings of Dante’s Hell“, going on to list a series of questions.

If he had bothered to read all of the published research by Coleman and others and had understood it, he would have found we now have answers to all or virtually all those questions, supported by evidence from various sources, but instead he goes on to suggest that Coleman, one of the best known and highly regarded critical writers about our medium over very many years, is not really qualified to comment because he has never been a professional photographer. While I sometimes think it helps, being a pro is neither necessary nor sufficient, why mention it when the research was the result of a team including one player with a Pulitzer for photjournalism?

There are many other curiosities in Young’s piece. Speaking about Morris’s reactions to Coleman’s research he suggests “But what if John Morris, now 98, sticks to the story because … well, it’s true? There are problems with some exacting details, but…” But it isn’t exacting details there are problems with but a fairly tremendous weight of evidence, and Morris himself has since accepted at least some of the facts, whilst spinning new fictions.

Young then goes into rather a lengthy digression on memory, which is to some degree irrelevant, as the fictions were written down close to the event, but rather fails to see that what he says about memory makes a nonsense of relying on Morris’s memory – having based his life and career around the story for the past 70 years he doubtless came to believe in his story. That’s how memory works!

I started writing not meaning to criticise Young, meaning to leave it to readers to make their own judgements. But it is really so bad I couldn’t resist, but I’ll spare you the rest of my thoughts. Of course Coleman has a lot more to say about it and about many details, and its hard not to feel his criticisms are at least largely justified.

But does it all matter about Capa? Well, obviously it does, from the angry responses that publishing the series of articles has generated from much of the photographic establishment. I think it matters because of the wider issues. Personally I’ve never been a great advocate of academic research that is too concerned with the details and minutiae, I’ve always been more concerned with the fate of the forests rather than the leaves on the tree. Integrity is the bedrock of photojournalism and documentary practice, and I think this research calls into question not so much the integrity of Capa – who didn’t make up the story about this or about the Falling soldier (about which Young also seems uninformed about the most recent research) but of the whole system that promulgates news to the public – immediately through Life Magazine in this case, but in the 70 years since then various other organisations including Magnum and the ICP.

Of course I didn’t know Capa, who was killed when I was still in short trousers, but I get a strong impression of him from his writing and photography and the stories about him I’ve heard over the years. I can imagine him opening the magazine and seeing the caption under the ‘Falling Soldier’ or the D-Day pictures, shrugging his shoulders and saying ‘Oh well, it’s a better story’ and thinking it was in any case too late to stick to the truth.

And of course the picture is still the same, still a powerful, truly iconic image of war. For me it isn’t diminished by knowing the truth, and it in no way diminishes my respect for Capa as a photographer to realise that he was only human, cold, wet, scared and shaking as he lay on the beach, only able to make ten or eleven exposures in the 20 minutes or so he was there. One was really enough.

You can read Coleman’s post about this at iMediaEthics and the NPPA, though I wrote this post before doing so. It contains a link to Young’s change of mind over the ‘Falling Soldier’ that I was unaware of, and also to another of Coleman’s own articles, Ethics in Photojournalism Then and Now: The Case of Robert Capa which I’m now reading with considerable interest.