Capa 100

It probably hasn’t escaped your attention that Robert Capa, or rather Endre Friedmann was born 100 years ago on October 22, 1913, as there have been a number of newspaper articles about him and this anniversary.

Apparently while at school in Budapest he gained the nickname cápa – Hungarian for ‘shark’, and he used this in a scam when having problems making a living in Paris in the mid-1930s. To charge more for his pictures he invented an entirely mythical ‘famous American photographer’ giving him  de-accented form Capa as a surname because of its similarity to the name of US film director Frank Capra, whose 1934 film It Happened One Night had won five Oscars. Friedmann chose the first name ‘Robert’ because he thought it typically American (and he didn’t at the time know that ‘Bob’ was a shortened form of the same name.)  He, by now calling himself André Friedmann, posed as the famous photographer’s ‘darkroom boy’, while his partner, photographer and picture editor Gerda Taro (born Gerta Pohorylle), became Robert Capa‘s agent, insisting on double the normal fees for the work of this famous photographer.

Friedmann was soon caught out, as Gerda tried to sell one of the editors who had been paying over the odds for Capa’s work some pictures that he had seen Friedmann taking.  But Lucien Vogel of Vue was I think amused by the ingenuity as well as impressed by the quality of the images, and sent the two photographers to cover the Spanish Civil War, with Friedmann now adopting Capa as his own name.

I’ve just spent a fruitless half hour searching for my copy of a book on Capa produced long ago by the ICP (International Center of Photography) in New York, a body founded in 1974 by Robert Capa’s brother Cornell Capa to keep the work of his brother and other ‘concerned’ humanitarian documentary photographers alive, which has a number of Capa’s own stories in it, as well as probably the best selection of his pictures.

I’ve also been listening to a broadcast recently discovered and available on the ICP site that Capa made on a morning talk show ‘Hi! Jinx.’ in October 1947.  It is the only known recording of his voice, for although Capa was known as a great story-teller, this was apparently his only appearance on radio and he was never interviewed for television. He came on radio to promote his  autobiographical novel’ Slightly Out of Focus but much of his talk is about the trip he had just made to Russia for the forthcoming A Russian Journal, with his pictures and a text by his travelling companion John Steinbeck. Both books are available dirt cheap second-hand, presumably meaning they sold very well.

Autobiographical novel is a good description of ‘Slightly Out of Focus’, as Capa seems seldom to have let sticking the absolute facts spoil a good story and many grew considerably with the telling. The recording contradicts the description of his mode of speech by some friends as incomprehensible ‘Capanese’. In the interview, Capa, a considerable linguist who spoke Hungarian, German, French, Spanish, and English, shows himself to be clear and highly articulate in what ‘became his dominant written and spoken language’ by 1941, English.

It’s certainly interesting to hear Capa talk about his work, and in particular how he made the picture that made him famous, the 1936 ‘Falling Soldier’ . He says he had no idea what he had taken, holding his camera above his head and pressing the shutter, and only knew he had taken a great picture later. The ICP comments, ‘He says, “The prize picture is born in the imagination of the editors and the public who sees them.” It is the only public comment we have directly from him about this famous image.’

Those who are in Korea, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Mexico, France and of course New York can visit shows that are a part of the centenary celebrations, and earlier this year the Atlas Gallery in London put on a show of Capa’s work. Probably the best place to see his work on-line is at Magnum Photos.

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