Capa Under Fire

I’ve never believed the story about Robert Capa‘s D-Day films being ruined by a darkroom technician, but though I’ve certainly expressed my doubts in discussions I can’t find anywhere where I’ve published them clearly in print or on the web.

I don’t believe it because I’ve tried hard to melt film, and it isn’t easy, and when you do so the results don’t look anything like those familiar D-Day images. Back when I was teaching art students, some of them worked hard to distress films in various ways, and found modern emulsions surprisingly resilient. They couldn’t get results like Capa’s using a film dryer or a hair dryer on full heat and ended up using more extreme means – ovens, matches and gas burners – and the results were rather different.

I didn’t believe it also because of the conflicting stories that have come out, but I kept quiet about it. I hadn’t done the research that would be necessary to write what I felt in my bones, though I tried to express a certain degree of scepticism when I wrote about it back in 1999 (and rather more in my lectures on which this was based:)

Both Capa and Rodger covered the D-Day landing in Normandy. Rodger strode ashore at Arromanche and found little happening, while Capa hit Omaha Beach where all hell was breaking loose. He shot three rolls of film on his two Contaxes, during the approach and wading ashore from the landing craft and then while lying flat on the wet sand while bullets raced over his head. Capa’s most quoted remark about photography is ‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough’, but here he was closer than he intended. He realised his duty as a photographer was to get the pictures back and rushed himself and his film back on to a landing craft and from there to England.

Only 8 of the 106 frames were fit for use. Apparently the Life darkroom technician was so excited by what he saw that he allowed the film to overheat while drying it, ruining most of the film. Life at first put out a story that the pictures had been ruined by sea water, then, after telling Capa what had really happened, ran the pictures with a caption that enraged Capa, saying he had not focused properly in the heat of the action. Of course this and a certain amount of camera shake would have been pretty excusable in the circumstances. The faults that are present in the existing pictures give them a graphic quality which would have been lacking in properly processed work.

What I was implying in the section emphasized above, though being careful not to be explicit, was that to me these pictures looked just as if they were out of focus and suffering from camera shake and that we needed no other explanation for what we can see.

But while I only implied and failed to research in any detail, J Ross Baughman recently made his views quite clear in two guest posts on Photocritic International, Robert Capa’s Troubles on Omaha Beach (1) and (2).

A D Coleman himself has followed this up with his usual dogged forensic attention to detail with a series of posts Alternate History: Robert Capa on D-Day, currently up to part 7, in which he comes to the conclusion about the ruin in drying “I no longer believe a word of it. I’m embarrassed that I did for so long, and amazed that it’s gone unchallenged for seven decades.”

But he also concludes “But it no longer matters, because whatever caused the complete loss of three of Capa’s rolls of 36-exposure 35mm film and 2/3 of the fourth roll, none of that film — according to the photographer’s own caption notes and the data encoded in the remaining negatives themselves — contained any further images of the landing at Omaha Beach.”

It seems pretty clear that Capa only made 11 exposures on Omaha beach (not the 8 which were said to have survived when I wrote) although the best of those negatives has since gone missing. Another was apparently too poor technically to print. Coleman suggests pretty convincingly that the other exposures on the film were made by Capa before the landing craft reached the beach and were drastically overexposed (as shown on the stills from a recent video.)

Coleman’s account is not quite as clear as it might be in part 4, as his mind has been changed by an exchange with photographer Mike Doukas. The frames shown on the contact sheet appear to be the final ten from a commercially loaded 36 exposure cassette, ending as usual at frame 38 (with 37 the missing negative.) They start with 5 exposures made from the landing craft as troops wade ashore  and end with the final picture Capa took on the beach.

The other films lost or ruined appear not to have been taken on Omaha beach but – according to Capa’s own notes, to have been taken earlier during boarding and the journey across the channel.

It is hard to know what to make of Capa’s claims – discussed by Coleman in part 5 – to have taken more films (or indeed about anything else in his life – Capa was nothing if not a great story teller, and good stories are always at least a little more than the truth), but Coleman’s dismissal of this seems convincing. But he is surely too harsh on Capa in the conclusion that by only taking 11 pictures and then running to get away from the beach that “On this crucial occasion, the opportunity of a lifetime, he failed himself, his picture editor, his publisher, his public, and history itself.”  It is perhaps a conclusion that reflects Coleman’s own anger at having been taken in for so long by the improbable story.

It was arguably a surprising failure not to have reloaded the camera immediately before the craft hit the beach so as to have a full 36 exposures at his disposal, but perhaps there was not enough warning that it was about to happen. But flat on the beach under withering fire he would have known that he only had a few frames left, and probably felt that loading another film would have been too much of a risk to his life. To get a couple of good images, pictures that became icons for whatever reason –  and to keep alive to take them back to England seems to me a success.

You need to read the whole story, starting with  Robert Capa on D-Day which Coleman published on June 10th.

One mystery I think remains. The young lad in the darkroom was long thought to have been the 18 year old Larry Burrows, but later LIFE‘s London picture editor John Morris who was in charge later made clear that he had not been involved, laying blame on the youngest of the darkroom staff,  15-year-old lab assistant Dennis Banks (although according to Capa biographer Richard Whelan, his name was Dennis Sanders.)  15 in 1944, if still alive he would be 85 now, and in any case there must still be many people alive who would have known him, and doubtless he would have told some his story. If he – or anyone who knew him – is reading this we would all like to hear from you, so please get in touch. Or was he simply a fictional character?

One Response to “Capa Under Fire”

  1. […] Peter Marshall has published two thoughtful posts on this Capa series at his blog, Re: Photo: “Capa Under Fire,” posted June 25, which addresses Ross Baughman’s original posts and my first few, […]

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