Yet More on Capa

Those few images that Robert Capa managed to take on Omaha Beach in the morning of D-Day continue to attract attention from researchers, with a second guest post in the series on Photocritic International by amateur military historian Charles Herrick (in two parts, Part 1 and Part 2.)

From careful examination of the ten images that we now know were all that Capa took, Herrick shows exactly where on the mile long beach he landed, and is able to pinpoint his position as “just a few yards east of the Roman ruins on Easy Red.” The posts also contain much detail about the military operations which I’m content to leave to military historians, but clearly seems researched in depth.

This was a critical area of the landing, at what Herrick describes as “a seam” in the German defences which enabled the US troops to make rapid advances at this very point. By the time Capa arrived with the second wave of landings they had made considerable progress and the area was only under “light” fire, enabling the engineers that Herrick earlier identified in Capa’s pictures to get on with the work of destroying the beach obstacles.

As Herrick, with the benefit of his 26 years in the US army followed by a career as a defence contractor comments, ‘“Light” is a relative term when describing fire, especially if you are on the receiving end.’ And he goes on to comment “Perhaps we can partially excuse Capa for his elaborations; Omaha was his first opposed assault landing” and states:

Omaha Beach must have come as a shock. In the grip of that shock, he undoubtedly registered false impressions, impressions that easily morphed into the further exaggerations of Slightly Out of Focus.”

Capa’s first reported account of his landing on D-Day morning was an interview three days later which was published in a book rushed out by September 1944 was quoted in an earlier post in the series by A D Coleman and he began it by stating ““It was very unpleasant there [on Omaha Beach] and, having nothing else to do, I start shooting pictures. I shoot for an hour and a half and then my film is all used up.

Herrick comments that by the time Capa brought out his own book , Slightly Out of Focus in 1947, the story had become “far, far bloodier“:

“Capa apparently lifted the carnage that occurred elsewhere on Omaha Beach and superimposed it on his own much less deadly experiences. One only has to take a fresh, unbiased look at his photos for proof.”

To look at them at least with the trained military eye of Herrick, and also in the light of what the research by Coleman and his colleagues in the Robert Capa D-Day Project has revealed.

Capa was a photographer and not a soldier, and clearly and as Herrick says, understandably, he panicked, reacting to his false impressions of what was happening, and he took the first opportunity to get out, even though he knew he had only taken a few pictures – ten frames. Herrick tells the story of the military surgeon who landed with Capa and had a similar reaction; he was shortly given orders by the regimental commander to follow him up the beach. But as a photographer, Capa was on his own on the shore, with no one to tell him what to do.

Herrick also mentions and links to the similar detective work of another military historian who by studying the pictures has come to similar but not identical conclusions about Capa on D-Day. Coleman also notes that Herrick’s account differs in details about the timings on the day from that advanced previously in the series by him and  J. Ross Baughman, but that all of them conclude that Capa only spent “15-30 minutes at most photographing on Omaha Beach; and made only the ten surviving 35mm negatives while there.”

Although there is still room for minor differences between accounts (and Herrick’s researches throw yet more doubt on the identification of “The Face in the Surf” as Private Huston Riley), the overall picture now appears very clear.

Though not apparently to some French commentators working for Le Monde and Télérama who are apparently still to firmly under the influence of the myth to believe the evidence. It’s perhaps a matter of national pride; although Capa was not French he was adopted by them, spending a great deal of his life in Paris, and Magnum very much is.

Harder to explain is the Wikipedia article on Capa, and the separate wildly inaccurate article on his D-Day images, The Magnificent Eleven, which after recounting the myth as gospel does mention that perhaps there were never more than eleven exposures, managing to give the credit for this suggestion to John Morris, the man who invented the whole now discredited fiction in the first place.

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