A Bruised Bottom?

There are some images that everyone with the slightest interest in photography know, and two of them were (almost certainly) taken by Robert Capa. Both have long been surrounded by controversy, and the ten or eleven pictures of the D-Day landings have been the main subject of a major series of posts on ‘Photocritic International‘ by A D Coleman and his collaborators.

We can now be certain that while Capa did land on Omaha Beach, he wasn’t in the first wave and was fortunate in that it was a relatively quiet area by the time he got there. ‘Relatively’ is an important qualification and though to the military who were getting on with the job of clearing the beach it was relatively normal, to you and I – or indeed Capa – it was a very scary place to be. So scary that he only managed to take those ten or eleven images before deciding to jump on the next boat out. And who could blame him – or feel they might have done any better?

Capa struck lucky with one of those images, though had it come out as he intended it would have been long forgotten. Imagine it as well-exposed, sharp and with excellent tonality; even if published, it would have been entirely unmemorable – rather like many of the images taken by military photographers on that and the following days.

Discarding the silly myths created around the picture actually make it more interesting. It’s a more human document and we can concentrate on the image and how it evokes what it does rather than think about unbelievable stories about darkroom abuse of film and mythical darkroom workers.

It’s a story I’ve dealt with here and elsewhere on numerous occasions and I return to it only because the latest post on Photocritic International, Alternate History: Robert Capa and ICP (6), from an e-mail by editor and author Jim Hughes has brought it back to mind, and also sent me back to read a contribution by Hughes to the earlier D-Day series, Guest Post 18: Jim Hughes on Capa’s Biographer.

Jim Hughes, as older readers will remember, was a consulting editor for the US magazine Popular Photography, a monthly which in the 1980s I read because it was so much better in its coverage of photography than any of the UK magazines (and I also read its rival ‘Modern Photography‘ for the same reason.) In 1985 he reviewed Richard Whelan‘s authorized biography of Robert Capa for the January 1986 issue.

I’m fairly sure that I will have read that review, in which he was the apparently the first to publish a clear statement that dismisses as myth “the oft-told story of Life‘s London darkroom having ruined the negatives of all but 11 of Capa’s 72 photographs by leaving the film in the drying cabinet with the heat on high and the door closed“. As Hughes makes clear, it just isn’t believable as film is just not affected by heat in the way the story claims.

So while I thought it was my own experience as a photographer (and one who managed to mess up film processing in every conceivable way over the years) that led me to the inevitable conclusion that the story was entirely fictional, perhaps I should now credit Hughes for alerting me to that fact.

Whelan responded to the review by suggesting that Hughes had only seen reproductions of the images in the book of Capa’s photographs, and that these somehow did not allow such conclusions to be made. Was Whelan claiming that the reproductions were so bad that we could not see the obvious? In any case Hughes responded that his conclusions came not from the book but from examination of the original prints.

It seems odd that although photographers such as myself were convinced by the evidence that the darkroom destruction myth was just another story in that great fund of Capa fiction it should have continued to hold such sway – and that even now it has been so comprehensively debunked it should still be published and supported by some leading figures in photography. Whelan simply lacked the photographic knowledge to realise it had to be wrong, but – at least once pointed out – it was clear to those of us who had toiled long in darkrooms.

But more controversial at the time was the discussion by Hughes of Capa’s ‘Falling Soldier‘, already the subject of the 1975 book, The First Casualty by Phillip Knightley. In the latest article, Hughes, who had mentioned the controversy over this image in his review, looks at some of the issues around this image and the attempts by Whelan and Cornell Capa to cover up the controversy.

The post also links to the more recent work by Spanish scholar Jose Manuel Susperregui, which appears to have established conclusively “that Capa’s ‘Falling Soldier’ was staged by Capa at Cerro del Cuco, outside the town of Espejo, Cordoba — and that no soldiers died there that day.”

Painstaking research enabled him to determine the place where the picture was taken. He also establishes that the image was taken on a square format (6x6cm) camera that Capa never used to photograph combat, and was more often used by his partner Gerda Taro; the image characteristics lead him to conclude that this image was indeed taken by Capa although others have suggested it was by Taro.

He shows that the camera was deliberately set up (on a tripod) tilted at an angle to suggest it was on sloping ground rather than the flat field, and the two pictures of different men falling show they were performing for the camera. The post has a link to an English translation of an length illustrated article by Susperregui published in April this year describing his research and conclusions.

The picture does indeed show a ‘falling soldier’, but he is falling not to a bullet but to Capa’s directions, and rather than dying; his injuries will have amounted at worst to a bruised bottom.

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