Magnum Capa

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.

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