Posts Tagged ‘Capa’

The cameras behind the pictures

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2019

I’ve often written about it being the photographer and not the camera that makes great pictures, but of course most photographers spend far too long talking and worrying about cameras, and many of us own a ridiculous number of them, mostly just sitting unused in cupboards.

Of course there are a few pictures that call out for some very special features in a camera, but most of the great images we know could have been taken by almost any working camera. Back in the days of film it wasn’t too unusual for the images used to advertise Camera X to have by taken by a photographer working with a different manufacturer’s system, and when captions included things like the camera model, aperture and shutter speed these were often rather speculative. Sometimes on my contact sheets I noted the camera used – OM1/ M2 etc – but often it was unrecorded. Now we have EXIF data to go on; with film you only had the markings on the film, which confirmed it was Tri-X or FP4 etc but nothing more.

But I think most photographers will find the article “20 Of The Most Iconic Photographs And The Cameras That Captured Them” of interest, even if as one of the comments points out, it really is “20 famous photographs and photos we found on the internet that we think might come pretty close to what wikipedia says they used“.

It rather shows the lack of proper historic research behind the article when it comes to one of Capa’s D-Day pictures:

Capa was with one of the earliest waves of troops landing on the American invasion beach, Omaha Beach. While under fire, Capa took 106 pictures, all but eleven of which were destroyed in a processing accident in the Life magazine photo lab in London.

We now can be certain, thanks to the exhaustive and painstaking work of A D Coleman and his team, that the “processing accident” was entirely fictional, a story invented by Capa (or possibly suggested to him by military intelligence), who was a great story-teller in words as well as images. The story was never believable – film just doesn’t behave as suggested, nor does processing equipment.

Capa only took 10 images on Omaha Beach (or just possibly 11) before deciding that if he was to get his images back to England in time he had to jump back onto a landing craft. His films will have been developed under military supervision, and it seems almost certain that any images that he took on the approach to the coast will have been censored and destroyed, as the censors were anxious to hide the huge scale of the invasion.

Of course Omaha Beach was dangerous, but by the time Capa arrived (an hour or two later than he claimed) the leading US troops had already made their way well ahead, meeting rather less resistance than on other beaches. But it will still have been a very scary place to be, and the image conveys that through its rawness and lack of sharpness, I think a combination of camera shake and under-exposure combined with overdevelopment. I think experienced darkroom workers at that time lifted the film briefly from the developing tank and held their glowing cigarette behind it to judge development, dropping it back into the developer if the image was too weak.

At least they got the make of camera right – a Contax – though the particular example shown doesn’t look as if it got far out of the showroom and certainly not to war. The same is true of quite a proportion of the others here.

Given what is now known about Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ the comment on this seems rather lacking, and the same could also be said about ‘Afghan Girl’ by Steve McCurry. And perhaps it should be pointed out that several other photographers also took pictures of ‘Tank Man’ in Tiananmen Square (and they probably used Nikons too.) Then there is that ‘Raising The Flag On Iwo Jima’ …

A few of the comments are also worth reading, and some tell rather more than the Bored Panda article about the pictures featured.

Whose face in the surf?

Friday, May 17th, 2019

The detailed and forensic investigation of Capa’s D-Day pictures by A. D Coleman and his co-workers continues to come up with fresh information and insights. Ordinarily I wouldn’t be much interested in the precise events of Tuesday, 6 June 1944, or indeed of any other day of World War Two, but two things make it of great interest.

The first is that whatever the precise circumstances (and we now can be sure what with remarkable accuracy what these were) Robert Capa produced on of photography’s most iconic photographs there, and one that has accreted to itself a remarkable body of largely incorrect legend in writing and film, and secondly that in a couple of weeks time the events of that day will be the subject of major celebrations, which will doubtless parade much of the imaginative inventions around the ten or eleven pictures Capa made duing the landing.

The latest addition to our knowledge comes again from ‘combat veteran and amateur military historian Charles Herrick’ and gives us some insight into about how legends about such events arise, through what Coleman has called “borrowed glamour”.

Apparently quite a few ex-soldiers over the years came to believe that they were the ‘face in the surf’ in Capa’s most famous picture, and in the first of three parts of his latest investigations Herrick examines the claims made by two of the men who actually took part in those D-Day landings .

The best known of the contenders is Huston “Hu” Riley, who landed with Company E, 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment in the first wave of infantry, and claimed that a man wearing a war correspondent’s patch on his shoulder helped him up out of the surf. Herrick points out that Capa didn’t wear the patch and wasn’t on the beach at the time the first wave arrived. Whover helped Riley up, it wasn’t Capa.

The second account he discusses is by Charles Hangsterfer, Headquarters Company commander and adjutant of the 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, who claimed to have met Capa on the beach, but Herrick shows the details of his story and Capa’s movements on the day make this impossible.

These memories of “borrowed glamour” from the stories recorded by those who took part in the landings usually 50 or 60 or 70 years later are not a case of deliberate deception, but as Herrick writes “When memories fade, it is human nature to reinterpret events in more favorable lights, or place oneself in slightly more important or significant circumstances.” Retelling our stories we always add a little, often confusing our own memories with what others have told us, and with what we have read in books and films (and for D-Day veterans particularly ‘Saving Private Ryan‘) , and bit by bit our memories shift from experience to fabulation.

I don’t expect it will ever be possible to make a positive identification of the face in that surf. Capa’s picture isn’t clear enough to really recognise anyone and too much time has passed. Although we can be sure that whoever it was made it safely onto what was by then a relatively safe beach, he could have been killed minutes, hours or days later during the war; even if he made it safely back to the USA he may well have forgotten the incident and would probably have been unable to recognise himself in the photograph.

But perhaps among those who have put themselves forward as that man, there may be one – or more – who could possibly have been that man. I await parts two and three of Herrick’s post to see if he can cast any more light. But in the end it perhaps doesn’t matter. Like the grave of the unknown soldier, Capa’s picture perhaps gains from his anonymity, the photograph of an unknown man.