by Iyna Bort Caruso
In the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, Robert Capa stood aboard the transport ship, theUSS Samuel Chase, as it made its way across the English Channel. Capa wore clothing that was gasproofed, waterproofed and camouflaged. With a farewell note in his pocket, he counted himself among the ship’s legion of “last-letter” writers who wondered if they’d ever return home. But unlike his shipmates of the 116th Infantry Regiment, Capa carried three cameras and an expensive Burberry raincoat. “I was the most elegant invader of all.”
An invader shooting pictures, not bullets.
As dawn approached Capa would be on the gangplank of a landing craft with the first wave of assault troops at Omaha Beach–the only photographer to do so. His pictures would become the definitive images of those first bloody and chaotic hours of D-Day.
More than 60 years before the war in Iraq gave us the term “embedded,” Capa was a front-line photojournalist. He famously said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” Capa got close enough in five major conflicts of the 20th century: the Spanish Civil War, the Japanese invasion of China in 1938, World War II, the Israeli War for Independence in 1948 and the French Indochina War in 1954.
His D-Day photos were packed with shrapnel smoke, burnt tanks, sinking barges and, as he described in his book, Slightly Out of Focus, “wet boots and green faces.” Some photos were shot with wet, shaking hands. After he had used up all his film, Capa ran back toward an amphibious tank, carrying his cameras high above his head as the rip tide smacked his body. He reached the deck of the tank to find it covered with feathers. The boat had taken a hit from a German 88mm shell. The feathers were stuffing from kapok jackets of the men who had been blown up.
When asked the difference between a war correspondent and a man in uniform, Capa said, “more drinks, more girls, better pay.” But he quickly added that being “allowed to be a coward and not be executed for it is his torture. “
The rolls of film Capa shot under enemy fire were rushed to a London lab for processing. A darkroom technician, working under tremendous deadline pressure, set the dryer too high, melting the emulsions and ruining all but a handful of the 106 pictures. But that handful was enough. When they appeared in Life Magazine on June 19, 1944 they stunned the world. The photographs of GIs struggling through the surf resembled smudgy charcoal studies. They are arguably the most dramatic battlefront images ever taken.
Capa’s life was intrepid, impetuous and improbable. He was born EndreFriedmann in 1913 into an assimilated Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary. At age 17 the secret police arrested him for leftist student activities and jailed him overnight. In exchange for his release, he agreed to leave the country. A teenager in exile. He fled to Berlin where he first took up photography. It was a short-lived move. When Hitler rose to power in 1933, the budding lensman took off again.
He eventually landed in Paris where the persona of Robert Capa was born in 1936. Friedmann and then-girlfriend, GertaPohorylle, made the rounds of magazine editors claiming his photos were actually the work of their employer, Capa, a famous, elusive American photographer. When the ruse was up, Friedmann took on the alias and never looked back. A decade later he would turn fiction into fact by becoming an American citizen.
After the Second World War, he continued on a life of wanderlust. Capa collaborated with the likes of John Steinbeck, Theodore H. White and Irwin Shaw. He had an affair with Ingrid Bergman, following her to Hollywood where he embarked a brief film career. Sound stages and movie sets were not for him. Capa returned to Paris and founded Magnum Photos in 1947with Henri Cartier-Bresson, David “Chim” Seymour, William Vandivert and George Rodger.
Capa wrote, “It’s not easy always to stand aside and be unable to do anything except to record the sufferings around one.” In fact, he started showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He drank hard and suffered survivor’s guilt. But it didn’t stop him. He went on to cover the Arab-Israeli War in 1948, where his close-to-the-action approach got him grazed by a bullet.
Sixty years ago this month [editorial note: May] Capaoutfitted himself with a Nikon, a Contax, a thermos of ice tea and a flask of cognac and set out along the Red River Delta to document the escalating conflict between the French and nationalist resistance groups in Indochina, now Vietnam. This conflict would be his last. A landmine closed out the career of the greatest war photographer of the 20th century. He was just 40 years old, the Contax still in his hand.
In compiling his portfolio, Capa documented the reaction as much as the action and in doing so, made them personal. His friend and old collaborator John Steinbeck wrote: “He could photograph motion and gaiety and heartbreak. He could photograph thought. He captured a world, and it was Capa’s world.”