The Man Who Invented Himself


Photographer Robert Capa during the Spanish ci...
Image via Wikipedia

The Man Who Invented Himself

” I would say a war correspondent gets more drinks, more girls, better pay, and greater freedom to choose his spot and being allowed to be a coward and not be executed for it, is his torture.”

Robert Capa, Slightly Out Of Focus

He was, in many ways, killed by his own personae.  As he impatiently waited for the tanks to create a defilade from the sniper fire that threatened the French patrol’s advance, he leaped across a shaded embankment separating the broken road and an adjacent field of rice paddies.  Two veteran combat journalists, Time-Life’s John Mecklin and Jim Lucas looked on with admiration and bemusement, only to rapidly duck their heads, as the sporadic Vietminh attack became a furious steel fist of mortars and machine gun fire.

The photojournalist, Andre Freidman, was a Hungarian Jew, who had immigrated to Berlin in the early 1930s and fled to Paris in 1934 after the National Socialists and Adolph Hitler seized power and began a virulent movement of national hegemony.

Friedman had grown up in the Jewish quarter of Pest, the working class district that was connected by a series of bridges to its more affluent sibling, Buda that stretched across the southern side of the Danube. His father, an alcoholic and gambler, left young Andres’ education to the unsupervised streets where he graduated with a reputation for alacrity, charm and daring.  In 1918, the Fascists had an iron grip on a Hungary still traumatized by the suffocating constraints of the Treaty of Versailles. Not unlike Germany a decade later, Budapest’s Jews, socialists and communists were being vilified for societies ills and Friedman understood that he must flee to find freedom and a release for his adrenaline fueled appetites.

In Berlin and in Paris, he lived on the streets, begging and doing odd jobs, eventually moving in with Eva Besnyo, a friend from Budapest. Desperate for money and intrigued by journalism, Andres secured a job at the promotional studio, Dephot, where he learned the art of photography.  It was here that he purchased his first Leica, an engineering marvel of a camera that allowed the photographer to shoot at rapid speeds and operate in various conditions of light.  With Leica in hand, the bohemian artist began to understand how his lens could surpass a writer’s pen in offering the viewer a poignant and personal view of a world always teetering between hope and a darker destiny.  A picture could tell a deeper story.

His irresistible charm and magnetism quickly made him friends and ultimately, led to an artistic troika with Polish photographer David Chim and the fashionable Henri Cartier Bresson.  Years later, these three photojournalists would be acknowledged for providing rich pictorial footprints of the doomed, fading daylight of France’s 3rd Republic.

In 1930’s Paris, it was a grand fete of bohemians and sybarites – with patrons routinely greeting an early dawn along the Champs D’Elysses, Boulevard San Germain, Montmartre and Montparnasse.  Andres had many affairs and was a favorite among socialites and models. However, one particular woman, an acerbic, elegant German refugee, named Gerda Pohorylles, became his infatuation, soul mate and some say, his co-inventor.

Realizing that his photos could gather more attention if he was something other than another faceless European refugee, Gerda and Andres created the personae -Robert Capa. Gerda explained to international and French magazine editors that Capa was a wealthy American who felt compelled to sell his work ” as is ” and often at rates double those of ordinary photographers.  Where ever conflict broke out, it seemed Andres and Gerda were there to film it and market his brilliant journalism to the major periodicals under the “nom d’ photographe”, Capa.

In his book, Blood and Champagne, Alex Kershaw describes the perfect arrangement, ” Capa loved Gerda, Gerda loved Andre, Andre loved Capa, and Capa loved Capa.”  He was hired and sent to Spain – a country with whom he felt deep affinity – covering the smoldering Spanish Civil War. It was here that he and Gerda would meet and carouse with international journalists – Hemmingway and John Dos Passos who were attached to brigades of foreign soldiers eager to assist the Republicans against the Nazi backed Fascist armies of Generalissimo Franco.

It was in Spain that some say Andre Friedman died and Robert Capa was born.  On a small hill town outside of Cordoba, Robert Capa became synonymous with combat photography when he snapped a photo of a Loyalist soldier repulsed backward after apparently being hit in the head with a bullet. The “Falling Soldier” remains to this day, a subject of intense debate among historians who question its authenticity. One thing is certain, it cemented the public persona of Robert Capa.

Despite his newfound celebrity, the war was having a profound effect on Capa.  As he witnessed the carnage and horror of modern war and fascism crushing the idealistic and ill-equipped Loyalists, Capa urged Gerda to marry him.  It seemed as if everything might disappear in a flash of shrapnel and blood.  His mortality weighed on him. Gerda dismissed his overtures, suggesting their need to live in the moment and fight for the protection of the Republic.

Capa had returned just days before to Paris when he heard the news that Gerda had been killed. She was crushed between two tanks as they were trying to protect civilians fleeing from bullets spitting from dive-bombing German Heinkel planes.

Capa was devastated and emerged from his fortnight of alcohol fueled depression with a wild eye and self destructive resolve to use his Leica as a grand weapon against the tyrannies of imperial powers. His assignment took him back to Spain where he documented the bitter fall of the Republic and the slate gray morality of an ideological war where both sides committed horrendous atrocities.  His predisposition to socialism was shattered during this time and turned to bitter disillusionment when Stalin signed his non-aggression pact with Hitler – reinforcing a deeply cynical view that no government could be trusted.

Capa’s social exploits were the stuff of legends as he lived every second to its fullest – he drew people close, a generous supernova of consumption – gambling, womanizing, living as one person shared, ” with enough money to travel but not enough to settle down”. He was forever haunted by what he had seen as he photographed the portrait of war but never allowed his demons to reach through his veneer of devious charm. By now, he was recognized as the world’s greatest combat photographer. His celebrity and his penchant for front line assignments dropped him into high stakes company with the likes of Bogart, John Huston, George Stevens and John Steinbeck. He carried on a three-year affair with Ingrid Bergman while moving back and forth from the Italian and European fronts with beloved combat journalist Ernie Pyle (killed by a Japanese sniper) and cartoonist Bill Mauldin.

His most inspired act of courage was his decision to go forward with the first D Day wave of American soldiers on Omaha Beach.  Crowded in an LST with young soldiers from Company A, 116th of the 29th Division, many of whom would die on the Beach head, Easy Red, Capa watched and snapped four rolls of 35mm film over 90 minutes as brave soldiers drown and were scythed down like dry wheat by scores of machine gun nests, mortars, 88’s, rocket launchers, rear line artillery, fortified bunkers and pillboxes. Every inch of Omaha was a coordinated killing field.

Capa remained on the sloping beach wiggling in and out of the water, dodging machine gunners until all the film was shot.  He scrambled aboard an outbound LSI that was filled with wounded to send his photos back to London.  In the chaotic haste to meet a deadline and use the Capa combat shots, the London based dark room developer, over cooked the film and melted all but eight frames – grainy photos that were later published in Life magazine and won even greater acclaim.

Capa would rediscover his passion for Judaism as he chronicled the emigration of Europe’s surviving Jews to Palestine, the birth of Israel and the Six Day War. He started Magnum – a consortia for photographers to coalesce and market their photographs – independent of the controlling imperialism of the major periodicals. Yet, it was clear to all that while Capa was the charming raconteur, he was no businessman.

He was beginning to show signs of post-traumatic stress as he moved between terror and self-indulgent nihilism. Capa chose not to cover the Korean War believing that one could not film a war that one did not have an emotional stake in.  He instead took an assignment to Japan to film the country for Ladies Home Journal.  The trip recharged him and motivated him to get back in the game – accepting a particularly dangerous assignment covering the French Colonial Wars with Ho Chi Minh in Indochina.

On Tuesday May 25, 1954, Capa was accompanying the 2nd Amphibious Group of the Foreign Legion in the Red River Delta.  His partners, Mecklin and Lucas watched him move out of sight to film a platoon advancing toward tree line small arms fire.

An explosion suddenly sucked in the humid afternoon air and spit out an angry, searing concussion “Le Photographe est mort” shouted a young soldier.  They found him clutching his camera in his left hand, as if to shield it from the blast.  His last words were perhaps the phrase he glibly uttered most often when confronted with the possibility of death, “es una cosa muy seria” (This is a very serious business).

Perhaps a fitting epitaph to the dashing contradiction that the writer John Hershey eloquently described as  “the man who invented himself.”

One thought on “The Man Who Invented Himself

  1. Lars Irgens October 12, 2009 / 6:17 am

    I went to the Capa exhibition in Budapest on Friday. Stunning. If you’re around there; See it! It’s at the Ludwig Museum.

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