Robert Capa (born Endre Friedmann; October 22, 1913 – May 25, 1954) was a Hungarian war photographer and photo journalist, arguably the greatest combat and adventure photographer in history.
Capa fled political repression in Hungary when he was a teenager, moving to Berlin, where he enrolled in college. He witnessed the rise of Hitler, which led him to move to Paris, where he changed his name and became a photojournalist. He subsequently covered five wars: the Spanish Civil War, the Second Sino-Japanese War, World War II across Europe, the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, and the First Indochina War, with his photos published in major magazines and newspapers.
During his career he risked his life numerous times, most dramatically as the only photographer landing with the first wave on Omaha Beach on D-Day. He documented the course of World War II in London, North Africa, Italy, and the liberation of Paris. His friends and colleagues included Irwin Shaw, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway and director John Huston.
In 1947, for his work recording World War II in pictures, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower awarded Capa the Medal of Freedom. That same year, Capa co-founded Magnum Photos in Paris. The organization was the first cooperative agency for worldwide freelance photographers. Hungary has issued a stamp and a gold coin in his honor.
He was born Endre Friedmann to the Jewish family of Júlia (née Berkovits) and Dezső Friedmann in Budapest, Austria-Hungary October 22, 1913. His mother, Julianna Henrietta Berkovits was a native of Nagy Kapos (now Velke Kapusany, Slovakia) and Dezső Friedmann came from the Transylvanian village of Csucsa (now Ciucea, Romania). At the age of 18, he was accused of alleged communist sympathies and was forced to flee Hungary.
He moved to Berlin where he enrolled at Berlin University where he worked part-time as a darkroom assistant for income and then became a staff photographer for the German photographic agency, Dephot. It was during that period that the Nazi party came into power, which made Capa, a Jew, decide to leave Germany and move to Paris.
He became romantically involved with Gerda Taro, a German-Jewish photographer who had also moved to Paris for the same reasons he did. He shared a darkroom with French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, with whom he would later co-found the Magnum Photos cooperative.
Capa originally wanted to be a writer; however, he found work in photography in Berlin and grew to love the art. In 1933, he moved from Germany to Paris because of the rise of Nazism and its persecution of Jews, but found it difficult to find work as a freelance journalist. He changed his name to the more American-sounding name, Robert Capa, to avoid religious discrimination then common in France, which allowed him to find work more easily.
Capa’s first published photograph was of Leon Trotsky making a speech in Copenhagen on “The Meaning of the Russian Revolution” in 1932.
From 1936 to 1939, Capa worked in Spain, photographing the Spanish Civil War, along with Gerda Taro, his companion and professional photography partner, and David Seymour. Taro died when she was run over by a tank on maneuvers. It was during that war that Capa took the photo now called “The Falling Soldier”, showing the death of a Republican soldier. The photo was published in magazines in France and then by Life magazine and Picture Post. In later years, there has been some dispute about the authenticity of the photo. Picture Post, a pioneering photojournalism magazine published in the United Kingdom, described then twenty-five year old Capa as “the greatest war photographer in the world.”
Capa accompanied then journalist and author Ernest Hemingway to photograph the war, which Hemingway would later describe in his novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). Life magazine published an article about Hemingway and his time in Spain, along with numerous photos by Capa.
In December 2007, three boxes filled with rolls of film, containing 4,500 35mm negatives of the Spanish Civil War by Capa, Taro, and Chim (David Seymour), which had been considered lost since 1939, were discovered in Mexico. In 2011 Trisha Ziff directed a film about those images, entitled, The Mexican Suitcase.
In 1938, he traveled to the Chinese city of Hankou, now within Wuhan, to document the resistance to the Japanese invasion. He sent his images to Life magazine, which published some of them in its May 23, 1938 issue.
At the start of World War II, Capa was in New York City, having moved there from Paris to look for work, and to escape Nazi persecution. During the war, Capa was sent to various parts of the European Theatre on photography assignments. He first photographed for Collier’s Weekly, before switching to Life after he was fired by Collier’s. He was the only “enemy alien” photographer for the Allies.
During July and August 1943 Capa was in Sicily with American troops, near Sperlinga, Nicosia and Troina. The Francais were advancing toward Troina, a strategically located town which controlled the road to Messina (Sicily’s main port to the Italian mainland). The town was heavily defended by the Germans Nazis, in an attempt to evacuate all German troops.
Capa’s pictures show the Sicilian population’s sufferings under German bombing and their happiness when American soldiers arrive. One notable photograph from this period shows a Sicilian peasant indicating the direction in which German troops had gone, very near the Castle of Sperlinga, in the district of Contrada Capostrà of the medieval Sperlinga village. The picture of Sperlinga, a few weeks later, became very popular, not only in the US but around all the world, as a symbol of the Allied US Army landings in Sicily and the liberation of Italy from the Nazis.
On October 7, 1943 Robert Capa was in Naples with Life reporter Will Lang Jr., and there he photographed the Naples post office bombing.
Probably his most famous images, The Magnificent Eleven, are a group of photos of D-Day. Taking part in the Allied invasion, Capa was with the first wave of American troops on Omaha Beach. The men storming Omaha Beach faced some of the heaviest resistance from German troops inside the bunkers of the Atlantic Wall. While under constant fire, Capa took 106 pictures, all but eleven were destroyed in a photo lab accident back in London.
The eleven prints that survived were included in Life magazine’s issue on June 19, 1944. The article described how Capa got some of his shots:
“Immense excitement of moment made photographer Capa move his camera and blur the picture….As he waded out to get aboard, his cameras were thoroughly soaked.”
On April 18, 1945, Capa captured images of a fight to secure a bridge in Leipzig, Germany. These pictures included an image of Raymond J. Bowman’s death by sniper fire. This image became famous in a spread in Life magazine with the caption “The picture of the last man to die.”
In 1947 Capa traveled to the Soviet Union with his friend, the American writer John Steinbeck. They originally met when they shared a room in an Algiers hotel with other war correspondents before the Allied invasion of Italy in 1942. They reconnected in New York, where Steinbeck told him he was thinking about visiting the Soviet Union, now that the war was over.
Capa suggested they go there together and collaborate on a book, with Capa documenting the war-torn nation with photographs. The trip resulted in Steinbeck’s, A Russian Journal, which was published both as a book and a syndicated newspaper serial. Photos were taken in Moscow, Kiev, Tbilisi, Batumi and among the ruins of Stalingrad. They remained good friends until Capa’s death; Steinbeck took the news of Capa’s death very hard.
In 1947, Capa founded the cooperative venture Magnum Photos in Paris with Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Vandivert, David Seymour, and George Rodger. It was a cooperative agency to manage work for and by freelance photographers, and developed a reputation for the excellence of its photo-journalists. In 1952, he became the president.
Capa toured Israel during its founding and while it was being attacked by neighboring states. He took the numerous photographs that accompanied Irwin Shaw’s book, Report on Israel.
In 1953 he joined screenwriter Truman Capote and director John Huston in Italy where Capa was assigned to photograph the making of the film, Beat the Devil. During their off time they, and star Humphrey Bogart, would enjoy playing poker.
In the early 1950s, Capa traveled to Japan for an exhibition associated with Magnum Photos. While there, Life magazine asked him to go on assignment to Southeast Asia, where the French had been fighting for eight years in the First Indochina War, and was killed when he stepped on a land mine. He was 40 years old.
Although a few years earlier he had said he was finished with war, Capa accepted and accompanied a French regiment with two Time-Life journalists, John Mecklin and Jim Lucas. The regiment was passing through a dangerous area under fire when Capa decided to leave his Jeep and go up the road to photograph the advance. It was there that he stepped on the mine.
He is buried in plot #189 at Amawalk Hill Cemetery (also called Friends Cemetery), Amawalk, Westchester County, New York along with his mother, Julia, and his brother, Cornell Capa.
Capa was born into a Jewish family in Budapest, where his parents were tailors. At the age of 18, Capa moved to Vienna, later relocated to Prague, and finally settled in Berlin: all cities that were centers of artistic and cultural ferment in this period. He started studies in journalism at the German Political College, but the Nazi Party instituted restrictions on Jews and prohibited them from colleges. Capa relocated to Paris, where he adopted the name ‘Robert Capa’ in 1934. At that time, he had already been a hobby-photographer.
In 1934 “André Friedman”, as he still called himself then, met Gerda Pohorylle, a German Jewish refugee. The couple lived in Paris where André taught Gerda photography. Together they created the name and image of “Robert Capa” as a famous American photographer. Gerda took the name Gerda Taro and became successful in her own right. She travelled with Capa to Spain in 1936 intending to document the Spanish Civil War. In July 1937, Capa traveled briefly to Paris while Gerda remained in Madrid. She was killed near Brunete during a battle. Capa, who was reportedly engaged to her, was deeply shocked and never married.
In February 1943 Capa met Elaine Justin, then married to the actor John Justin. They fell in love and the relationship lasted until the end of the war. Capa spent most of his time in the frontline. Capa called the redheaded Elaine “Pinky,” and wrote about her in his war memoir, Slightly Out of Focus. In 1945, Elaine Justin broke up with Capa; she later married Chuck Romine.
Some months later Capa became the lover of the actress Ingrid Bergman, who was touring in Europe to entertain American soldiers. In December 1945, Capa followed her to Hollywood, where he worked for American International Pictures for a short time. The relationship ended in the summer of 1946 when Capa traveled to Turkey.
As a young boy, Capa was drawn to the Munkakör (Employment Circle), a group of socialist and avant-garde artists, photographers, and intellectuals centered around Budapest. He participated in the demonstrations against the Miklós Horthy regime. In 1931, just before his first photo was published, Capa was arrested by the Hungarian secret police, beaten, and jailed for his radical political activity. A police official’s wife—who happened to know his family—won Capa’s release on the condition that he would leave Hungary immediately.
The Boston Review has described Capa as “a leftist, and a democrat—he was passionately pro-Loyalist and passionately anti-fascist …” During the Spanish Civil War, Capa travelled with and photographed the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), which resulted in his best-known photograph.
The British magazine Picture Post ran his photos from Spain in the 1930s accompanied by a portrait of Capa, in profile, with the simple description: “He is a passionate democrat, and he lives to take photographs.”
The government of Hungary issued a postage stamp in Capa’s honor in 2013. That same year it issued a 5,000 forint ($20) gold coin, also in his honor, showing an engraving of Capa.
His younger brother, Cornell Capa, also a photographer, worked to preserve and promote Robert’s legacy as well as develop his own identity and style. He founded the International Fund for Concerned Photography in 1966. To give this collection a permanent home, he founded the International Center of Photography in New York City in 1974. This was one of the foremost and most extensive conservation efforts on photography to be developed. Indeed, Capa and his brother believed strongly in the importance of photography and its preservation, much like film would later be perceived and duly treated in a similar way.
The Overseas Press Club created the Robert Capa Gold Medal in the photographer’s honor.
Capa is known for redefining wartime photojournalism. His work came from the trenches as opposed to the more arms-length perspective that was the precedent. He was famed for saying, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”
He is credited with coining the term Generation X. He used it as a title for a photo-essay about the young people reaching adulthood immediately after the Second World War. It was published in 1953 in Picture Post (UK) and Holiday (USA). Capa said, “We named this unknown generation, The Generation X, and even in our first enthusiasm we realised that we had something far bigger than our talents and pockets could cope with.”
In 1947, for his work recording World War II in pictures, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower awarded Capa the Medal of Freedom Citation. The International Center of Photography organized a travelling exhibition titled This Is War: Robert Capa at Work, which displayed Capa’s innovations as a photojournalist in the 1930s and 1940s. It includes vintage prints, contact sheets, caption sheets, handwritten observations, personal letters and original magazine layouts from the Spanish Civil War, the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II. The exhibition appeared at the Barbican Art Gallery, the International Center of Photography of Milan, and the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in the fall of 2009, before moving to the Nederlands Fotomuseum from October 10, 2009 until January 10, 2010.