Monday, 6 August 2012

Robert Capa in Verona

What a difference a print makes.

It is accepted that exhibition prints are often editions of an original, but in an exhibition where an iconic photograph is framed, hung and lit to make it a feature sets the print on a level that a reproduction in a book, however well produced can never match. The Robert Capa exhibition Verona covers the wars he covered from the Spanish Civil War to Indo China. Where his career wasn’t long, he was declared “the greatest war photographer in the world” by Picture Post when he was only 25; it was December 1938. On May 25th 1954 he was killed by an antipersonnel mine in what is now Vietnam.

There are so many Capa photographs to talk about and whilst most are in this exhibition, the first two shots are particularly interesting. On what was undoubtedly a cold night on the 27th November 1932 Capa was despatched by his agency to his first major assignment to photograph the “un-photographable”. Whether this was a test is not known, what is known that it catapulted the young photographer into the limelight. Trotsky was due to address an audience of 2000 of the Danish Marxist Tendancy, Socialistisk Standpunkt with a speech entitled “In Defence of October”. Such was the fear of a Stalinist assassination attempt some 200 police, many of whom were mounted were sent to accompany the exiled revolutionary. No cameras were allowed, Trotsky abhorred his picture being taken, because press photographers largely had large and obvious box cameras they were disallowed from entering the facility. Capa had a “small Leica” and he took a roll of film from the speech, shots from which were featured in Der Welt Speigel, and Time amongst others – not bad for a first timer, especially as no-one was supposed to take any photographs! The first print in the exhibition is an enlargement of a contact set of those Trotsky photographs. It is clear that they have not been blessed by very careful processing, light has leaked onto the film and the overall impression is, well frankly speaking, incompetence. The print that has been selected to hang alongside is quite iconic although on first sight quite curious. Trotsky is in full flow – his hands expressively masking half of his face, his mouth venting his passion, the shot though, whilst almost unique given the circumstances rates further consideration. Firstly Capa is quite close to his subject. It seems likely that he was using a 50mm lens or slightly wider, the composition has him slightly left of centre at a lecturn with a committee of dour-faced men behind him. There are many in the contact set that are “brighter and cleaner”, better exposed that the chosen, now iconic image. This image has all sorts of technical problems, most likely the final wash was in fresh tap water which in late November would have been cold. The surface has a “crazed” look about it, the emulsion, whilst not delaminating is covered in random and multiple scratch-like lines. This level of damage isn’t visible on any reproduction I have seen of this image and it was a surprise to me when I saw a large print how bad the image has been damaged, or, as Time declared when they published the image “it is a broken image of a broken man”. It is difficult to disassociate the appearance of the print with the life of the subject that ended in less than to years from this photograph being taken. There is another connection with photography with regard to Trotsky that I wrote about here.
To have though your first assignment succeed at so many levels is a testament to the sharp elbows that this √©migr√© developed in order to survive. Two other images from this exhibition, taken from a set of six also stand out for consideration I think. The one, perhaps the most famous image of Capa’s canon “Death of a loyalist militiaman, Cordoba front, early September 1936” “supposedly” depicts a Spanish loyalist at the moment he is hit by a fascist bullet. “Supposedly” because there was, and still is, controversy about whether this was a “staged-shot” – such is the remarkable nature of the serendipitousness of Capa turning, witnessing and shooting this event when clearly there would have been bullets flying. The other shot is titled “Loyalist militiamen jumping over a gully, Cordoba front, early September 1936”. The two photographs are clearly from the same place, probably the same roll of film and contains another common element. The second shot has the fated soldier, apparently shot on the other image who, as one of six are seen traversing a gully, his balance is not steady, he seems to be falling backwards. It has more than a hint of the iconic other photograph about it. There is just a suggestion that this loyalist wasn’t a natural when it came to the running and jumping part of the training and maybe Capa had the notion to stage the famous shot. There wasn’t exif data then, only Capa’s word and why would we want to doubt him, he got closer than anyone else and just too close one time too many.
There are images that make you wonder how staged they were, the photographs from war time Britain look almost Madame Tussauds like in their "woodenness"; there are others though that have the power to wrench the heart such as "women crying at funeral of twenty teenaged partisans who had fought the Germans before the Allies entered the city, Naples, October 2nd, 1943" shows raw emotion in the faces of 15 or so women, captured in strong contrast one can't help but wonder if the mood wasn't enhanced by the treatment of the negative in the processing and if that wasn't intentional as well. Juxtaposed in the book on the opposite page to the aforementioned image is another from Italy this one entitled "Two soldiers in a hospital set up in a church, Maiori, Italy, September 19, 1943". This photograph has the two subjects bathed in a soft light, reminiscent of a renaissance painting, such is the tender approach to the creation of the print. A master of the medium. Here is a link to the venue that I was so glad to have been able to visit. Thoroughly reccommeded.


  1. Interesting to read your comments about 'staging' as I've just been pondering on that v 'the decisive moment' whilst writing up some of the project exercises for Part 2. Catherine

  2. Thanks catherine, if it was a "decisive moment" it was more momentous than HCB's! I'll look for your post.