Photographic History Collection: Robert Capa

Photographic History Collection: Robert Capa

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The Capa Collection in the PHC contains sixty-two images made by Robert Capa, famous for “The Fallen Solider” (not part of the collection). The majority of the collection is wartime photographs of soldiers, civilians and refugee with the main focus on his photographs from WWII, but includes images from China, Israel, and Spain. Highlights of the collection include his breakthrough images of Leon Trotsky and the iconic photographs from the invasion of Normandy. The collection also includes a portrait of Capa by Ruth Orkin (7434). His photographs depict every aspect of war, from the battlefield to the propaganda and graveyards. He shows war heroes being celebrated at parades as well as defeated soldiers surrendering to enemy troops. Through his innovative style of war photography, the reality of combat was made apparent to the world, changing the way that people visualized war.
In 1964 an exhibition of Capa’s photographs called Images of War was hosted by the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Museum. The exhibition included a selection of the sixty-eight photographs donated by Robert Capa’s brother, Cornell Capa, and appeared in the exhibit book which was published under the same title.
War photographer Robert Capa was born Endre Friedmann to a Jewish Hungarian family on October 22, 1913. Throughout his teens and early twenties he was heavily involved with local politics and protests. Through his activism he became associated with the Communist Party and was arrested and later expelled, at that time he relocated to Germany. In Berlin, he worked as a darkroom assistant for a photographic agency called Dephot. The director developed an interest in Capa, eventually lending him a Leica 35-mm camera. Capa began covering small events, and adopted a candid, intimate style that would later define him as a photographer. His first important assignment in November of 1932, he covered a speech being given by revolutionary Leon Trotsky in Copenhagen. Forced to smuggle his camera in, Capa positioned himself close to the stage and captured images of the event that embodied the energy of the speaker and audience. The photos were given a full page spread in Berlin’s Der Welt Spiegel.
Not long after, Capa relocated to Paris. In Paris he met and developed friendships with a number of rising photographers such as André Kertéz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and David Szymin (who later became known as “Chim” Seymour). He also met fellow refugee Gerta Pohorylle. Together they changed their names to Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, in an effort to remove themselves from their identifiably Semitic names and create a more Americanized image of themselves. Beginning in 1936, Capa and Taro traveled to Spain together a number of times to cover the Spanish Civil War. During one of these trips Capa took his most famous and frequently debated Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, September 5, 1936, commonly known as “The Fallen Soldier.” The image depicts a Spanish militiaman at the exact moment that he is struck by a bullet, caught falling backwards, still midair. Capa and Taro made a number of photographs that received attention in England and the United States. In July of 1937, while Capa was on a trip back to France, Taro was killed in Spain. His book of photographs from the Spanish Civil War, Death in the Making, is dedicated to her.
In 1938 Capa photographed the Japanese invasion of China. During his six months there, he created images that were shown in newspapers and magazines in Europe and the United States. When he returned to Europe, Capa worked on a handful of civilian assignments, as well as a project in Mexico photographing political rallies and protests. With the outbreak of World War II, Capa dedicated his film and energy to photographing allied forces both on the front lines in Europe and in England. He photographed troops in North Africa, Germany, Italy, England, and France.
His most famous photographs from WWII were taken on D-Day during the Allied invasion of Normandy, June 6, 1944. Though he took approximately 150 photographs that morning as troops waded onto Omaha Beach, a darkroom accident in London ruined all but eleven. Ten of those were published in Life magazine with the disclaimer that they were “slightly out of focus,” a phrase that Capa adopted as the title for his autobiography. Despite the poor quality and damage, these images are celebrated as the best from the invasion. After D-Day Capa continued to cover the war, following the allies as they liberated cities and advanced through Europe. His photographs of German soldiers surrendering are powerful and striking images. Throughout his career he focused both on soldiers he was followed as well as the civilians and refugees who were heavily impacted by the war.
After the war Capa gained citizenship to the United States and briefly pursued a career in California. However, in 1947 he returned to Paris and, with friends Cartier-Bresson, Szymin, George Rodger, and William Vandivert, founded the international photographic agency Magnum. Capa split his time between the Paris and New York City offices and swore-off war photography. He photographed refugees in Israel, created travel journals, and in 1954 left for Japan to photograph children. However, Life magazine called him out of Japan to act as an emergency replacement photographer, making images in what was then referred to as French Indochina. On May 25, 1954, while accompanying a convoy of soldiers, Capa stepped on a landmine while trying to make an image of the soldiers and was killed.
After Capa’s death in 1954, his brother Cornell joined Capa’s photo agency, Magnum Photo. In the late 1960s he began mounting exhibitions, and in 1974 founded the International Center for Photography in New York City.
Object Name
Robert Capa Collection
date made
1930 - 1950
Capa, Robert
ID Number
See more items in
Work and Industry: Photographic History
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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