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War's Witness

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Robert Capa: Photographs

at the Terra Museum of American Art, through January 3

By Stephen Longmire

My father, like many young Americans of his generation, went to the Spanish civil war out of sympathy for the Republican government, which was being overwhelmed by the rising tide of European fascism. He went not to fight but to report, writing a series of syndicated articles in 1939 that were among the first to appear in English after General Franco closed Spain to unsympathetic foreigners. Why did he travel all the way from San Francisco, sneaking across the border at Irun? Because of pictures, dad always told me. A year earlier, at the Palace of the Legion of Honor near the Golden Gate, he'd seen an exhibition of Francisco Goya's print cycle "The Disasters of War," depicting Napoleon's atrocities in Spain: in an inspired bit of propaganda, the short-lived Spanish Republic had sent a set of Goya's classic prints abroad to dramatize its cause. This was "the most powerful war reporting you ever saw," dad always said. "It hit me right between the eyes. I simply could not remain 7,000 miles away from the scene of the action at the time."

My dad was not alone. Volunteers from America, England, France, and Russia--to name only the republic's most prominent allies--flocked to Spain, sacrificing in a way few today would consider doing for Bosnia, Chechnya, or Palestine. For Americans and Russians alike, Spain's struggle to escape a feudal monarchy seemed to replay their own national dramas. And for Europeans the Spanish civil war, which was won only with copious assistance from fascist Germany and Italy, was the first warning of the larger battle to come. Forever after my father, like many political observers, thought of the Spanish conflict as "Hitler's little practice war." For leftists, it was a cause with a clear right and wrong. And like Goya's war, despite a different cast of invaders, it was an atrocity.

Pictures took many people to Spain, and pictures have kept the Spanish civil war alive. Foremost among them, after Pablo Picasso's painting Guernica, are certain photographs by Robert Capa, which can be seen in the retrospective of his work now at the Terra Museum. Both Capa and Picasso owe large debts to Goya's comprehension of cruelty. One of Capa's most striking photographs, Loyalist Soldier Killed While Stringing Telephone Lines, Teruel (Aragon Front) December 1937, shows a man's limp body hanging from a tree, like so many of the slain civilians in Goya's war prints, his mouth frozen open in a shout, his legs wrapped with bands of cloth above utterly inadequate shoes. Capa was not one for arty references, so this one could have been unintentional, but no Spaniard would have failed to recognize the importance of the location. The town of Teruel, as legend has it, was saved by bulls in one of Spain's many wars against the Moors. Facing defeat, the townspeople sent their animals out against the enemy at night with torches tied to their horns. This picture, one of Capa's fiercest, goes out like a Goya--the painter of bulls--with flaming torches tied to its horns. It shows the Republicans as industrious, untrained civilians shot down by fascist forces as they tried to reinvent their country.

Another image of Goya-esque stature, this one from World War II--the third war Capa covered (he traveled to China in between)--is Funeral of Twenty Teenage Partisans in the Vomero District, Naples, October 2, 1943. Women wail, their open mouths showing ruined teeth, in an anguishing display of grief. The mother at the center looks back at the photographer with dark sockets that pass for eyes, cavernous as her gaping mouth. By way of explanation she holds up a photograph of a well-dressed young man she will not see again in flesh and blood. Death has made that photograph--and Capa's too--a relic, embalming the beloved and countless others like him. It is a harrowing scene, emblematic of the photographer's wartime work. Capa called his pictures of this funeral "my truest pictures of victory." Though he shared the bravado of his friend Ernest Hemingway and often seemed to have a death wish, putting himself ever closer to the action until he stepped on a land mine and died in Vietnam in 1954, there are no winners in Capa's wars.

Capa's classic images are also here. The infamous Death of a Loyalist Militiaman Near Cerru Muriano (Cordoba Front) ca. September 5, 1936 shows a lone soldier in the process of being blown away by the gale force of a bullet to the chest; U.S. Troops Landing on D-Day, Omaha Beach, Normandy Coast, June 6, 1944 is the blurred image of a helmeted soldier swimming to shore under enemy fire. Capa was among the first war photographers to have the advantage of the miniature 35-millimeter camera, which allowed him to blend in with the troops. He did not, however, have the benefit of long lenses, hence his famous axiom: "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough."

The dramatic blurs in these two photographs--unquestionably his best known--communicate Capa's presence on the front lines. At Omaha Beach he too was under fire, and we feel it in the shaking of his camera. Earlier war photographs, like those made in the 19th century of the American Civil War and the Crimean War, had to be made after the battles were over because of the cumbersome glass-plate cameras used. These photos communicated the photographer's presence by being distant and composed, showing war to be a measured and perhaps even heroic conflict, an example of the social order at work. Capa's techniques convey the opposite: his photographs reveal the daredevil heroism of a lone individual in the teeth of a machine. The political forces at work overwhelm the human figures, but their faces are what he shows.

Capa is often still called "the greatest war photographer in the world"--a title he earned in Spain. It's an anachronistic claim given all the brave photojournalists who've followed in his tracks--many of them at Magnum, the photojournalists' cooperative Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson helped found in 1947. This retrospective, curated by Capa's biographer Richard Whelan and endorsed by his brother Cornell (who founded New York's International Center for Photography in 1974 in part to keep his brother's work alive), seeks to maintain Capa's claim to the title. And yet hung alongside the handful of pictures by which the Spanish civil war and World War II are still known are many that haven't held up as well. One can hardly fault Capa for lackluster technique given the situations in which he worked, but many of his pictures were made for the moment, usually on assignment for magazines like Life or its European equivalents, and many do not survive those moments.

The only undiscovered gems in the show are Capa's early portrait of Trotsky addressing a crowd of students in Denmark in 1932, made from a negative so ravaged by chemistry and time that its very imperfections seem expressions of the revolutionary's verve, and several far more sedate portraits of celebrity friends, including two Freudian ones of Picasso with family members at the beach and two of Henri Matisse drawing. Other famous subjects include Ingrid Bergman, who was Capa's lover in the late 40s, and Capa's friends Gary Cooper and Hemingway, shown fishing and hunting respectively. Apart from these portraits, many of which are not well known, the effect of the show is to revive Capa's reputation, not to reinvent it. The inclusion of pictures his partner Gerda Taro made in Spain before she was crushed by a tank--a loss from which Capa never recovered--is a great discovery, however. She might have gone on to make pictures even more significant than his.

Because Capa's pictures belong so much to their era that several of them helped define it, looking at them entails considering the changing times. In 1996, the same year that Aperture published the catalog for this traveling show, the publishing house also brought out a volume of war photographs by Welshman Philip Jones Griffiths, Dark Odyssey, most of them made in Vietnam in the 60s and 70s. The contrast between these two plush books of death and destruction shows just how much the world has changed since Capa did his celebrated work. Capa maintained he was a pacifist, regarding war as a necessary evil. With the possible exception of the Vietnam war, when he was accompanying French colonial forces trying to put down the Viet Minh revolt, he was arguably on the "right" side of every conflict he reported. And like much of the journalism of his time, Capa's work was openly if subtly partisan. Justice was his cause, the violence and self-violence of machismo his subject--like Hemingway's.

Capa died in body and in spirit while covering Griffiths's war. Griffiths's Vietnam is one long My Lai massacre. In his photographs American soldiers, many evidently drugged, wield absurdly large weapons against children and obviously weak peasants. The photographer's fury is so evident one wonders how Capa managed to make his own wartime subjects look human at all, much less occasionally heroic. Part of the difference is the longer lenses that allowed Griffiths a voyeuristic intimacy without putting his life on the line--but mostly it's politics. Capa would have lost his title of greatest war photographer in the world by now had he not photographed some of the last wars Americans, at least, could think of as great.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Death of a Loyalist Militiaman Near Cerru Muriano (Cordoba Front) ca. September 5, 1936"; Henri Matisse, Cimiez, Nice, France".

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