Interview: John Morris on his friend Robert Capa

Morris at home in Paris

When Robert Capa’s photographs of D-Day finally reached the Life magazine offices in London, it was nearly deadline. The invasion of Europe on June 6 1944 was the story. The pictures needed to be developed fast, passed by censors, then flown to New York. Life’s picture editor, John Morris, told the darkroom: “Rush, rush, rush!” The negatives came out “fabulous”. “Rush me prints!” said Morris. But minutes later, young Dennis Banks, who was developing the prints, ran sobbing into Morris’s office: “Capa’s films are all ruined!” Banks had tried to hurry things along by closing the doors of the wooden locker where the films were drying. Without ventilation, the emulsion had melted.

Morris studied the four ruined rolls. Three were empty. But on the fourth, he found 11 grainy images. “That was it, all right,” wrote Morris later. “D-Day would forever be known by these pictures.”

Morris, now 96, sits in his office in his Parisian apartment studying those pictures, and smiles wryly: “There are only a few people left in the world who actually knew Capa.” Morris didn’t merely know Capa (the centenary of whose birth is on October 22 this year): he edited Capa’s pictures from the Spanish civil war onwards, helped run Magnum, the photo agency that Capa founded, and he knows photojournalism inside out. Morris is the man to disentangle Capa and his war ­photography from the Capa myth. Just how did “the greatest war photographer in the world” ­present war?

Morris is so old that his father was born just after the American civil war, but you wouldn’t know it. He gets around with a cane, but otherwise is in pretty good nick, with a full mane of white hair, and looks perhaps 70. Three wives have died (and a baby daughter), but he has found the courage to fall in love again with his octogenarian girlfriend. He also still lectures, edits books and hosts events in Paris for Democrats Abroad, although he says he is “trying to retire from politics”. Once, when he let me watch a documentary about him in his home office, he bustled around behind me throughout, sorting photographs. “Absolutely crazy” is how he describes his level of busyness.

Morris attended the University of Chicago in his home town. (Recently he flew transatlantic to his 75th alumni’s reunion dinner, only to discover that nobody else from his year had made it.) He first encountered Capa unknowingly in 1937, when the student magazine he edited used an anonymous picture from the Spanish civil war that years later turned out to be Capa’s. After university, Morris joined Life, then the world’s leading magazine for photojournalism. On the skating rink at New York’s Rockefeller Center in 1939 he met Capa. “It turned out he was not a good skater. (He was perhaps a good skier.) And so for support he grabbed the arm of the most beautiful secretary and started skating around the rink.”

Morris, who speaks in perfect sentences, reflects: “It was strange. We hit it off from the start. I used to refer to him as my adopted Hungarian brother, explaining that I had no brother and my sister was a life-long Republican. I have a sister who is 103. I talked to her yesterday. She is in Durham, North Carolina, in a retirement home, but she and I have nothing in common but family. But Capa – I always think about the funny things that happened between us. I knew we agreed seriously, but we never talked seriously. He joked about very ­serious things.” Capa had no pretensions. Morris recalls that another of Magnum’s founders, Henri Cartier-Bresson, would call himself “a photographer”; Capa called himself “a journalist”.

Capa was born in Budapest as Endre Friedmann, son of a Jewish dressmaker. He was jailed as a leftist student, and in 1931 left for more tolerant Berlin to study journalism. He intended to be a writer. But he began working as an errand boy for a photo agency, took a noted photograph of Leon Trotsky and, when Hitler came to power, fled to Paris and became a photographer. It happened partly because he was Hungarian: speaking a language that couldn’t travel with him, he was forced into images rather than words. Or in his words: “It’s not enough to have talent. You also have to be Hungarian.”

In Paris, Friedmann and his girlfriend Gerda Taro invented a glamorous American photographer named Robert Capa – a name they seem to have borrowed from the film director Frank Capra, writes Capa’s biographer Richard Whelan. Together Capa and Taro went to the Spanish civil war, where Capa took his most famous picture (which some say was staged): a Loyalist soldier dropping his rifle in the instant of death. “I think the picture was a fluke,” reflects Morris. “I doubt he knew he’d captured the moment until he saw it published. I think it was a painful subject for him. Who wants to profit from the death of another man – a comrade, if you will?”

Taro was crushed to death by a tank in Spain. But Capa returned from the war a celebrity. The UK’s Picture Post anointed him “The Greatest War-Photographer in the World”. “He would have hated that,” says Morris, who thinks the tag came to force Capa to live his own legend, to take every risk to get the picture.

Photojournalism was just taking off then, and war was the story of the time. Moreover, Capa was the perfect hero, equally brilliant on either side of the lens: impish smile, cleft chin and jet-black hair; poker player, champagne drinker and lover of beautiful women; a cosmopolitan so footloose he didn’t even have a favourite hotel. When I show Morris a group portrait of the photographers whom Life had assembled for D-Day, he muses: “It amuses me how he looks away from the camera. He did that in other group pictures, thereby attracting more attention. He wasn’t a show-off, but he was just so attractive – to women but also to men.”

. . .

Before D-Day, the second world war had already taken Capa through north Africa, Italy and London. He recounted his war in Slightly Out of Focus, a slightly fictionalised memoir that he apparently intended as a film script. (Capa had played poker or slept with half of Hollywood.) It’s a wonderful book: like Morris, Capa had the rare dual gift for images and words. However, the book’s depiction of war leaves you feeling uncomfortable. Slightly Out of Focus is a sort of adult “boys’ story”, in which the horrors of war are always leavened by glamour or humour. Action is interspersed with poker games, red-haired girls, and wild times in the Savoy. When Capa tells his girlfriend in London that he’s flying to north Africa that night, “her eyes filled up with champagne”. And when he does “a little invasion shopping” in London, ahead of D-Day, he buys a Burberry raincoat and a silver pocket flask from Dunhill’s. Capa knew that war was horrible; he saw more action than most Allied soldiers; yet he often presented it as made for Hollywood.

D-Day was a perfect meeting between man and moment. Capa could have chosen to shoot the invasion from a safe vantage-point. But his dictum was, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough”. It was a moral injunction, too: if you were going to photograph people dying, you had to share their danger. And so, he wrote in his book’s most celebrated passage: “The war correspondent has his stake – his life – in his own hands, and he can put it on this horse or on that horse, or he can put it back in his pocket at the very last minute. I am a gambler. I decided to go in with Company E in the first wave.” He ended up in the water with American troops at Omaha Beach, shooting 106 photographs while the Germans shot at him. He was wrongly reported killed that day.

Did Capa have a death-wish? “No, no,” replies Morris, “he definitely wanted to survive. He had no desire to die.” Siegfried Sassoon, the poet of the first world war, had discovered at the front that he just wasn’t afraid, but Capa knew fear. After taking his D-Day photographs, by his own admission he ran away: he clambered on to a boat headed for England, collapsed, and later woke up naked, wearing a note that said: “Exhaustion case. No dog tags.” He spent the rest of the boat-ride berating himself for his supposed cowardice.

Yet no other photographer that day got so close to the action and brought his pictures back. Morris says, “Bob Landry landed on Utah Beach, and all his film, along with all the movie film and other films taken by army photographers, was accidentally dropped in the Channel on the way back to England. Landry also somehow lost his shoes in the landing – I never did quite understand that. Landry was not very happy with me. I think he thought I was partial to Capa. But Capa was the one who produced.”

At his kitchen table, Morris sifts through the surviving D-Day photographs that after 69 years he must know by heart. The first thing you notice about them is their blurriness. That (apart from the fact that they are the only pictures) is why they work: they convey the confusion, the fog of war. When Steven Spielberg made his D-Day movie Saving Private Ryan, he said: “I did everything I could to get June 6 1944 to look like Bob Capa’s photographs.” Because only 11 pictures survived (and one of them was swiftly lost), editors had to use them all, showing war in its messy imperfection. These aren’t postcards, or fables.

Capa understood the blurring effect. Sometimes he’d shake his camera to give pictures of war a sense of motion. But are these pictures particularly blurred because of the darkroom accident? “I don’t know that was true,” replies Morris. “It was early-morning light and I think the reason these are out of focus is that there was no depth. Capa was shooting with a fairly wide-open lens. But when Life published them they said they were ‘slightly out of focus’ because of the excitement or something like that, and that’s the title he used for his book. At the time I think he was offended by that. I think he wrote his mother saying it was ridiculous, but I didn’t care. We were just happy to find 11 pictures that could be printed.”

Once, when Morris and I were having lunch a short hobble from his flat, in Chez Janou, the restaurant he treats as his canteen, he mused: “I just wish I’d kept what I threw into the wastepaper basket that night.” What did he throw into the wastepaper basket that night? He chuckled: “The three rolls of film with nothing on.” In today’s language, those rolls would now be “iconic”.

Later that summer of 1944, Morris joined the Allied armies in Normandy. “It was about the only time I carried a camera,” he says. He shared a tent with Capa, and hung out with Capa’s old friend Ernest Hemingway, who didn’t appear very interested in survival. Hemingway had assembled a sort of private army and seemed to be trying to invade France solo. When Morris talks about those days, you are reminded of the hero of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, who travels back in time from today’s city to consort with Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and other ghosts of Paris past.

Morris recalls a dinner put on for Hemingway and Capa by a newly liberated Norman farmer, whose daughter sang folk songs for them by moonlight. He reflects: “The deceptive thing about war is that it can be fun.” Then he edits himself: “I think ‘enjoyed’ is not quite the right expression. There is a companionship in war. Being a war correspondent admittedly was glamorous. We were the cat’s miaow.” Were they celebrities? “In a way.” Big men on campus? “Yeah.”

When I ask what Morris learnt from Capa in the latter’s natural habitat of war, he replies: “Survival is what I learned from him. For example, there were German garrisons here and there who refused to surrender, so American commanders would call up so-called psychological warfare units, which consisted of a truck with a loudspeaker and a German-speaking soldier who’d say, ‘Achtung, achtung! Give up your arms!’ I had asked the guy who was the speaker, what would happen after they did the spiel? And he said, ‘They usually start shelling us.’ So Capa said, ‘I don’t see much percentage in that story’, but I said, ‘Oh Bob it will be great!’ So we went and photographed, and indeed the response was mortar fire, and Bob said ‘Let’s get the hell outta here!’ So what I learned from Capa was not about photography, but what story is worth it and what story isn’t.” If you were going to risk your life, it should at least be for a magazine cover.

Some stories were worth anything: Capa defied the order that only French troops should be first into Paris, and entered his beloved city on a Spanish Republican tank. Naturally he made straight for the Ritz, where Hemingway – already running the place – gave him the key to the best room. A little later, Morris showed up. It was his first visit to Paris. Even today, when he passes through the Place de la Concorde, he sees in his mind’s eye the Sherman tank he saw there in September 1944.

“Paris was dreamy,” he says. “I mean, it wasn’t easy to get around, but at Time-Life we knew how to live. I have a copy of a letter that I wrote to my wife that said, ‘Someday we must live in Paris.’” He finally moved there (long after her death) in 1983. But for Capa, Paris was an ending. In his book, he laments to Gaston, the barman at Paris’s Hotel Scribe: “Never again an invasion to surpass that of the Normandy beach; never a liberation to equal Paris.”

The war ended with the atomic bombs on Japan. Morris hands me a colour photograph of the mushroom cloud: “This is the Life lead on Hiroshima – it’s so beautiful.” He believes that by showing the cloud rather than the carnage, Life misrepresented war. In Capa’s phrase, the photographers hadn’t got close enough.

To Morris, not showing is a photojournalistic sin. As he writes in his memoir, Get The Picture: “One reason World War I lasted so long is that we saw so few photographs of it.” Because the Allies in that war mostly banned press photography, civilians had barely any notion of the trenches. The Holocaust, too, happened off-camera: only in August 1944, by which time the Holocaust was almost over, did Life first report on it, with a picture story showing ovens full of bones, piles of empty shoes. “Sadly,” writes Morris, “the story was relegated to page 34, facing an ad for Campbell’s Soup: ‘How to make a meal out of a sandwich’.” By the time photographs began to convey the horrors to Americans, “it was too late”.

Yet Morris cautions against the notion that Capa showed war as it truly was. True, Capa picked out the human in war, rather than weapons or landscapes. However, he rarely showed blood and guts. “Many of Capa’s pictures are heroic,” says Morris. “They are very sympathetic to the person doing the firing. But they are also compassionate to the enemy.”

A Republican soldier is shot dead, Spain, September 1936

Of course, Capa’s photographs from Spain and the second world war weren’t anti-war: in both cases, he supported the cause he was photographing. After 1945, Capa never found another war he believed in. “I hope to stay unemployed as a war photographer till the end of my life,” he said. The actress Ingrid Bergman, who loved him, hoped so too. But he still preferred war to her. She confided her troubles to Alfred Hitchcock, who reworked the story in Rear Window, in which James Stewart’s war photographer is forever rejecting the girl.

In 1947, Capa and friends created the Magnum agency. Morris became executive editor. In 1954, when Capa was in Tokyo, Morris cabled him with a request from Life: would he go to photograph the French war in Indochina? Morris assumed Capa wouldn’t think the story was worth the risk. But Capa said he would go. Morris was horrified. He says, “I famously telephoned him from my house, and said, ‘Bob, you don’t have to go. It’s not our war.’ Then days after he got there, he stepped on a landmine and died.”

When I watched Morris tell the story to an audience at the Museum of Jewish Art and History in Paris, a frisson of horror and sympathy ran through the room. But Morris has told this tale a thousand times before. Many of his Capa stories have acquired the polish and rhythm of ritual incantations.

Over lunch, I asked if he ever blamed himself for Capa’s death. “His mother held me a little responsible,” he replied, “which was unfair.” Capa was buried in New York, in a Quaker ceremony arranged by Morris, who had recently become a Quaker. Morris, who would get used to burying his photographers, wrote in an obituary: “Robert Capa was somewhat careless as a photographer but was carefully dedicated as a man … He left behind a thermos of cognac, a few good suits, a bereaved world, and his pictures, among them some of the greatest recorded moments of modern history. He also leaves a legend, for which there is no other description than – Capa.”

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