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French model/actress Capucine (1951)

The survey of Robert Capa’s colour work at New York’s International Center of Photography is exasperatingly bad. Passing one cool, waxy picture after another, one wonders how this towering figure, who was only 25 when Picture Post hailed him as “the greatest war photographer in the world”, churned out such uninspired stuff for such a large chunk of his short career.

As long as he was working in black and white, Capa understood how to condense the chaos of battle into eloquent, powerful, even seductive images. He translated the bloodshed of the Spanish civil war into terse dramas of suffering. He landed with the first wave of US troops at Omaha Beach on D-day and parachuted with the Allies into Germany, all the while producing pictures through which we now know war.

Then came peace and, for him, stagnation. When Capa was between conflicts, he hobnobbed with the wealthy and indolent in Biarritz, Zermatt, Deauville and Amalfi. He hunted with the Hemingways in Sun Valley, Idaho, and sunbathed with the Picassos at Golfe-Juan. The result was sacks of colourful but inert pictures of privileged people having fun.

Some of these glossy shots appeared in the various magazines that sent him on assignment but many haven’t been seen at all. Capa’s colour work practically vanished from the record, and curator Cynthia Young blames the art establishment, which considered colour photography crass and commercial.

Capa also strayed from the momentous historical subjects he was known for, breaking the unspoken commandment of consistency. Most of all, Young argues, the colour work “did not fit into the idea of what the pre-eminent mid-20th-century photojournalist did”. The “concerned photographer” – and Capa was the standard-bearer of the species – sought to right wrongs and change the world for the better, not exalt a shallow ideal.

Young implies that all this is pure leftie prejudice but if she was hoping to rescue an overlooked corpus, Capa left her little to work with. He didn’t belong in that fur-and-gilt world, and he made no effort to disguise its magnificent banality. What does his image of Ava Gardner tell us that a paparazzo might have missed? Not much. Eyes fixed on her own reflection, applying lipstick with single-minded focus, she comes across as a confirmed narcissist and quintessential creature of the screen. Big surprise.

Pablo Picasso and his son (1948)

Capa had a weakness for film stars and he dutifully enhanced their glow. He burnished Humphrey Bogart’s sheen and boosted Orson Welles’s stature. A shot taken in Amalfi on the set of Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (1954) lingers on the immaculate cut of George Sanders’ double-breasted suit and the velvety nap of Ingrid Bergman’s suede jacket.

In Rome, Capa shuttled from party to party, with models and socialites. In yet another portrait, yet another actress gazes into yet another mirror as she applies her lipstick. Had Capa run out of ideas or was he quietly sniping at a vapid beau monde?

If postwar Rome swooned with exhausted glamour, Paris dripped with triteness. For a series of 1953 vignettes, Capa hit all the familiar themes: Dior-clad models dog-walking in the Place Vendôme, Bastille day fireworks, the tourist theme park of Montmartre, all infused with de rigueur adorability. Capa wrote: “Place du Tertre is a painter’s paradise. A few steps from Sacré Coeur we find an old gentleman in beard and beret looking like an American movie producer’s idea of the kind of French painter found in Montmartre.” Recognising the cliché didn’t stop Capa from reproducing it, of course, and he wound up publishing an American photographer’s idea of an American movie producer’s idea of a French painter in an American magazine. Just like the stars, he knew what his public wanted and he supplied it, hokeyness, sham and all.

Capa’s desperately affirmative style was the product of genuine need. He had co-founded the Magnum agency in 1947 and, struggling to keep the business afloat, he fed a demand for upbeat family fare. Accordingly, he travelled constantly and smothered everything he saw in a thick coat of sentimental sameness.

One of the few exceptions to Capa’s relentless cheer is a series of a young Parisienne named Colette Laurent. She was part of a larger Magnum project; portraits of “makers of the future” featuring two dozen subjects in 14 countries who answered detailed questionnaires about their lives, beliefs and hopes. Capa’s vision of Laurent is bleak, beautiful and doggedly empty. She enjoys the enviable life of a model, actress and bonne vivante, and he ticks off the perks of her glittering career: the closet crammed with clothes, the Paris pied-à-terre. But there’s a haunting photo of her at the Chantilly racetrack, puffing on a cigarette, shadowed eyes peering anxiously into the future.

“Colette Laurent is desperately unhappy,” Capa’s text informs us. Lonely and alienated, she drifts from one nightclub to another. “Her life is superficial, artificial on the surface and holds none of the good things except the material ones.” Finally, a subject he can relate to.

Capa soon escaped this sticky web of comfort and struck off for Indochina to do what he called “real work”. He was back in his element: the adrenalin-soaked thrill of violence.

He might have felt like a zombie in Paris and Rome – he certainly worked like one – but it was a landmine that actually killed him, at the age of 40, making the years that the ICP chronicles seem like an even greater waste of time.

To May 4, icp.org


Letter in response to this article:

Young and hungry for glossy mags / From Mr Martin Kohlhase

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