“If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Robert Capa lived, worked and died for that principle – from his first photograph, of Leon Trotsky speaking in Copenhagen in 1932, to his death in 1954 when, travelling with a French regiment in the First Indochina War, he walked ahead alone and stepped on a landmine.
Capa was born Endre Friedmann in Budapest in 1913 and chose his pseudonym, meaning “shark”, because it sounded American. He made his name as the 20th century’s greatest war photographer in Europe during the second world war, both on the front and with work documenting everyday wartime experience, which his brother Cornell Capa defined as “concerned photography” – “images in which genuine human feeling predominates over commercial cynicism or disinterested formalism”. It is vintage prints from this period, some shown for the first time, that are the focus of this new show.
Capa accompanied US forces on their push from north Africa into Italy and spent summer 1943 in Sicily. “Lovers Parting near Nicosia”, a back view of a soldier and his girlfriend wheeling a bicycle along a bare, dusty road in the glare of the midday sun, and a busy panorama of weary troops, elderly onlookers and excited children circling a jeep in a main square in “Conquered Town, Cefalu”, are among the masterpieces here that combine exquisite formal composition with deep empathy for the Sicilian population.
By 1944 Capa was in Normandy for the storming of Omaha Beach; under constant fire – one soldier remembers Capa helping him out of the water – he took 106 photographs, of which only the “Magnificent Eleven” survived an accident in a London lab. Images here such as “American Troops Approaching Cherbourg” document his moment-by-moment engagement with combat, but there are also reflective shots – a soldier perched on a battered car, oblivious to a smouldering house behind him, in “Doesn’t Mind the Heat, Somewhere in France (Saint-Saveur-Le-Vicomte)”, for example – which brilliantly distil the impact of war on rural life.
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