A Life in War: The Photography of Robert Capa

Born André Friedmann in 1913 in Budapest, Robert Capa is remembered as one of the greatest war photographers of the 20th century. We look into the work and life of this influential photographer, investigating his complex relationship with war, and also preview the events happening around the world that celebrate Capa's 100th anniversary.

A certain aura surrounds Robert Capa’s life, one of greatness, sadness and also mystery. A war photographer who hated war, Capa has been quoted to have said, ‘the war photographer’s most fervent wish is for unemployment’. It was the photography of war that enabled him to influence the world, yet tragically it also cut his life short, being killed by a land mine in 1954 at the age of 40. Revealing the multifaceted experiences of five separate wars to the world, Capa’s work still stands today as some of the most influential photographs of war that have ever been taken.

Robert Capa was born into a Jewish family in Hungary with the name André Friedmann in 1913 but left Budapest at the age of 18 to work in Berlin. Working as a darkroom assistant, his life in Germany was came to an end with the rise of Fascism and he moved to Paris hoping to further his desired career as a freelance journalist. In France Friedmann struggled to find work, until — with the help of Gerda Taro — he created a new identity for himself: Robert Capa. Advertising himself as a ‘famous’ American photographer, Capa was able to gain work as a photojournalist, and his first assignment took him to Denmark to photograph Leon Trotsky’s ‘In Defence of October’ speech. However, it was his later photography of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) that truly caught the world’s attention. During this conflict, Capa took his infamous photograph Death of a Loyalist Soldier. This image, seemingly capturing the instant of death, is both horrifying and captivating, holding the viewer’s attention as a tragic moment is caught perpetually in still-motion. This photograph has been the point of much debate, with many sceptics using image forensics to identify that the location of the photo differs from where it is claimed to be. With this discovery, many have claimed that the photo was staged. This debate puts an extra aura around the photograph; a photo of death and war, and also of authenticity and symbolism, the subject matter and scandal have made this one of the most critically discussed photographs of all time.

Capa’s career as a war photojournalist saw him witness five separate wars: the Spanish Civil War, the Second Sino-Japanese War, World War II, the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and the First Indochina War. In these conflicts Capa captured an astonishing range of experiences, from both fear-sicken images from the frontline at the battle of Normandy, to the celebrations of the Liberation of Paris, and from the effects of war on civilians to soldiers who are left dead in the wake of destruction. Effected by the monstrosities that he witnessed first-hand, Capa is reported to have said he would stop reporting on war and that he never believed in another conflict after the Second World War. However, he continued to report on conflicts until, sadly, he was killed in 1954 in Vietnam, stepping on a landmine during his reportage of the First Indochina War.

A man of many dualities, the images Capa showed the world have changed photojournalism forever, bringing light to the absolute destruction that war exudes. Scandal has followed his legacy from his created identity to the potential illegitimacy of Death of a Loyalist Soldier, and his ever-paradoxical relationship with the conflicts in which he worked. However, which ever way you view the authenticity of his work and the identity he created, the impact that Capa has had cannot be denied. Every photograph taken represents a metaphor that will eternally last in the viewer’s mind, depicting a time riven with devastation that is still felt today. It is these timeless reverberations his photography has created that made him ‘the greatest war photographer in the world’.

Celebrating 100 Years of Capa Around the World


Death in the Making: Photographs of War by Robert Capa

London, England | 7 June until 17 August 2013 - Atlas Gallery

100 years after his birth, London’s Atlas Gallery held an important exhibition from 7 June until 17 August 2013. The gallery presented a large range of Robert Capa’s photographs, including rare prints from the gallery owner Ben Burdett’s private collection. Along side these incredible images, objects such as Capa’s first camera, which was used in his assignment of Trotsky’s speech, was on display. The exhibition was made in collaboration with Magnum Photos, an international photography agency which Capa himself founded with Henri Cartier-Bresson, Chim Seymour and George Rodger. An incredible display, the exhibition was an amazing opportunity to witness Capa’s photography first hand.

Robert Capa 100

Seoul, South Korea | 2 August until 28 October 2013 - Sejong Center for the Performing Arts

This exhibition presented Robert Capa’s work at the esteemed Sejong Center for the Performing Arts, home to ‘one of the world’s ten best performance stages’. Around 160 of Capa’s photographs were on display, providing a strong overview of his life and work. The significance of this exhibition was unique due to the overlapping timing of the 100th anniversary of Capa and the 60th anniversary of the Korean War.

Capa the Gambler

Budapest, Hungary | 18 September 2013 until 12 January 2014 - Hungarian National Museum

Presenting Capa in his home country, Capa the Gambler is a must visit for all passionate fans of this iconic photographer. This exhibition aims to offer a detailed investigation into Capa as a person and photographer, and the impact he has had on the world. ‘By presenting possible roles, we offer historically-based answers to the question: what was Robert Capa?’

Robert Capa in Italy 1943 -1944

Rome, Italy | 2 October 2013 until 5 January 2014 - Museo di Roma, Palazzo Braschi

Florence, Italy | 10 January until 30 March 2014 - Museo Nazionale della fotografia Fratelli Alinari

This touring exhibition coincides with the 70th anniversary of the Allied Invasion of Italy, adding further weight to Capa’s photography. As the name suggests, this exhibition will focus on Capa’s photography and reportage between July 1943 and January 1944, investigating historical events such as military troops moving from Palermo to Monte Cassino, the surrender of Palermo and the ‘Four Days of Naples’ uprising. Displaying many photographs previously unpublished, this event provides a rare glimpse at Capa’s work from an untold perspective.

The Mexican Suitcase: Rediscovered Spanish Civil War Negatives by Capa, Chim, and Taro

Mexico City, Mexico | 8 October 2013 until 9 February 2014 - Museo San Ildefonso

This exhibition looks at the three war photographers Robert Capa, David Seymour (Chim) and Gerda Taro, focusing on their coverage of the Spanish Civil War and the effect this war had on European history. ‘The Mexican Suitcase’ refers to three cardboard boxes full of photographs by these three iconic photographers that were thought to have been lost after 1939 and were officially rediscovered in 2007 by the International Center of Photography.

Robert Capa Retrospective

Passariano del Friuli, Italy | 20 October 2013 until 19 January 2014 - Villa Manin

Tokyo, Japan | March until June 2014 - Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography

Organised by the International Center of Photography, these two retrospectives will bring Capa’s work to two iconic settings. The Villa Manin in Passariano is a stunning mansion with a fascinating history that was commissioned in the 17th century to celebrate the Manin family, while the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography is internationally renowned for its dedication to the art of photography.

Capa 1943–1945

Paris, France | 14 - 17 November 2013 -Galerie Daniel Blau, Paris Photo

The Munich and London based gallery Galerie Daniel Blau will present some of Capa’s work in their exhibition at the iconic Paris Photo 2013. This collection will include rare photographs taken in Sicily and France by Capa of the Second World War between 1943 and 1945.

Capa in Color

New York, USA | 31 January until 4 May 2014 - International Center of Photography

Organised by the world’s leading photography institution, the International Center of Photography, this extraordinary exhibition will represent the first look at Capa’s colour photography from throughout his whole career. While these photos were widely published during his lifetime, it has only been his black and white images that have been continuously revisited. Describing the works displayed as an unexplored facet of Capa’s work, the photographs will reveal scenes from ‘World War II to his trip in the U.S.S.R. with John Steinbeck, to images of Picasso, Humphrey Bogart, and Ingrid Bergman, to the last images he took in Vietnam in 1954.’

For more information on Robert Capa’s 100th Anniversary celebrations please visit International Center of Photography’s Capa at 100 page.

By Andrew Kingsford-Smith