A War Photographer Who Got Too Close to the Action Is Born

Robert Capa insisted that if you're not close, the picture won't be good. He took photographs that you have seen, and died very young.

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A picture of Robert Capa in action - shot by his lover, who renamed herself Gerda Taro.
A picture of Robert Capa in action - shot by his lover, who renamed herself Gerda Taro.Credit: Gerda Taro, Wikimedia Commons

October 22, 1913, is the birthdate of Robert Capa, the war photographer who made some of the most memorable journalistic images of the 20th century. Capa’s motto was “if your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” so it is not surprising that he was only 40 when he died, covering the action during the French war in Indochina in 1954.

Capa was born Endre Erno Friedmann, in Budapest. His mother, the former Julia Berkovitz, was a Romanian-born Jew who owned a dress salon in the Hungarian capital. Dezso Friedmann, his father, who was the salon’s tailor, was originally from what is now Slovakia.

Endre was the second of three sons. As a teenager, he belonged to a leftist group: in 1930, at the tender age of 16 , he was arrested at a demonstration. He was released only after several months, only after being beaten by the security police, and that was on the condition that he leave the country.

Coup in Berlin

Capa made his way to Berlin, where he studied journalism at the Deutsche Hochschule Politik. At the same time, he worked as a darkroom assistant at a photo agency, and began to learn the craft.

In 1932, he was sent to Copenhagen, where Leon Trotsky was to address a socialist conference. Though the meeting was closed to the press, Capa wormed his way in, and ended up being the only journalist to capture the exiled Soviet politician on film. It was Capa’s first published photograph.

But the following year, in 1933, he left Berlin, which had become dangerous for Jews. After a brief spell in his hometown, he went to Paris, where he met such future colleagues as Henri Cartier-Bresson and David (Chim) Seymour, and began working as a freelancer, doing commercial work to pay the bills.

It was in Paris, in 1934, that he met Gerta Pohorylle, a Jewish-German refugee and aspiring photographer, who became his lover. It was her idea for Endre to drop his Jewish-sounding name and adopt the persona of an American photographer.

In high school, the pushy Endre had been known as “Capa” (“shark” in Hungarian), and the word also evoked the name of the American movie director Frank Capra: Endre Friedmann became Robert Capa. Pohorylle changed her name too, to Gerda Taro.

Shooting death up close

Gerta Pohorylle, who renamed herself Gerda Taro, lover of Robert Capa.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Together, in 1936, the two went to Spain to cover the civil war. Taro was killed the next year, when a car she was riding on was hit by a tank. Capa, who was attached to guerrillas of the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification, made his name in Spain, where, in September 1936, he took what become his most famous shot, “Death of a Loyalist Soldier,” which shows a fighter falling backwards a split-second after he has been shot.

In recent decades, some historians have claimed that Capa staged the photograph. Others concluded that it was actually shot by Taro, not him. Nonetheless, the most recent research supports the photo’s authenticity and the fact that it is the work of Capa.

Once World War II began, and his mother and brothers emigrated to the United States (after his father’s death). Capa moved there as well, and after a period of freelancing, began working for Life and Collier’s magazines.

Though technically an enemy alien, he was permitted to accompany American troops in Europe, and he covered many important battles, including, on June 6, 1944, D-Day, the Allied landing on Omaha Beach. Unfortunately, all but 11 of his negatives of that event were destroyed while being developed, but even those have become icons of that decisive moment in the war.

In 1947, together with his friends Cartier-Bresson and Chim, and several others, he helped establish Magnum, the first cooperative photo agency, which still exists today.

Although Capa, who became a U.S. citizen following the war, often claimed that, as a war photographer, he looked forward to the day when he would be unemployed, he continued to be drawn to the action. In 1948, he covered Israel’s War of Independence, and on May 25, 1954, accompanying French forces in their war in Vietnam, he stepped on a land mine in Thai Binh, and was killed.