12/22/2015

HOW PHOTOGRAPHY LEARNED ABOUT DYING

The development of war photography in the interwar period on the example of Robert Capa's "Falling Soldier“

September 5, 1936



   Spain, near the village Cerro Muriano on the Cordoba front: The 24-year-old Republican militiaman Federico Borrell García, making an assault on the fascist positions is hit by a bullet in the head and fatally wounded. The then 22-year-old photographer Robert Capa has captured this moment of dying and simultaneously had created his most famous photo - the "Falling Soldier".

   Many superlatives have been striving for a description of this recording. Already at the first publication in the French magazine Vu on September 23, 1936, it was called the "most exciting and immediate snapshot of the war" that had ever succeeded. Russel Miller describes them as "...the greatest photograph was ever taken" and the German weekly magazine Stern as the "...the image of the anti-war movement par excellence". For Carol Squiers, a curator at the International Center of Photography in New York, it is "the first compelling action shot taken during wartime".

   But how did it come that this (blurred and grainy, therefore from a technical standpoint, a bad one) picture of a dying one a (picture-)icon of the 20th century? And why did  this picture with the Magnum Photo Agency’s archive number CAR 36004 W000X1 / ICP154 became the archetypal image of war photojournalism? This question I would like to pursue and demonstrate how Capas recording became a symbol of an "other death" after the horrors of the First World War and how it became the role model for the genre of war photography, which continues to work until today.

Early war photography or "The absence of dying"
The ocularly characteristic of all photographs from all wars before the First World War was the absence of dying or the dead.

The Crimean War (1853-56) is generally seen as the first photographically documented war. The shots that the photographer Roger Fenton made of this war are characterized not only by the absence of death, but also by the absence of war as such: they only are showing the bearing life of the soldiers and portraits of officers. In the Crimean War, the propaganda potential of the photographic coverage had not yet been identified, the technical effort for the creation of images was immense and the way the images from the theater of war "home" was a long and laborious. Moreover, the newspapers of that time did not have the technical capabilities to reprint pictures, so the pictures were exhibited with a large time lag in galleries.

This absence of the dead changed somehow in the photographic coverage on the American Civil War (1861-65). While still, due to the bulky photographic equipment, the fighting itself is not mapped, however fight scenes were simulated and the photographers entered the battlefield, at least after the skirmishes. And the first shots of the fallen were made, e.g at the battlefield of Gettysburg, where Timothy O’Sullivan's recorded the death in a picture with the designated title "A Harvest of Death". The photographer could move largely free and any censorship were subjected.

The First World War brought a fundamental change here. "Embedded" Photographers and cameramen were the rule, independent reporters the exception. Photography and film were discovered both as a means of propaganda (for influencing of public opinion) as well as a means of warfare (reconnaissance), have been fully placed in the service of military and was centrally controlled. For all participants there was war propaganda and censorship bodies, such as in Germany, the "Bild- und Filmamt" (image and movie office) or in Austria, the "Kriegspressequartier" (war press bureau) (KPQ). Bravery and heroism were emphasized. But the war took place, particular in populary publications like the Illustrated War Chronicle of "Daheim", practically without dying or death. So, for example, in the first four volumes of the Illustrated War Chronicle "Daheim" there where published a total of 1,457 photographs, of which 21 photos showed wounded, 16 'heroes' graves, but only one photograph shows the body of a fallen German soldiers. The "absence of dead" was thus for the (propaganda) war photography during First World War the most striking feature - and was so diametrically to the experiences of the soldiers (and also of the civilians in the frontline areas). Because the First World War was the first "modern", "industrial" war and the use of newly developed weapons like large-caliber artillery, flamethrowers, submarines, poison gas and tanks called nearly ten million deaths and about 20 million wounded.

The wars of the "interwar period"
The First World War was often called "the war to end all wars" in contemporary times. On the one hand this term was used in propaganda purposes, in order to strengthen the war effort, but mainly it was a reaction to the horrors of this war and the hope that such wars would no longer happen due to the horrendous number of victims and the costs. However, a glance at the history books shows a very different picture. The "end all wars was to" went smoothly into a series of civil wars, national and colonial wars. From the Russian Civil War (1917-20) to the Polish-Soviet War (1920-21), from the Greek-Turkish War (1921-23) to the civil wars in China (1930) and Austria (1934), from the so-called "Chaco War" between Bolivia and Paraguay (1932-35) to the Abyssinian campaign of Italy (1935), wars took place every single day through the twenties and thirties. At the end of this "interwar period" was the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 and the Sino-Japanese war, which began in 1937 and lasted until the end of World War II.

In 1919 the Western world thought that an "era of democracy" ushered in, but instead a political and ideological split in three ways took place: the democratic, the socialist-communist and fascist. And these three directions are also reflected in cultural history.

History disintegrates into images, not into stories
"History disintegrates into images, not into stories" - this phrase from Walter Benjamin's "Arcades Project" can probably explain the principle of the cultural history of the 20th century, in particular for the so-called inter-war period from 1918 to 1939. This was influenced by the all-pervading process of "visualization" and  by the contrast between the "desire to forget" the war with all the fears and traumas and of the awakening of Modernism. The use of new technologies brought the "mass" instead of the individual to the center, through the introduction of rotary printing newspapers and magazines became mass media, as well as radio and film, there is an audiovisual socialization of a broad sector of the population. The (visual) mass media would shape the image of the reality. As early as 1927 Siegfried Kraucauer complained, that through the mass distribution of photographs there was instead reality only „pictures of reality“.

In 1919 the horrors of war, the traumatic experiences, were still too close to represent them directly in the visual media. During the First World War - especially given the unimaginable death toll of the trenches on the Western Front -the American writer Henry James firmly noted:
In all of this, the approach falls just as hard as the adherence to one's own thoughts using own words. The war has used up words; they have lost their power, they are spoiled. 
In place of the word images are now entering, or as the American journalist Walter Lippmann put it in 1922:

Today Photos possess for our imagination that authority which even approached the printed word and the spoken word before yesterday. They appear beyond measure real.
Photos of wars appeared since 1880 in daily and weekly magazines. But only in the interwar period came to a new form of mass media into being, weekly magazines in a high circulation. In France, Vu was first published in 1929, in the US Life (1936) and in the UK the Picture Post (1938), that brought also a radical change of the layout by reversing the weighting of pictures and texts. The technical development of photography favored this development: Through the invention of the 35mm camera ("Ur"-Leica 1914 by Oscar Barnak) and the 35mm film  a tool was given to the photographers that allowed them to work fast, mobile and unobtrusive, and an until then unknown form of "participating war reporting" originated, they increasingly emancipated from the role of the documentary. The traditional view of the photograph on the war was replaced by the photograph of the war and with the help of these new technical possibilities a new visual language was created. The proximity to the events was henceforth the central criterion of authenticity. Robert Capa's photographic documentation of the Spanish Civil War was therefore merely the logical consequence of all these developments. He was "just at the right time at the right place".

The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 was in many ways a novelty in the history of both the war and the war (picture) reporting. It was at the same time a civil war and an international conflict and war by proxy of the formative totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century. Depending on the political camp people where fighting in Spain for democracy or fascism, communism or anarchism in order to rescue the Christian West from the Bolshevik danger or to save the freedom endangered by the fascist barbarism. And the Spanish Civil War also marked photographically and in propaganda ways a new level. The Spanish Civil War, therefore, became the first real media war: It was the first war to be extensively and freely photographed for a mass audience, and marks the establishment of modern photography was as we know It. In the press photograph it brought the breakthrough of „investigative journalism", a mixture of humanitarian appeals, documentary realism and sensation operation. Unlike in the First World War, the contracting fronts tried from the beginning to give the war a certain image and to include the propagandist media in the dispute.

Parvenus, adventurer, photojournalist
The Spanish Civil War brought also forth a new generation of war photographers. Photojournalist, adventurer and parvenus, who, equipped with the new fast cameras and a new self-image, operated  at the same frontline like the soldiers and personally stood for originality, integrity and authenticity of a story. Probably the most famous among them (and that which should characterize the war photojournalism for generations until today) was Robert Capa.

Robert Capa was born Endre Erno Friedmann on 22 October 1913 in Budapest. He was the second of three sons of a Jewish tailor family. Having already participated early in the left spectrum, he, participated on a demonstration against the Hungarian dictator Horthy, was arrested, and had to choose to leave Hungary or to be put on trial, after which he emigrated to Germany. In Berlin, he began studying journalism at the University of Political Science and worked as Photolaborant the Ullstein publishing house and in 1932-1933 as a photo assistant at the German Photo Service (Dephot). 1932 his first photographs of Leon Trotsky at a speech in Copenhagen were published. After the seizure of power by the Nazis in 1933, he fled first to Vienna and then on to Paris. In order to sell his pictures better, he invented a rich in Paris living American photographer named "Robert Capa". After an editor uncovered the fraud, Friedmann took the invented name itself. In the Spanish Civil War Robert Capa documented the struggle of the anti-fascist forces against the fascist Falange. In 1938 he went to China and reported on the Chinese resistance to the Japanese occupation. 1939 Capa moved to the USA where he in 1946 received the American citizenship. During World War II he photographed as a war correspondent, inter alia, in North Africa, Sicily and the D-Day, the Allied invasion in Normandy. In 1947, Capa, with Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour and George Rodger, founded the photo agency Magnum. He more and more tried to avoid war reporting. In 1948 he accompanied the creation of Israel with his camera and was an eyewitness of the outbreak of the War of Independence (and photographed again a war). In 1954 he returned to the war coverage, as Life urgently a photojournalist in Indochina needed…

"Falling Soldier"
Capas picture of a mortally wounded militiaman became the most influential image of the Spanish Civil War (and at the same time also the most controversial) par excellence, it became an icon of war photography. It appears like an image of the romantic painting of the 19th century (it was sometimes compared with Francisco Goya's "The Third of May, 1808“) with its picture elements - the open sky, shoot from low angel, the sun illuminates the scene, the landscape in the background, falling militiaman with the rifle slipping from his hand at the moment  -  and leaves a lot of space for diverse ideas and interpretations. Mira Beham, for example, says it had served for aestheticism and glorification of the Spanish Civil War and had more poetic than factual value, because it was a heroic mood image, the nobility and dignity, for the Spanish people fighting. In this sense, the picture was, however, more likely to be used as a means of propaganda.

But an icon of the war photograph Capas "Falling Soldier" became for other reasons. First of all, it was "the first compelling action shot taken during wartime", in the middle of the battlefield, made in the moment of death, a quick, "clean" death, taken under risk for the life of the photographer himself. In addition, the image is a counterpoint to the war memories of the soldiers of the First World War, which were influenced by the anonymous mass death by gas, machine-gun fire and artillery bombardment lasting for days. Thus, it is an archetypal symbol of war death, which does not fit to the experiences of the wars of the 20th century: The death of the young militiaman is heroic and tragic, his death has a meaning, because he died not in vain, he dies for the cause in which he believes, for which he fought. His death is aesthetic, clean, fast and takes place in a natural environment, under the open sky. The inclusion implies that such a death has its own special beauty.

The truth is the best picture.
Robert Capa coined with his photographic style (and probably also with his bohemian life) all subsequent generations of war correspondents. One of his principles was: "If your picture is not good enough, then you're not close enough."


He died on May 25, 1954 in Indochina when he stepped on a landmine. His last words were: "I'll go a little. Tell me if this continues.“ He died, as the American Society of Magazine Photographers noted in a posthumous appreciation, at work,"in a tradition founded by him, for which there is no other word than his name"

This article is a revised version of a seminar work done during my history studies at Vienna University in 2006


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