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Robert Capa

CAPA, ROBERT (1913–1954), U.S. photographer. The most famous war photographer of the 20th century, Capa, whose original name was Endre Erno Friedmann, was born in Budapest to Deszo Friedmann and Julianne Henrietta Berkovitz. Like many of his student friends, he was keenly involved in the political turmoil of the period, and at the age of 18 he decided to leave Hungary. He moved to Berlin, where he found work as a darkroom assistant at a prestigious photo agency, Dephot. In 1932, as Berlin was paralyzed by street fighting among Social Democrats, Nazis, and Communists, he was sent to Copenhagen to photograph Leon *Trotsky giving a speech to Danish students. The images were featured in a full-page layout in Der Welt Spiegel.

In 1933, as Hitler came to power, he moved to Paris, where he met the photographers David (Chim) *Seymour and Henri Cartier-Bresson. There, with his Polish fiancée, Gerda Taro, he struggled to establish himself as a freelance journalist. The story of that struggle is recounted in a classic magazine article by John Hersey, The Man Who Invented Himself. Andrei, as he was then known, and Gerda formed an association of three "people." Gerda was secretary and sales representative; Andrei was a darkroom worker. They were ostensibly employed by a rich, famous, talented and "highly successful American photographer named Robert Capa." Actually, Friedmann took the pictures, Gerda sold them, and the imaginary Capa got the credit. Their secret was soon uncovered by the editor of Vue, who was unconcerned. He sent the couple to Spain, where Capa became famous overnight for his stunning picture of a Loyalist soldier taken the moment he was shot and killed. He took other striking photographs during that war, including an action shot on a city street of frightened civilians looking anxiously up to the sky or running for shelter, sometimes so fast that the photographer had to blur the background to keep the runner in focus. Such images could not have been captured earlier, because photographers did not have cameras small enough and fast enough to record events as they happened. The Spanish Civil War was thus the first to be covered by modern photography, and Capa's derring-do up-close images, seen decades later, retain their brilliance. "If the photograph isn't good enough," he said later, summing up his philosophy, "you're not close enough."

Capa returned to Paris in 1937, leaving Gerda, the great love of his life, in Spain, where she was killed by an out-of-control Loyalist tank. Capa read about her death, at the age of 25, in L'Humanite. Grief-stricken, Capa went off to China, where he took a series of memorable pictures at the battle of Taierchwang, the only significant Chinese victory of the war with Japan. Returning to Europe, he covered the Spanish war until its end in 1939. During that period he took some of his most dramatic front-line photographs of the war. Picture Post devoted 11 pages to his photos and declared the 23-year-old "the greatest war photographer in the world." When World War II broke out, Capa sailed for New York, where, despite being labeled an enemy alien, he got an assignment from Collier's magazine and in 1942 he joined the invasion convoy to North Africa, where he switched to the staff of Life magazine. Leaving Africa, he parachuted into Sicily with the Allied forces and went on to the attack on "the soft underbelly of the Axis" in the grim winter of 1943–44. In 1944 Capa was the only press photographer to go in with the first wave of infantry to hit Omaha Beach on D-Day. Later he photographed the Battle of the Bulge, and the following year joined the 2nd Infantry Division as it fought its way across the Zeppelin Bridge. He saw the war through, actually photographing the death of one of the last Americans killed. In Paris, too, he met the actress In-grid Bergman. Their two-year romance was the basis for the Alfred Hitchcock film Rear Window.

Capa, who became an American citizen after the war, joined Cartier-Bresson, Chim, William Vandivert, and George Rodger in founding the international photographers' agency Magnum Photos. He spent the next few years making Magnum successful, and photographing the good times with his artist friends, including Picasso, Hemingway, and Steinbeck, with whom he supplied the photographs for A Russian Journal. The creation of the State of Israel impressed Capa greatly, and in 1948 he went there for the founding of the state. "During the war for independence," his brother the photographer Cornell *Capa said, "Bob put his heart into it. His non-practicing Jewishness came out." He was with David *Marcus in the battle for the "Burma Road," Jerusalem's vital link to the outside world. Capa's photographs of Israel appeared in This Is Israel by the journalist I.F. *Stone in 1948 and the same year he was the co-author, with Irwin Shaw, of Report on Israel. "Warm and perceptive," a critic wrote in the New York Times, "Capa's camera has ranged over the faces of land and people, seeking the human qualities as well as historic milestones." Capa returned to Israel in 1950 to make a fund-raising film for the United Jewish Appeal on the arrival, interment, and eventual settlement of immigrants.

"I'm not a photographer," he often said. "I'm a journalist." Cornell Capa said that the 35-mm. camera was the ideal form of expression for his brother. "Who knows Hungarian?" he said. "Hungarians who want to communicate once they leave Hungary are sunk. The camera was a natural way to communicate, the perfect instrument that suited Bob's persona and his interest in people. He considered himself a photojournalist. He loved it when he wrote text with his pictures and his credit read, 'By Robert Capa, photographs by the author.' "

In 1954 Capa went to Japan with a Magnum exhibition. Life suddenly needed a photographer on the Indochina front, where the French were fighting the Vietnamese. Capa volunteered, but it was one war too many. He was killed after stepping on a land mine. He was 40 years old.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.