Blood and Champagne: The Life and Times of Robert Capa, by Alex Kershaw

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Alex Kershaw’s 2002 biography tells how Andre Friedmann, born in Budapest in 1913, reinvented himself as debonair photojournalist adventurer Robert Capa (there have been various suggestions why he chose the surname, including its similarity to Frank Capra’s, but apparently it was a childhood nickname, meaning ‘shark’).  During his short life he covered some of the most significant moments in the twentieth century’s dark history.  Even as a teenager he found himself in difficult situations: in trouble with the repressive Horthy regime in Hungary, he moved to Berlin in 1931 where he discovered photography and began to earn a precarious living from his camera.  Unfortunately for a Jew, Berlin in the 1930s was not a good place to be and the Nazi regime’s establishment prompted a further move to Paris.  These early years set the pattern of a peripatetic life which saw Capa restlessly moving from place to place.

He made his name in Spain, covered Chinese resistance to Japan, the Second World War (most famously photographing the D-Day invasion at Omaha Beach) and finally French attempts to maintain control in Indo-China, dying there in 1954 by stepping on a landmine.  The only big conflict he did not cover was Korea.  He also co-founded the Magnum agency in 1947 to protect photographers from exploitation by publishers, allowing them to retain control over their work.  He found time to collaborate with John Steinbeck, visiting the Soviet Union for a book; and with Irwin Shaw, co-producing a book on the struggles of the nascent Israeli state; to drink with (and fall out with) Ernest Hemingway, play poker with John Huston (while Burl Ives serenaded with a guitar, according to one photograph here), have a significant relationship with Ingrid Bergman, and far less significant ones with many other women.

The facts of Capa’s life are well known and are elegantly covered by Kershaw, but the portrait he draws from them is insightful.  We see someone who was capable of great charm, and who capitalised on it.  He made friends easily and women it seems found him irresistible.  The attraction was mutual and he possessed a significant sex drive, yet refused to make commitments. He was not a man of great introspection, was easily bored, and was a compulsive gambler – at one point he was described as essentially a gambler with a side-line in photography – which meant he would never be comfortably off.  And he pilfered books from homes he stayed in.

Kershaw considers that after a decade covering Spain and the World War, Capa was suffering from PTSD.  It may well have been true, but does not completely explain defects in his character.  Much is made of the loss of his lover Gerda Taro in the Spanish Civil War, and the devastation is this caused him, but he had been happy to have her photographs appear under his name; she constantly struggled to get out from his shadow as a photographer.  His behaviour after her death may have been risky, though her loss was not necessarily the cause – he had an addictive personality that would probably have manifested in risk-taking even had she lived.

He could be disloyal to his friends too.  When he had problems renewing his US passport in 1952 (he had become a US citizen in 1946), on the grounds he was under suspicion of being a communist, he was willing to name names to the passport authority in an effort to clear himself.  That included declaring Joris Ivens, for whom Capa had worked on a film in China, as ‘probably a communist’, a deplorable accusation to make at that time; charitably, perhaps he felt it was a safe accusation to make as Ivens’s views were well known and he had already left the United States.  Whatever the usefulness or otherwise of his information, he got his new passport.

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s insights are illuminating.  He saw Capa as an ‘anarchist’ and ‘romantic’, ‘but not a photographer of outstanding intellect … not primarily a vision man, he was an adventurer with a tremendous sense of life…’  Cartier-Bresson was not dismissing Capa as stupid, rather describing someone who approached his craft at an instinctual rather than cerebral level (unlike Cartier-Bresson himself is the clear implication).  Kershaw notes that Capa was ‘surprisingly limited in his technical range’ but possessed ‘an uncanny ability to focus his camera at exactly the right moment’ (the decisive moment, one might say), putting Capa closer to Cartier-Bresson than the latter for all their differences might have wanted to acknowledge.

Kershaw managed to interview a number of people who knew Capa, and was assiduous in trawling archives to produce this elegant biography.  Unfortunately there are no photographs by Capa himself as his estate withheld permission.  Why this should be is not specified other than that the book was ’unauhthorised’.  It may be because Kershaw does not shy away from exploring Capa’s defects.  Another bone of contention may have been the scrutiny of Capa’s famous ‘falling man’ image, apparently showing a loyalist militiaman at the point of death in the Spanish Civil War.  The chapter airs the dispute over its authenticity – whether or not it was staged, whether it captured a man who has just been shot or is merely falling over – with clarity and even-handedness.  However, as Kershaw pointedly states, ‘To question its authenticity is to earn the undying ire of eighty-three-year-old Cornell Capa, who controls his brother’s estate and has spent many years fiercely defending his brother’s legend.’

That Kershaw uses the word legend suggests Cornell was less concerned with establishing truth than perpetuating myth, and it is reasonable to assume he would not have welcomed an analysis casting doubt on the photograph.  One dreads to think what a biography authorised by him, in which its author was obliged to promote the legend, would have looked like.  Fortunately Capa’s output is readily available elsewhere, not least Phaidon’s magnificent coffee-table book Robert Capa: The Definitive Collection, a project Cornell was involved in, and Kershaw’s book is not damaged by its absence.

There are a few odd moments in the text, let through due to careless editing.  For example, Kershaw states that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour occurred on 6 December 1941, whereas it was 7 December.  The ‘remarkable anti-fascist philosopher’ Capa met on Capri was Benedetto Croce, not Groce.  But the strangest one is the implication that when Capa and Steinbeck visited Stalingrad (now Volgograd), it was in Ukraine.  Such slips notwithstanding, this is an engaging, insightful and page-turning portrait of a flawed individual who nevertheless produced one of the most significant bodies of photography in the twentieth century.

Capa became a role model whose dictum ‘if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough’ has proved extremely influential.  It is remarkable to think he was only 41 when he died, having lived several lifetimes.  He was not always blessed with precognitive abilities: he was surprisingly pessimistic about the prospects for documentary photography towards the end of his life, feeling television would take over its function.  Fortunately his prediction has not come to pass and photographers still have the capacity to inform, amaze and move us. Kershaw’s verdict is that Capa revealed ‘the purity of the human spirit’: a man who said he hated violence and hated war shows the effects of both unflinchingly, but his humanity always shines through.

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