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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

September 01, 1996|Kristine McKenna

ROBERT CAPA/PHOTOGRAPHS Essays by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Cornell Capa and Richard Whelan (Aperture: $50, 192 pp.) Mention legendary war photographer Robert Capa to anyone who knows photography and they are apt to bring up the controversy surrounding his best-known image: a highly charged portrait of a fighter in the Spanish Civil War that was snapped at the precise moment the soldier was shot and killed.

Rumor had it that Capa staged the picture, that it wasn't "real"--a word that opens up a major can of worms. What is the measure of a real picture? Capa's picture inarguably succeeds in telegraphing the horrors of war, so do the ends justify the means? Moreover, can anyone accurately identify the line separating fact from fiction?

These are the postmodern questions that torture us these days, but Capa no doubt would have laughed at them because he was a man of action. This was a creed foisted on him at birth. A Hungarian Jew (actually named Andre Friedmann) born in 1913, Capa grew up under a dictatorship and was banished from Hungary as a teenager for his political activism. Drifting to Berlin, he studied political science, taught himself how to use a camera and was hired in 1931 to travel to Denmark to photograph a political rally led by Leon Trotsky.

Thus was born Capa the artist, and he quickly developed a style that pivoted on his insatiable desire to leap into the fray. Capa liked to get up close and personal with his subjects, and he risked his life repeatedly covering World War II for Life magazine; he was there at the Battle of the Bulge and the liberation of Paris and on the beach at Normandy. Following the war, Capa settled in Paris, where his circle of friends included Picasso, Hemingway and Steinbeck. In 1947, he and Henri Cartier-Bresson helped found the seminal photo agency Magnum, and, in the late '40s, he collaborated on a book with Steinbeck, had an affair with Ingrid Bergman and covered the founding of the nation of Israel.

In 1954, Capa was covering the conflict in Indochina that metastasized into the Vietnam War when he stepped on a land mine and was killed. It was a fitting end to a man whose work demanded courage above all else but, as can be seen in this book, there was more to Capa than that. His portraiture, in particularly, is exquisitely nuanced and comes as a welcome tonic to his war pictures. The subject of a retrospective opening next year at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Capa was known for telling any photographer who sought his advice that the key to taking good pictures was to "like people and let them know it." This survey of his work shows this was an ideal he never failed to honor.

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