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OBITUARIES / Cornell Capa 1918 - 2008

Photographer worked to save legacy of his brother

May 24, 2008|Matt Schudel | Washington Post

Cornell Capa, a globetrotting photojournalist who founded the International Center of Photography in New York and dedicated himself to preserving the legacy of his older brother, war photographer Robert Capa, died of Parkinson's disease Friday at his home in New York. He was 90.

Early in his career, Capa stepped away from the battlefield focus of his brother, whose photographs of the Spanish Civil War and World War II are some of the most stark and memorable images of warfare. Saying that "two war photographers in the family was too much," the younger brother concentrated on "opening the door to worlds that people would not have seen otherwise," with a portfolio that ranged from scenes of political oppression to candid shots of Marilyn Monroe.

He coined the term "concerned photography" to describe an emotional engagement with his subjects that often blurred the border of journalistic objectivity. Working as a staff and contract photographer for Life magazine for more than 20 years, Capa infused his pictures with a quiet, revealing drama that made him almost as renowned as his dashing brother.

One of Capa's stylistic traits was to show telling details by narrowing his camera's view. In photographing the 1949 funeral of tap dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Capa focused not on the faces of the mourners who were lined up along a street, but on their shoes. While covering John F. Kennedy's race for the White House in 1960, he showed Kennedy's hands reaching into a crowd.

In the 1950s, he photographed life in the Soviet Union and the world of mentally ill children, sensitively revealing a subject that had been all but ignored.

He created one of his most memorable photos while following Adlai Stevenson on the presidential campaign trail in 1952. As Stevenson spoke from the back of a train, Capa photographed the candidate from behind, with the crowd spreading out before him.

In 1960, he took time out from the presidential campaign to visit the Nevada movie set of "The Misfits," the final completed movie of Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe.

Sensing that Kennedy represented a change in political style, Capa and seven other photographers chronicled the president's first 100 days in office. The resulting book, "Let Us Begin," appeared 10 days after the final photograph was taken and became known as "instant history."

As time passed, Capa developed a sense of mission about preserving the history and conscience of his craft. Some of his most lasting contributions to photography came after he put his camera down in 1974 and organized the International Center of Photography.

In 20 years as executive director, he built the center into one the world's foremost museums of photography. He made it the world's largest repository of his brother's work and regularly presented exhibitions of his photography.

Robert Capa, who once said, "If your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough," was killed at age 40 when he stepped on a land mine in Vietnam in 1954 while on assignment for Life.

"From that day," Cornell Capa told Newsweek magazine in 1994, "I was haunted by the question of what happens to the work a photographer leaves behind, by how to make the work stay alive."

Kornel Friedmann was born in April 1918, in Budapest. His brother, who was five years older, fled Hungary for political reasons in 1931 and settled in Paris, where he changed his name from Andrei Friedmann to Robert Capa. When the younger brother joined him there in 1936, he was called "the little Capa."

Cornell Capa came to New York in 1937 and worked in a photo agency darkroom before joining Life as a printer in 1938. He served in an Army Air Forces photo-intelligence unit during World War II and became a U.S. citizen in 1944. He officially changed his name the same year.

Capa was a Life staff photographer from 1946 to 1954 and contributed to the magazine through 1967, when he went to the Middle East to cover his only major conflict, the Six-Day War.

From 1956 to 1960, he was president of the Magnum Photos agency, which had been co-founded by his brother. In 1967, he presented an exhibition of renowned 20th-century photographers, "The Concerned Photographer," and collected their works in a book.

To ensure that their example would not be forgotten, Capa conceived the idea for the international center, which opened its doors in 1974. One of its early benefactors was former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, whom Capa befriended while photographing the early days of the Kennedy White House.

His wife of 61 years, Edith Schwartz Capa, died in 2001. He has no immediate survivors.

"I have always thought of myself not as a reporter, but as a commentator," Capa wrote in the introduction to his 1992 book "Cornell Capa Photographs." "I have aimed to be a credible witness, one who cares about the world he inhabits."

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