Robert Capa, born Endre Friedmann in Hungary, was a fearless individual. Or a touch crazy. Or, most likely, a bit of both. It is always difficult to tell such things when one dies before their time. Needless to say, the “Shark” led a productive career that many photographers would be proud to call their own in twice the time frame.
Upon taking on his life’s craft at the age of 20 (1933), Capa was drawn to the world of photojournalism due to his original love of writing. Ergo, many of his photos were related to where journalists were needed the most at this time: war-torn plains, beaches and hills. It started with Spain’s Civil War (1936-39) and moved to the Chinese city of Wuhan in 1938, where the Japanese invasion was being resisted. Aided by his partner Gerda Taro, Capa produced some of the most memorable images from these conflicts, the most famous of which is arguably “Fallen Soldier (1936).” Upon the conclusion of his work, Capa fled Europe to New York City to avoid rising storm of Nazism. His new home, about to be drawn into World War II, had multiple publications aware of his prior success. Capa’s enlistment made him the only Allies photographer who was from Axis territory. Fortunately, McCarthyism had not yet taken a hold of the U.S. – Capa was very left wing and had a history with Marxist groups. Capa’s contribution to documenting the war effort was extremely prolific, especially on D-Day; the eleven photographs that survived Omaha Beach for publication enlightened the world to the gravity of war in action like few photographs before. After the war, General Dwight Eisenhower gave Capa the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Despite successfully surviving three previous war torn environments, Capa would not survive Vietnam and the First Indochina War. Filling in for another LIFE magazine photographer, Capa became Vietnam’s first correspondent casualty when he stepped on a landmine. He was 40 years old.
While much of Capa’s work is widely respected, “Fallen Soldier” has met its fair share of controversy. Cacophonies of indictments have washed over the photo since its publication. Some have alleged that the photo was staged. Others claim the soldier was not whom originally was identified, nor was he shot at all – he slipped. And others still believe that his partner Gerda Taro – who died before the publication of the photo – was the real photographer behind to picture. Due to much of this coming to light more recently and Capa dying so young, a murky cloud will continue obscure the complete truth. One of if not the only recording of Capa, on the Hi!Jinx 1947 NBC radio program, has him recounting the scenario that led up to the photo being taken.
Outside of his photojournalism, Capa also took photographs of public figures such as Picasso, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway.
Capa helped found Magnum Photos, a co-op agency for freelance photographers. Other co-founders include Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Vandivert, David Seymour and George Rodger.