Best Shot

Technical hurdles were not the only problems photographers who wanted to document war faced. “During World War I, photographers were not allowed on the front lines except for propaganda purposes,” Vaill said. “They were told: you come here, you take this picture of this. But it was really hard for them to even do combat photography.”

But with technical and political changes, the scope of possibilities for war photographers soon became much broader. “The photojournalists who had been sent to cover the Spanish Civil War were pushing the boundaries," Vaill said. Capa was right up there doing it. Capa was a pioneer. By the time World War II came around, he had been doing this for a while and he knew how to do it. He knew where to be to get a good picture.”

This, to some extent, explains why he was a natural fit as a D-Day photographer: knowing where to be to get a good picture is an absolutely crucial skill if you are going to be taking photographs in the middle of one of the largest amphibious operations in human history. And Capa had been taking pictures for the duration of the war, Vaill told us: “Across North Africa. Up the boot of Italy. He had taken photographs in all kinds of horrendous battlefield conditions. D-Day was the extension of that for him.”

Capa himself had undergone something of a sea-change in his aesthetic philosophy during the years between his coverage of the Spanish Civil War and World War II. As Vaill put it, “When he started, yes: he had a definite bias. The fact about photography is we think of it as a neutral medium. It's a picture, it's documenting the truth. But the minute you take a camera and point it at something — you're doing it, you pointed it, you framed the picture, you've made a decision already. There's always going to be judgment when you take a picture. What you try for, if you are a good journalist, is to quench your own bias. You try to explore it, you try to open it up. When Capa first went to Spain, again there were no rules, there was nobody saying this is how you must take battlefield pictures because nobody had ever done it before. In the beginning, what he and Gerda Taro and many other photographers like them were doing was trying not only to show things that were happening but trying to show things that they felt alarmed about.” This impulse culminated, Vaill argues, in Capa’s famous photograph of a militiaman captured mid-fall. This anonymous man’s death may have been — there is no definitive answer — the result of a battle scene Capa and Taro staged, into which an actual sniper fired a shot. Capa would go on to maintain privately that the man’s death was his fault. Vaill gives this claim some credence, even though Capa was “a great embroiderer of stories.”

Vaill’s point about the subjective nature of photography is powerfully illustrated by the "magnificent eleven" and their rocky path to publication. “All of the captioning, all of the contextual stuff that was put on the pictures was done by magazine editors,” she pointed out. “Capa had nothing to do with it. Capa took the pictures, sent them to LifeLife captioned them. They provided a large amount of the story surrounding those pictures; a lot of the time that story is based either on guesswork or on wishful thinking. If it doesn't hold up, and in some cases it doesn't, people want to blame Capa for it.”

Yet this, Vaill argues, is a mistake. “He never said this happened. He said fairly minimal things about what happened in the pictures themselves. Yes, he made claims in his autobiography, which is an entertaining book you really have to take with a giant-sized grain of salt. He describes this scene on the beach on D-Day and some of what he saw is probably what he saw. Some of what he saw may have been what other people said they saw and he internalized, which happens to people often in cases like this.”

Still, there is good reason to be somewhat circumspect, as Vaill sees it. “You should be careful when you're trying to make a judgment about whether Capa's photographic evidence is true. You should be careful about what you're judging. As carefully as you can, you should pick apart all the strands of the story and try to find the parts of it that you can verify. About the parts of it that you can't verify you have to say: I don't know. And just leave it at that.”

Whatever historical truth the photos contain, the human truths they reveal — fear, boredom, happiness in the chaos of war — remain powerful and valid, and remind us the war is a profoundly human activity, with all the good and evil that humanity entails.