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Amanda Vaill on Robert Capa and D-Day

The Hungarian-born photographer Robert Capa was present at the creation of war and combat photography. His images of Spain during the Civil War and of the North African and Italian theaters during World War II helped define a genre of art that would be crucial to memorializing and understanding the bloody 21st Century.

Capa’s own life was inextricably bound up with change and conflict. He was born Endre Ernő Friedmann to a Jewish family in Budapest and discovered his love of photography while a university student in Berlin, where he had been forced to flee after accusations of Communist sympathies drove him from his hometown. While he was beginning his career as a photographer there, the Nazi Party came to power and Capa — along with other Jewish artists and intellectuals — fled for Paris in 1933, changing his name from Endre Friedmann to Robert Capa (which sounded less Jewish and more American) along the way. He followed the winds of war thereafter, in Spain, the European theater of World War II, the Soviet Union, and what was then French Indochina.

Among the most famous of his images are the the so-called “magnificent eleven,” pictures he took while on Omaha Beach at zero hour on D-Day. He was the sole photographer landing with the first wave of the assault and took his pictures under battlefield conditions: bullets, waves, screams, and explosions surrounded him as he documented the operation that would secure Allied victory in Europe.

These images, taken 75 years ago this summer, capture the terror and speed of the moment, depicting the soldiers of the 16th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division of the U.S. Army — also known at the Big Red One — as they leave their amphibious vehicles and stagger and rush through the Normandy surf to engage with German defenses on the beach. Five of these photographs appeared in Life Magazine.

The only trouble was that they did not look quite right. They appeared out of focus, blurry, missing the stark clarity that marked the rest of Capa’s work. Explanation for this blurring have varied over the years. Capa himself said in his memoirs he sent a number of rolls of D-Day photos back to Life and that a darkroom technician was responsible for losing most of the photos and blurring the rest. Others have disputed this claim. But in a definitive article on the subject for Vanity Fair, journalist Marie Brenner sketches out a deeply convincing scene:

At 6:30 on Wednesday night, June 7, a call finally came from the Channel: “You should get it in an hour or two,” then static destroyed the line. Around nine P.M. a small package was finally delivered; it contained the four rolls of 35-mm. film and six rolls of 120 film that Capa had shot in England, on the Channel crossing, and at Omaha. Rushed to the lab chief, the film was given to a young lab assistant named Dennis Banks, whose name would enter photography history. Morris waited upstairs, trying not to look at the clock. Then, from the darkroom the first call came from photographer Hans Wild, who had seen the astonishing images on the film and said, “Fabulous!” Morris had no time: “We need contacts! Rush, rush, rush!” More time passed. Then Dennis Banks burst into Morris’s office, sobbing, “They’re ruined! Ruined! Capa’s films are all ruined.”

Banks had put Capa’s films into the drying cabinet as usual, but was so frantic he closed the door with the heat on high, believing that would speed the process. Without ventilation, the heat melted all of the emulsion off the film. Morris held up the first three long strips of film one at a time. “It just looked like gray soup,” he told me. But on the fourth roll, 11 images miraculously survived, and Morris was astounded by their power. (It is thought that Capa shot a total of 106 frames at Omaha.) The blurring from the drying cabinet had imbued the images with seismic drama. (Capa also said that shaking his camera magnified the impact.)

What remains beyond any dispute is the dark power of those D-Day photos, blurred though they are. We spoke with historian Amanda Vaill — author of Hotel Florida, a history of the Spanish Civil War, and Everybody Was So Young, on the Lost Generation figures Gerald and Sara Murphy — about Capa, the photos themselves, and the mystery surrounding them and their creator, who was a self-invented man, a great raconteur and adventurer, and as dynamic in person as his unforgettable photos.

She noted that memory, especially the memory of great events, is a tricky thing. “It feels to me like nobody is remembering this properly,” she said. “Imagine, if you can, the chaos of D-Day, the largest amphibious operation ever planned at that point in history. It is going on, there are people being blown to bits up and down the beach. There’s chaos in off-loading hospital ships on the British side. All this is going on and in the middle of it, there is Capa with his cameras. He takes the photos. He comes off the beach. He has his cameras. He comes back on the same vessel that he went over on. They’re off-loading wounded all over the port when he gets back there. The question of whether or not he’s going to get up to London himself is — who knows? So he gives his film to a courier for Life who would most likely would have been somebody with a motorcycle who could just zip along, get out of town and get to London fast. As for Capa, he would have had to wait for actual transport back to London from the port. So there’s all this hurry to get the film processed quickly and back to New York so that Life‘s presses can roll. And in the process of all of this, a bunch of these images were damaged.”

She also emphasized the fact that Capa was not merely the literal first photographer at D-Day. He was among the first photographers to be able to bring all their gifts to bear on images of combat, period. “When Capa went to Spain in 1936,” she told us, “lightweight enough cameras that you could take them on to a battlefield had been developed only just recently. If you look at the most recent large-scale conflict, World War I, you had cameras with tri-pods. You can’t carry those onto a battlefield.”

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.