“TODAY WAS ONE OF THE GREAT PICTURE DAYS IN LIFE’S OFFICE” read a cable from the editors of Life, a now-defunct photojournalism magazine, late at night on 10 June 1944. It was the day that they had received film negatives from the bloodsoaked D-Day landings, taken by a 30 year old Robert Capa, future founder of Magnum Photos agency. But all those photographs were almost completely destroyed after an accident during their rushed production led to 95 of the 106 frames becoming irreparable. The surviving shots became known as the “Magnificent Eleven”.
An exhibition entitled “CAPA: Europe 1943-45” at Daniel Blau Gallery, London displays three of those photographs, including a vintage one from 1944. It continues the gallery’s connection with the Hungarian photographer, with many works exhibited for the first time, and some newly recognised as his. The photographs are instinctive, poignant, and from a time when photography – more specifically, the individual image – had its greatest effect, they are unerringly powerful.
It’s a surprise then, that the man born in Budapest, originally wanted to be a writer. Capa’s mother tongue did not travel well, so he was forced to turn to photography, or in his words: “It’s not enough to have talent. You also have to be Hungarian”. A quick-wit he possessed, though there was plenty of substance; his friends included the likes of Picasso (a portrait of whom is displayed here), Matisse, Hitchcock and Hemingway, while he also became the lover of Ingmar Bergman. Even his own name – Endre Friedmann – was cannily changed to sound more anglophone friendly.
But while those fuzzy shots of grotesque steel obstacles on Omaha Beach may write the headlines, this exhibition reveals a tender and compassionate man. “Conquered Town, Cefalu, Sicily” (1943) shows off-duty soldiers resting against a wall, weary from the demands of war. “Out of Hiding – Agrigento, Sicily” (1943) contradicts the image of wartime as constant strife, as children play amongst the rubble of buildings. Elsewhere, we see an enormous pile of used shells, disturbingly from just one day’s battle, and another, that is strikingly similar to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous image of an accused Nazi collaborator. But perhaps the most memorable image is “Lovers’ Parting near Nicosia, Sicily” (1943), which depicts the final unwanted farewell between a couple; a moment that people are rarely conscious of, and a terrible product of war.
From his days being jailed as an engaged, leftist student, to his own tragic death after stepping on a landmine while covering the war in Indochina, Capa espoused a “concerned photography”, as his brother termed it. While he may have trawled the world photographing wars: from the Spanish Civil War to the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, these images show, that what Robert Capa was really concerned about, is humanity, and his love of it.
Words: Peter Yeung © Artlyst 2014 Photo: courtesy of ICP/Magnum
CAPA: Europe 1943-45 at Daniel Blau Gallery, London (April 4 – May 10 2014)