Thousands of Capa war negatives discovered

January 30, 2008 6:44:18 PM PST
When he died in a land-mine explosion in Indochina in 1954, Robert Capa went from journalistic celebrity to instant legend. Now, a veil of mystery cloaking the patron saint of war photographers has been lifted, with the recovery of thousands of Capa negatives from the Spanish civil war where he had first made his name 18 years earlier. Three cardboard boxes filled with rolls of black-and-white film - perhaps as many as 4,000 negatives - were recently delivered to the International Center of Photography, a New York-based photography museum and archive founded and directed by Cornell Capa, Robert's younger brother.

ICP curator Brian Wallis said the cache of negatives, believed for decades to have been lost, may answer many questions about Capa's life and work during the 1936-1939 struggle for Spain, in which fascist forces under Gen. Francisco Franco ultimately defeated the Republican loyalists and their international supporters.

First among these questions, he said, is whether Capa's famous "falling man" picture - showing a Republican militiaman at the apparent moment he was hit by a fatal bullet - was possibly faked, or whether Capa was even the photographer who made it.

The picture, taken during battle in September 1936, the third month of the war, has stirred conspiracy theories for years, with critics calling it too perfect not to have been staged - especially in an era when the setting up and posing of action photos was not the journalistic taboo it is today - and because the whereabouts of the original negative are unknown.

Wallis said he agrees with the late Capa biographer Richard Whelan that the picture is authentic, and the proof may lie somewhere on a still-unexamined roll of film in the collection.

"We don't know yet if the negative of that picture is here, but if it is, the series of frames will clarify the sequence of events - we will be able to see what happened just before and just after the photo was taken," he said. It would also confirm whether it actually came from Capa's or someone else's camera.

In fact, Wallis said, the archive's significance lies largely in revealing how Capa and two other photographers whose negatives are included in the collection did their work, depicting events in sequence, each picture related to those on either side of it.

He said Capa was one of the inventors of the photo essay, a series of still photos of an event over time, which were immensely popular in weekly photo magazines that proliferated in European cities in the 1930s, building up to the ultimate version - America's Life magazine, for which Capa later worked.

"There was an explosion of these small tabloid picture magazines that demanded the action shots that Capa and others specialized in," Wallis said in an interview this week.

"Capa was really adept at creating a whole story in one day: Here are the characters, here is the beginning, the action shots, the end, and the effect on civilians. If you look at his work not as great individual shots, but as stories, you get a completely different picture of him, and I think a more accurate and valuable picture.

"These negatives will further amplify that story, not just a few stories but dozens of stories that went out. It is like a sketchbook - he was trying out various ideas, and some worked and some didn't."

Oddly enough, Wallis said, Capa originally set out to be a newsreel cameraman but proved far less capable in that technique than with the still camera. The irony was that his movie shots were static and his stills created an almost cinematic effect.

The files had been missing since 1939, when Capa, then 25, fled Paris for the United States. Although the Nazi invasion of France was still a year away, the man born in Hungary as Endre Friedmann, and known for his ardent Communist sympathies, was already persona non grata in France.

In his haste to depart, Capa left the film and other contents of his Paris office and darkroom in the care of a lab assistant, Imre Weisz, who also was preparing to escape.

Hoping to reach Mexico as a refugee, Weisz fled with the boxes of negatives to Marseilles, where he gave the collection to Aguilar Gonzalez, a Mexican consular official and former general, for safekeeping. The aide wound up as a war prisoner of the pro-German Vichy French regime, and for decades the film was assumed to have been lost during World War II - including by Capa himself.

But in the mid-1990s, the huge cache of negatives was rediscovered in Mexico City, owned by relatives of Gonzalez. After lengthy negotiations with a Mexico-based filmmaker named Benjamin Tarver, a grandnephew of Gonzalez, the family recently gave the archive to the Capa estate through his brother Cornell, now 89 and director emeritus of the photo center he founded.

Some negatives delivered in flat strips already have been scanned into ICP's digital archive, including some recognizable from prints published decades ago. But the major portion, in tight rolls of 35mm film from Capa's Leica camera, remain to be examined and cataloged.

Leaning over the boxes on a table at ICP's midtown Manhattan office on a recent afternoon, Wallis resisted the temptation to simply pick out and unfurl one of the rolls, to find out what might be on it - images already familiar, or never before seen, taken by the man who famously told aspiring newcomers that "if your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough."

Although ICP has asked conservators from George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., to decide how best to preserve negatives already 70 years old, preliminary scrutiny has shown they are in remarkably good condition - possibly a result of Mexico's hot, dry climate, he said.

The archive contains not only Capa's negatives but others by his German-born lover and business manager, Gerda Taro, and David "Chim" Seymour, who later became a founding partner with Capa and others of the Magnum photo agency.

But it is the photography of Capa that dominates this "extraordinarily significant" collection, Wallis said.

"Capa came to stand for the very truthfulness of war photography," he said, "He was not only in the heat of the action but right up there next to the guys when the bullets were flying."


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