Wednesday, November 14, 2007

This is War : Robert Capa and Gerda Taro

As I mentioned in my post about the Revistas y Guerra 1936 - 1939 book there are fine exhibitions of Robert Capa and Gerda Taro on view at the International Center of Photography in New York. Two accompanying books called This Is War: Robert Capa at Work by Richard Whelan and Gerda Taro were published by Steidl in association with the ICP.

This Is War: Robert Capa at Work is a 250+ page examination of Capa’s career from his early beginnings to the defeat of Germany in the Second World War. This book is less a traditional photography monograph and more a journey through the mechanics of Capa’s work to the final images as they appeared in various magazines. All of the material: photographs, magazine covers, handwritten film envelopes, letters, notebooks and journals are reproduced as objects that fully illustrate Richard Whelan’s extensive text.

The book is divided into six chapters of Capa’s war coverage from the Spanish Civil War, The Japanese invasion of China, the D-Day landing and Leipzig, Germany towards the end of Europe‘s involvement in WWII. Much is given to enlighten the circumstances surrounding some of Capa’s most famous and in turn most controversial images. The controversy over the famous fallen loyalist soldier image is discussed in great detail and the evidence, in the form of Capa’s recollections of the events of the day to Whelan’s detailed analysis of the photographs and their sequence, is mulled over with almost forensic attention.

The same attention is given to attempt to recreate Capa’s movements during his accompaniment of the first wave of landings on Omaha Beach on D-Day. The story of the fate of his film is well known by now but other interesting facts crop up in the story. One of which being that Sam Fuller, the film director, was photographed by Capa sunning on the deck of the USS Henrico one or two days before the invasion. Another disturbing fact is that of the 11 frames that survived the development fiasco, the negative for the image of the GI emerging from the water was lost at some point when it was sent out for reproduction. Capa’s wasn’t the only photographer to suffer the loss of film as is told in a different, less well known, story where films from several other photographers shooting the invasion (including those of a young Walter Rosenblum) were collected and placed in a duffle bag of a colonel for transport to England. The duffle bag, balanced on his shoulder, slipped from the colonel’s grasp as he was climbing aboard the transport and was lost into the sea. Capa and a Sergeant Taylor were the only ones whose films survived as documentation of the landing. This was due to their bringing the film out of the situation by hand and not giving it to the beach master who was collecting the material for transport to England.

Whelan also does his best to deflate the image of heroic action that Ernest Hemingway projected with his coverage of the day’s events. According to Whelan, Hemingway wrote as if he was the steady hand that guided the landing craft he was riding in safely to the beach and afterwards went ashore with the troops. In truth, Hemingway never left the landing craft and immediately returned to the safety of his transport ship. Whelan goes further to emasculate Hemingway by recounting a story of Martha Gellhorn, a female correspondent who was forbidden to cover the invasion. So determined to go along, she stowed away on a hospital ship and actually went ashore to help search for un-rescued wounded soldiers.

Besides the fine narrative voice of Whelan, it is all of the ephemera reproduced in this book that make it such a great tribute and study of the medium’s most famous war photographer. This gives an insider’s look into an archive of unfamiliar images as well as the full magazine stories and the detritus of his process. The book’s design and quality of reproductions are excellent.

I am curious if the book ends prematurely due to Richard Whelan’s death earlier this year. Although what is covered in this book are the main subjects of Capa’s experiences at war, in the last nine years of his life from where this book leaves off, he did go on to photograph conflict in Israel and in Indochina just before he was killed.

Gerda Taro until recently had been but a footnote to her companion, Robert Capa’s intriguing life story. With the recent exhibition and book called Gerda Taro just published by Steidl and the ICP, her relationship to Capa and importance as a photographer in her own right has finally been given the deserved full treatment.

The two met and fell in love in Paris in 1934 and soon there after they reshaped both of their personas as photographers, often publishing under the byline: Reportage Capa and Taro. With these newly adopted names, they created the self promotional myth turning Andre Friedmann into Robert Capa, ‘the greatest war photographer.’

In his essay, Richard Whelan does his best to separate the two to give a full impression of Taro’s talents as a photographer. This separation proved to be a more complicated endeavor than one might imagine. Much of the print archive apparently paves the way for some confusion as to who’s images where who’s, as the credits were given jointly and then ‘corrected’ at a later time. Their individual contributions of the coverage of the Spanish Civil War, made into the 1938 book Death in the Making, are also not individually cited. The title page simply credits Photographs by Robert Capa and Gerda Taro. Capa took no personal credit for images of the war made even when Taro was safely in Paris.

This book covers her entire career which can be summed up to the years 1936 and 1937 while covering the Spanish Civil War. Like the Robert Capa book which could be seen as a companion piece, the design and reproductions are beautifully done. The design reproduces the original weathered and worn prints as objects.

The images reproduced in this book belie the fact that Taro was very new to the medium having only three or four years of experience with photography before she was killed in 1937. Her skill, not to mention bravery, makes us think of what might have become of her had she not been killed at 24 years old. Perhaps if she hadn’t, we would be crediting her as history’s ‘greatest war photographer.’ Unfortunately, she will always be known as the first woman photographer to be killed covering conflict.

Buy online at Steidlville (This is War)

Buy online at ICP (This is War)

Buy online at Steidlville (Gerda Taro)

Buy online at ICP (Gerda Taro)