Hungarian-born Robert Capa is easily one of the most renowned war photographers in the world, and some of his most iconic images were made while literally in the trenches with soldiers.
He worked on the battlefields of the Spanish Civil War and the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 as well as on multiple fronts of World War II, including the battle of Normandy and the liberation of Paris. Capa also founded the cooperative photo agency Magnum in 1947.
Far less familiar to most people is his second career shooting in color.
Capa’s brother Cornell Capa (also a photographer, and founder of the International Center for Photography) donated his brother’s approximately 70,000 negatives to the center’s archives. A new exhibition mines that archive for an exhibit to honor the 100th anniversary of Robert Capa’s birth.
After World War II, Capa embraced newly available color film and lighter assignments like travel stories and celebrity portraits. The exhibit, "Capa in Color," presents his rarely seen post-war work for the first time.
The Capa color archive had not been explored, and the International Center for Photography curators were not sure what it contained. In addition, the Ektachromes in the archive were deteriorating and unstable, so it became crucial to digitize the images.
Curator Cynthia Young looked through approximately 4,500 color positives shot from 1941 to 1954, both Kodachrome and Ektachrome, to cull fewer than 125 for the exhibition. Many other images went off to other museums around the world, including in Capa’s birthplace, Hungary.
The film was scanned and color-corrected as a part of the editing process. Capa was a press photographer who worked on assignment and so had divided his work by geographical region and magazine assignments. In some cases, handwritten notes and labels had to be deciphered.
“Working through the color transparencies was a revelation," Young said. "Like going through any collection of unorganized film, part of the work is to figure out what it all is (what it depicts and when it was taken) and to understand what the original numbering or organizing system had been. I find this challenge exciting, especially when the order and content become apparent and the work and context fall into place.”
A conflict photographer who had covered five wars, Capa was tasked with reinventing himself after the war and found work shooting travel stories and celebrity portraiture. He also penned articles that went along with his photos.
Young says the period allowed him to launch himself as a writer and express his playful side visually. He was able to use large-format film and to take plenty of time to compose images that showed off his strong eye. Much of the earlier black and white work was on the fly, as conditions dictated. As a result, many of the images are slightly out of focus; imagine trying to focus a manual film camera while under fire with troops in battle. The later color work gave him room to express his aesthetic sense.
Young suggests a parallel between early color film and today’s digital technology: Capa was an early adopter of the new technology of color.
“I think he was someone who was adventurous in his professional life. It was tough to sell color material until after the war, and it was more difficult technically,” she said. “The exhibition radically shifts our perception of him as a pioneer of color photography, years before it was officially considered an acceptable medium for serious photographers.”
Capa himself can be heard in a radio recording, the only known audio recording of his voice, discussing working on the battlefield and how one of his most famous pictures was made by holding the camera above his head while taking cover in a trench. He is modest about his work, saying, "The prize picture is born in the imagination of the editors and the public who sees them."
He had obvious respect and admiration for soldiers but also clearly hoped for an end to war. "Capa in Color" offers a new perspective of Capa as a man who never forgot the war but did live to see peace and who was able to expand and develop his visual practice without losing his joie de vivre and respect for people from all walks of life.
- Rebecca Horne, Special to CNN