There are two unforgettable stories—from among many—about the Hungarian-American war photographer and Magnum Photos co-founder Robert Capa, whose photographs are currently on show at the Museo Camera in Gurugram, Haryana.
The first is that Robert Capa did not actually exist. In 1933, as Hitler starts becoming more powerful, Endre Friedmann, a Jewish Budapest-born and Berlin-based journalism dropout, darkroom assistant and fledgling photographer, finds himself having to flee to Paris. Once he gets there, however, he has to start over. Through these initial struggles, he meets Gerta Pohorylle, who eventually becomes his lover and business partner. As he teaches her the basics of photography, they figure that if Friedmann were American, he would be getting paid a lot more for his photographs. They make up the “successful” Robert Capa, an American photographer under whose name Friedmann starts selling his photographs. When he’s found out, to get out of trouble Friedmann just assumes the identity.
Through his career as Capa, he would go on to shoot some of the most iconic images of conflict from five big wars, including the Spanish Civil War, the Second Sino-Japanese War, World War II, the First Arab-Israeli War and the French Indochina War. His images would humanise conflict, bring its gritty and grainy details into homes, and sway public sentiment.
They would even inspire the award-winning cinematography in Saving Private Ryan (1998)—and that’s where the second story comes in. The details of this incident are now being contested by new research but long-held legend goes that on 6 June 1944, aka D-Day, Capa lands, with American troops, into the chaos and rough seas at Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. In waist-deep water for about an hour and a half, he shoots four 35mm film rolls to capture one of the deadliest World War II beach landings. He then almost dies trying to send them to the offices of LIFE in London for publishing. The lab, apparently in a rush to dry the negatives, ends up destroying all but 11 frames out of the over 100 that Capa had shot.
The alternative history of this episode aside (the investigation into the veracity of its details has been led by photo critic A. D. Coleman, starting 2014), these 11 frames, often referred to as The Magnificent Eleven, have a certain pull—if nothing else, they are iconic for capturing a landmark event in World War II.
There are other details from Capa’s life, too, that make him seem even more fascinating: He was friends with writer Ernest Hemingway, had photographed artists Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, had a two-year relationship with Hollywood actor Ingrid Bergman (there was a novel about this, and talk of a Yash Raj Films-produced, James Mangold-directed film based on it). In 1947, he co-founded Magnum Photos, the international cooperative of independent photographers, along with Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour, George Rodger, William Vandivert and Maria Eisner.
Disappointingly, though, while viewing the 108 photographs currently on display, one will not get to know any of this. Nor will one have the benefit of any curatorial context to some of the seemingly unclear images. “Capa’s notoriously blurry, slightly out of focus photographic style can at times give the impression of impulsive luck,” writes photographer and former Ehrenkranz director at the International Center for Photography, Willis E. Hartshorn, in the foreword to This Is War: Robert Capa At Work, by the biographer Richard Whelan. Curator Christopher Phillips adds in his introduction, a page later, that “Capa paid considerable attention to extending the techniques of journalistic photography and to developing engaging, almost cinematic style of visual storytelling”.
In 2023, for a viewer used to digital and AI-powered camera technology, and one who is overexposed to images of conflict and violence, including, most recently, from the Ukraine-Russia war, context becomes important, indispensable.
Capa has barely been shown in India, if at all—this is probably the first time, says Aditya Arya, founder-director of Museo Camera, adding that it is their duty as a museum and gallery dedicated to the photographic arts to educate interested viewers and visitors about photography and its greats. The context of this mission statement does no favours to the seemingly half-hearted curation, selected from images made available by the partnering organisations.
Museo Camera has managed to get some phenomenal historical shots on loan, in collaboration with the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Center, Budapest, and the Liszt Institute-Hungarian Cultural Centre, Delhi. This includes photos of D-Day, striking close-ups of soldiers on the offensive, as well as common people during the Spanish War as well as the Arab-Israel War, among others. There are sunnier images, too—for example, of Capa’s coverage of the Tour de France in 1939, with children watching the race; standout portraits, of Hemingway, Matisse and Picasso, also populate a wall.
All these, however, only come with a dry one-line caption, no context or backstory. The note at the entrance to the show covers only the basics—facts flagged, textbook-style. This does not do justice to this sampling of Capa’s work, which, as Hartshorn writes, most importantly “allowed twentieth-century viewers to see clearly for the first time the consequences of his principal subject, modern mechanized warfare”. If only Museo Camera’s trove of books on Capa, and some context from the partnering institutions, could have been put to better use.
Capa At Museo Camera, on till 31 January in Gurugram. The show will be travelling to Mumbai, with details to be announced soon.