War Images By Robert Capa and Gerda Taro At The Barbican Art Gallery

By Freya McClelland | 22 October 2008
Robert Capa's photograph of The Falling Soldier, the death of a Loyalist militiaman taken on the Cordoba Front September 5, 1936 & Cornell Capa/Magnum International Centre of Photography.

Robert Capa's photograph of The Falling Soldier, September 5, 1936 © Cornell Capa/Magnum International Centre of Photography

Exhibition Review - Freya McClelland visits This is War! Robert Capa at Work and Gerda Taro on the Subject of War at London's Barbican Art Gallery until January 25 2009

Robert Capa (1913–1954), born Andre Friedmann, was the pioneering photojournalist of the twentieth century and his prominent low definition/high action style defined how modern warfare was photographed.

The exhibition includes frontline and iconic photographs capturing the Spanish Civil War, the Sino-Japanese War, American troops landing in Normandy on D-Day, and the liberation of Leipzig.

Working with a lightweight Leica camera, Capa tried to get as close as possible to the heat of the battle. He famously declared: ‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.’

Political from an early age, the young photographer was forced to move to Paris after Hitler's rise to power in 1933, where he covered the tumultuous politics of the anti-fascist coalition of liberals, socialists, and Communists known as the Popular Front.

Robert Capa's photograph of The Boy Soldier, Hankou, China, late March 1938. Cornell Capa/Magnum International Centre of Photography.

Robert Capa's photograph of The Boy Soldier, Hankou, China, late March 1938 © Cornell Capa / Magnum International Centre of Photography

In 1936 Robert Capa went to cover the Spanish Civil War to support and document the struggle of the Republicans against Fascist attack.

His images record a determined fraternity of men, taking arms against the craggy and barren landscape.

This section includes Capa’s most famous and controversial 1936 photograph The Falling Soldier, which shows the exact moment of the republican soldier’s death, a soldier later identified as Cerro Muriano.

The picture gave Capa fame overnight as the picture appeared around the world. However, it has since been suggested that the photo was faked: there are earlier pictures exhibited of the man joking and laughing with friends, not in a combat situation.

A strong argument has been put forward that the men were posing for Capa in war stances. Fearing a genuine attack was being mounted, enemy troops opened fire. The trigger was pulled, the camera clicked simultaneously - and a man died. Make-believe became tragically real.

Robert Capa's photograph of The American Soldier Landing on Omaha Beach, D-Day, Normandy, France, June 6, 1944. Cornell Capa/Magnum International Center of Photography.

© Cornell Capa / Magnum International Center of Photography

(Above) Robert Capa's photograph of The American Soldier Landing on Omaha Beach, D-Day, June 6, 1944.

If true, this would explain Capa’s refusal to talk about the photo other than to say it haunts him still. The line between ethical practice, authentic documentary and powerful imagery remain blurred.

Hindsight lends acute sadness to the photographs from the first day of The Battle of Rio Segnel in 1938. 15,000 Republican troops crossed the Ebro in small boats to successfully defend the river at Moro. It was to be the only successful day of the battle.

There is a passion and sympathy in Capa’s work that refuses to be coy about neutrality. Capa said: ‘In a war you must hate somebody or love somebody, you must have a position or you cannot stand what goes on.’

In Barcelona 1937, the Fascists edged closer to victory. Capa’s empathy is at its most tender in his raw images of children and women as they flee Barcelona on foot only to be bombed by Italian airplanes, as old men, unfit for fighting, allow wives to ready them for a final defence.

Gerda Taro's photograph of Robert Taro taking a photo, Sevegovoa front, Spain, early June 1937. The International Center of Photography.

Gerda Taro's photograph of Robert Taro taking a photo, Sevegovoa front, Spain, early June 1937. © The International Center of Photography

Capa saw his images of brave upright young boy soldiers in the Sino-Japan war (for Life Magazine May 16 1938) as a continuation of the fight against Fascism and for freedom.

Most shocking are the 10 images from the D-Day landing on June 6 1944. The slightly out-of-focus action photographs show American GIs making their way through shallow water through the wire, and constant machine gun fire as many fell around them.

Most of the negatives were destroyed in a dark-room accident, again something Capa never spoke about, perhaps thankful to have escaped with his life. The surviving images were used by Steven Spielberg in his critically acclaimed re-staging of the event in ‘Saving Private Ryan'.

The exhibition, which includes over 150 images, some never-before-seen photographs and newly discovered documents, illuminates Capa’s working process.

Gerda Taro and Robert Capa, Paris 1935. Fred Stein International Center of Photography.

Gerda Taro and Robert Capa, Paris 1935. © Fred Stein International Center of Photography

Alongside this exhibition is a retrospective of Gerda Taro, the lesser known lover and collaborator of Robert Capa.

Taro spent her brief but dramatic career photographing the Spanish Civil War alongside Capa. Initially his secretary then apprentice (it was her idea to work under the pseudonym Robert Capa, to distinguish themselves from other Jewish émigrés in Paris at the time) Taro went on to change her name from Gerta Pohorylle and took photos of comparable quality.

Indeed, with some of her later works it has been difficult to tell their pictures apart and some of Taro’s images have been thought to have been accredited to Capa.

Her images are strong and full of the gore of war: the dead and the wounded, the blood and the bloodied. They also mark the dramatically changing role of the female, not only in her own narrative, but in that of the female militia she captures on camera.

Gerda Taro's Rupublican militiawoman training on the beach, outside Barcelona August 1936. The International Center of Photography

Gerda Taro's Rupublican militiawoman training on the beach, outside Barcelona August 1936. © The International Center of Photography

She was one of the first female photographers to work on the frontline and the first to be killed in action in 1937, aged just 26, whilst covering the battle for the city of Brunete.

Capa was reported to be heart-broken and never went on to marry. While photographing French maneuvers in the Red River delta, Capa stepped on an anti-personnel mine and was killed on May 25 1954.

That Taro and Capa both died in the middle of the action while holding their cameras is evidence of their commitment to their cause and to their trade.

Concurrently, seven years after the West’s ‘War on Terror’ began in Afghanistan, Barbican Art Gallery shows a series of interrelated exhibitions On the Subject of War.

It hosts some of the most significant works of international contemporary art made in the context of current events in Iraq and Afghanistan by the artists Omer Fast, Geert van Kesteren, Paul Chan and An-My Lê.

Tickets are £6 if booked online and £8/£6 for concessions on the door.

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