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Some years ago I decided Robert Capa was overrated. This was an unusual point of view as Capa was everybody’s mythic macho war photographer. It was Capa who gave out hard-boiled advice (it felt like bullying to me): “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not getting close enough.” It was his famous picture – shot from just yards away – that showed a Spanish Civil War soldier at the instant a bullet killed him. It was Capa who had carried his cameras through the surf with the first Americans to hit Omaha Beach on D Day.
A brave man, certainly. A man determined to bear witness. But what else drove him? From the 1930s to his death from a Viet Minh land mine in 1954, Capa showed us little besides war. In a particularly violent time that worshipped male heroes, he had photographed five wars and been killed in the last one. Still, I had my doubts. Maybe what drove Capa wasn’t really idealism, I thought. Maybe it was closer to what drives a big game hunter. Maybe his pictures were more like trophies of his prowess than acts of witness. I stopped looking at his work.
I think I was wrong about Robert Capa. The pictures at ICP’s “Capa in Color” exhibit reveal a man more complex and sympathetic –and more talented as a photographer — than my imagined war zone daredevil. And it’s not just because of the color. Around 1940, when Capa first started using Kodachrome slide film, it was still experimental. Processing required a top-secret formula available in just two Kodak labs worldwide. Always a pragmatist, Capa continued to shoot his stories in black and white. But if there was time – and a possible market––he began to back them up with color.
For a 1941 story in The Saturday Evening Post about a British troopship crossing the Atlantic on its way to the war in North Africa, Capa shot a lot of color. He may have hoped the somber tones of the early Kodachrome would enliven the stripped-down colors of the ship and cargo, designed to avoid detection by enemy planes. He may have planned to isolate the pallid skin tones and brown uniforms for the elegant group portraits he made of the British troops. In any case Capa’s color does something important for the story. It suggests the held-back energy of the enterprise. In Capa’s color, the ship and its men, hunkered down in defensive readiness, seem ready to explode. Kodachrome’s primitive rendering of minimal colors against murky browns and blacks deepens the feeling of tension and dread.
Later, traveling with American troops in Tunisia, Capa used color in a style more familiar to modern viewers. One picture shows soldiers grouped around a captured German tank, draped with a large red and black swastika flag. For the first time we see the force of Kodachrome’s signature red. The bright flag anchors the picture, ironically imbuing it with the high-key colorful optimism we will later see in millions of post-war family snapshots (today the look is back in fashion, available via one-click antique filters for Instagram).
I should make it clear that many of the “Capa in Color” pictures are being shown at ICP for the first time. They never made it into the magazines. There was a catching-up-to-color lag after the war, some of it due to technical and logistical issues, but much of it because editors and publishers insisted on doing things the way they had always done them. Capa’s letters to these eminences, included in the show, reveal a witty and persuasive writer endlessly pitching ambitious story ideas, and mostly, it seems, being turned down. One understands why Capa, along with fellow photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David “Chim” Seymour, created the Magnum Photo agency in 1947 to advocate for their ideas.
But after the war, even Magnum had trouble bucking the tide of American self-satisfaction. The show quotes a 1948 letter to Capa from Magnum President Maria Eisner. “We have to face the fact that in general our stories are too big, too serious, and even too good [for the magazines].”
So Capa struck out in a new direction. With the advent of Holiday, billed as “…a peacetime publication catering to an ideal of post-war American prosperity,” he shot profiles, mostly in color, of old friends from Paris like Ernest Hemingway (Capa seems to have had trouble catching Papa without a drink in his hand) and Pablo Picasso (radiant in his old age, basking in the beauty of his young wife and new son). This is fine work, and, for the first time, we see it as essentially color work. Color is now more than a novelty.
I must confess my favorite color images from this show come at the end, after color film had developed a ripe palette for Capa to employ in the European spas, resorts, party towns and film sets Holiday sent him to in the 1950s. In places like Deauville, Biarritz and Rome he chronicled the pleasures of the rich, the beautiful and the lucky with smooth professional enthusiasm. Some histories say Capa did this work for the cash to keep Magnum going – which I don’t doubt – but there’s no denying his appreciation of the good food and drink, the styles and, especially, the beautiful women. This is la dolce vita: Fellini parodied it; Capa reveled in it. It’s arguable that color spreads like the ones he made eventually turned into today’s moronic “celebrity news” in magazines and on the web, but Capa’s early 50s version of paradise is filled with undeniable sensual joy.