Home/ Orsolya Péntek: Robert Capa (1913–1954)

Orsolya Péntek: Robert Capa (1913–1954)

From Városház Street to Berlin

“The greatest war photographer in the world” – as legendary photo editor Stefan Lorant labelled him – alias Robert Capa was born as Endre Ernő Friedmann on 22 October 1913 in Budapest. His father had a tailor’s shop in downtown and although the children received a conservative education, the future photographer – just like his contemporaries – came under Kassák’s leftist progressive spiritual influence already as an adolescent, then he got acquainted with photography at József Pécsi’s studio. (About his early years, see (M)érték [Measure] by Károly Kincses, published by the Association of Hungarian Photographers – Hungarian Museum of Photography in 2006).

Éva Besnyő – who lived at the same house in Városház Street, went to learn photography at Pécsi’s studio in 1928 and also had a European career later – had a great role in the young man turning towards photography. She was accompanied by Endre Friedmann, who was employed as a model in the beginning.

The boy was still preparing to be a journalist at that time, but he accompanied the girl to her social documentary tours in Pest, photographing markets, gipsies and workers loading barges.

“We, girls, called Bandi ‘Cápa’ (Shark) at home and his younger brother, Kornél, Crocodile. Bandi – alias Cápa – always did the same as the Besnyő daughters. When I went to Berlin, he came there, too” – told Éva Besnyő in an interview, establishing one of the legends about the origin of Capa’s name. (The interview was published by on 3 August 2010 in remembrance of Éva Besnyő’s 2003 exhibition.)

However, the reason for the future photographer’s arrival to Berlin was not exactly this. The boy already strongly sympathized with the left-wing movement in 1931 and one night he met a member of the illegal communist party. (See more details about this story in Robert Capa képei a Magyar Fotográfiai Múzeumban [Robert Capa’s Photographs at the Hungarian Museum of Photography] by Magdolna Kolta and Károly Kincses, published by the Hungarian Museum of Photography in 2005).

According to the photographer’s recollections in 1947, they were talking about the ‘world revolution’,  but the conspiracy failed and two policemen waited for him when he went home. The 18-year-old boy was badly beaten at the police station. He was under surveillance anyway: shortly before he agitated workers in Angyalföld with Imre Weisz.

His father could only get the freshly graduated Endre out of jail with the condition that he would leave Hungary, so he moved to Germany in July 1931 and enrolled at the German Academy for Politics (Deutsche Hochschule für Politik) in Berlin to study journalism.

Since his parents were not able to support him at that time, Éva Besnyő tried to help him and had him employed by the photo agency Deutscher Photodienst (Dephot) as a delivery boy and laboratory assistant. In those days, Dephot was working almost as a Hungarian company in the German capital, the senior positions were also filled by Hungarians besides the founder, Simon Guttmann.

In the beginning, a 6×9 Voightländer was lent to Friedmann Endre by György Kepes, who also came to Berlin from Pécsi’s school and Kassák’s spiritual group.

When a year later, Trotsky went to Copenhagen to give a lecture, the company owner Guttmann sent Endre Friedmann to the Danish capital with a small Leica.

The photographer – whose autobiography and statements are as just romantic as they are unreliable – recalled in his memoir (Slightly Out of Focus) that it was forbidden to take photographs and he took pictures of Trotsky in spite of this prohibition. However, the truth probably is that he was in a better position with the small and light Leica compared to the other photographers’ huge 13×18 reflex cameras. He took 28 shots and his pictures were published on a full page by Weltspiegel – wrote Károly Kincses in the already mentioned volume (M)érték [Measure].

However, Berlin in the 1930s was not really a good place for a Hungarian photographer of Jewish origin. Guttmann advised the photographer in 1933 to leave the city and he took the advice. He moved to Vienna in 1933, then he returned to Pest on the board of a steamer called Bandi with a permission that his father obtained for him. He was employed at Ferenc Veres’ photographic studio in Budapest, where he made publications for tourists – his work was paid by the metre, i.e., 26 frames he developed. These pictures have been lost.

However, Budapest was not really attractive for him after Berlin, so he moved to Paris in autumn 1933, where he tried to make a career as André Friedmann.

He stayed in the Quartier Latin with other Hungarians. As André Kertész recalled in his interviews – i.e., BBC’s Master Photographers documentary – the emigrants stuck together and helped each other; Capa also was probably able to survive in the French capital with their help. In the mid-1930s, he lived at 37 rue Froidevaux in Montparnasse with Dezső Czigány and Lajos Tihanyi.

Then his first photo report was published by Vu in 1934. From then on, he was working as Robert Capa. Although Éva Besnyő is supposed to have given this name to the photographer according to her recollections, other people said that her companion of that period, Gerda Taro had the idea and the name originated from her two favourite photographers and role models, Robert Taylor and Frank Capra.

The photojournalist worked for Dephot, Vu and Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung in the mid-thirties when he was requested by Pál Aranyossy, the editor of the left-wing paper Regards, to photograph the Spanish Civil War with Gerda Taro. He became world-famous with The Falling Soldier (The Death of a Loyalist Militiaman), shot on 5 September 1936. The picture shows Federico Borell García, who died near Cordoba. A police forensics expert said that, as the muscles appear to have gone limp in the photo, the man seemed to have been already dead when he fell. Therefore Capa captured the moment after death, the moment of falling, on one of the most famous photographs of the world. Many people disagree with this opinion and it is still controversial whether it is a staged picture or not.

When the photographer went to Paris a year later to negotiate the sales of his pictures, Gerda died after being run over by a Republican tank.

Capa was broken and desperate after her death. The approaching war in Europe, his personal crisis and his family situation may have contributed to his decision to go to America in 1937 in order to visit his mother and younger brother, who moved there in the meantime.

He came into contact with several photo agencies during his journey and his photos were published by Weekly Illustrated and Picture Post.
He succeeded to publish his album Death in the Making with André Kertész’s help in 1938, which included his and Gerda’s photos. In the same year, he went to China to photograph the bombing raid on Shanghai and the burning of Hankow. He was again assisted in getting the assignment by Éva Besnyő.

Capa shot a movie in the country under Japanese occupation with John Fernhout, Éva Besnyő’s husband. Then he left for Spain to photograph the disarming international brigades. His pictures were also published by Life, Regards and Picture Post. In the latter magazine, legendary photo editor Stefan Lorant captioned one of the photographs: “Robert Capa is the greatest war photographer in the world”.

He photographed detention camps, just as air raids, the attack on Barcelona and one of the last battles of the defeated Republicans.
He was there at the Navacerrada Pass and his report was used by Hemingway in his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Capa decided to move to America when World War II broke out.


From war to war

Although Capa was allowed to enter the United States in 1939, he was regarded as a citizen of an enemy state after the declarations of war by the Axis powers. According to the relevant legislation, he was not allowed to leave a 15-km circle around New York during World War II and – just as André Kertész – he was not allowed to take photos on the street; however, he succeeded to obtain an exemption and – as the only citizen of a country at war with the United States – he was accredited by the US Army. Legend says, he owed it to Hemingway – they became lifelong friends during the Spanish Civil War – who even requested an audience at the White House in order to help him.

What is certain is that Robert Capa went to London with writer Diana Forbes-Robertson in 1941 to make a book about the air battles; in the same year, the volume entitled The Battle of Waterloo Road was published with Capa’s photos.

However, it did not save him from the legal impact of American war measures: on 11 December Life’s German- and Hungarian-born photojournalists were called upon to submit their cameras and all of them were suspended from their jobs. (See more in (M)érték [Measure] by Károly Kincses).
In his hopeless situation, Capa was only approached by the American Collier’s magazine. Their letter instructed him to take a ship to England two days later, where he had some work to do – but by then he was also affected by the above mentioned restrictive measures and he was not allowed to leave New York.

“I had a nickel in my pocket. I decided to flip it. If it came up heads, I would try to get away with murder and go to England; […].” (Capa, Robert. (1999). Slightly Out of Focus. Modern Library Edition. p4.)

It was tails, but the photographer – who was a great gambler until the end of his life – still decided to leave. First, he went to Washington to visit the British press attaché with the letters of Collier’s and that of the U.S. Department of the Interior, forbidding him to leave the country.

According to Capa’s recollections, he and the British officer went down to a bar nearby, where they succeeded to find a way in the legal maze after many drinks and he took the ship two days later.

On the board of the transatlantic ship, Capa photographed in colour as an experiment on assignment by the Saturday Evening Post. He made his famous series about Hemingway and his family in the same year.
He visited the 301st Bomb Group in North Africa two years later between March and May 1943 as a war correspondent.

Capa followed the Airborne Division when they were deployed at the invasion of Sicily in June. He was on the aircraft carrying the first 18 paratroopers across the Mediterranean Sea. After taking photos on board, he jumped with the soldiers and photographed during the descent and he even had time to help a soldier trapped in his parachute to untangle the strings. Although it is difficult to find the truth in the various Capa-legends, the American film-like story is probably true: photographer János Reismann reported to have met Capa after the war in a Parisian café, when an American soldier came to their table, telling them the story of how Capa had saved his life after a parachute drop. (The same story is also quoted in Koltai, M. and Kincses, K. Robert Capa képei a Magyar Fotográfiai Múzeumban [Robert Capa’s Photographs at the Hungarian Museum of Photography]. 2005.)

After the drop, the photographer returned to the air base with the next aircraft and developed the first photos about the landing in Italy by the light of his cigarette. The pictures were wired by telegraph.
In October, he already was in Naples with the U.S. Army and made his famous series about the funeral of the Liceo Sannazaro’s partisan students. The photographer originally wanted to capture the Americans entering Naples and the surrounding celebrations, but – as he wrote it in his recollections – wherever he went in the desolate city, he only found empty streets and confetti scattered everywhere. He accidentally strayed into the street where the crowd held a memorial service for the adolescents who died at the very end of the war in a guerilla fight against the Germans.

He went to Rome from here: in January 1944 he was present at the landing at Anzio, a village south of Rome.

His most famous war photos were taken in that year about the Normandy landings, termed D-Day.

He photographed several rolls of film about the Allied operation on 6 July 1944, but only less than a dozen pictures remained.

Capa advanced in the frontline with the soldiers. In his autobiography, he wrote that they reached the French coast at dawn near the beach resort Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer. At first, there was not enough light for taking photos and then his life was almost in danger. The manoeuvre took severe casualties and he could only take pictures hiding behind an amphibian wreck in the water. Then he swam to the shore among the bodies, holding his camera in his hand. When the Germans began to shoot again, he retreated towards the sea and he succeeded to board a boat. He wrote that the boats floated on bloody water and the air was filled with the down filling from the dead soldiers’ jackets.

The man who carried through the Spanish Civil War and the Allied invasion of Italy, the one that jumped with a parachute – Capa who was known to claim that you had to go close for a good picture, after returning to the aircraft carrier, he photographed all the stretchers and then he fainted. He was in shock for the first and the last time in his life.

He sent the film rolls to the laboratory, but they were overdeveloped by an assistant, so most of the pictures were destroyed. Capa went with the U.S. Army towards Paris, photographing the liberation of the towns on the way. On 18 August 1944, the “greatest war photographer in the world” took a photo in Chartres which he regarded the best shot of his life.  The photo was taken of a French woman – with her head shaven – and her baby, fathered by a German soldier, as she is walking among those mocking and humiliating her. Capa was present at the liberation of Paris on 26 August, then he marched with the soldiers to Germany.

The photographer did not want to cover the death camps, he spent a few days in Hungary and then went to Paris.


From Paris to Indochina

Capa arrived in Paris in July 1945. The photographer, who was shattered by Gerda Taro’s death some years ago, now met Ingrid Bergman and they fell in love with each other. He followed the actress to Hollywood where he worked as an assistant cameraman and photographer; later he began to write his autobiography, originally meant to be a movie script. The volume was published with the title Slightly Out of Focus.

The photographer obtained US citizenship immediately after the war and lived with the actress for two years. He went to the Soviet Union with John Steinbeck in 1947, the same year when his book was published. The journey through Moscow, Stalingrad, Georgia, the Black Sea and the Ukraine was written by Steinbeck, entitled A Russian Journal and illustrated with Capa’s photos. The photographer took about 4000 pictures during three months about the everyday life of the Russians.

After returning home, they held presentations about their experience – we are at the beginning of the Cold War – and “the greatest war photographer in the world” said: “I do not know who began this evil and crazy game. (…) The only important question is who will stop it. Russian people want the same as our people: food, home and safety”. (Capa’s words are quoted in Koltai, M. and Kincses, K. Robert Capa képei a Magyar Fotográfiai Múzeumban [Robert Capa’s Photographs at the Hungarian Museum of Photography]. 2005.). His name was soon added to the list of ‘suspected communists’ in the United States…

He founded the Magnum agency with his associates in New York in the year of the journey to the Soviet Union. The cooperative was founded on the terrace of the Museum of Modern Art in New York by Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour, George Rodger, William Vandivert, Rita Vandivert and Ernst Haas. It was named after the Magnum of champagne they had during the meeting. Although Magnum associates were equal, the administration had to be done by Capa in the beginning, who, however, was famous for not bearing obligations.

If he could, he preferred going to play pinball at a café near their Paris office on rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré instead of doing administration. When he did not have money to pay the photographers, he bet his last dime at the horse race, he won and paid them from the winnings.

In the following year of 1948, he visited Hungary for six weeks. He was accompanied by György Markos whom he met in Berlin. The photographer captured the everyday life of the war-torn country and many moments of the communist takeover: the workers’ assembly at the Ganz Shipyard, the rice harvest in Békés County as well as the ruins is Budapest.
In the same year, he covered Israel’s War of Independence. He attended the ceremony where Ben Gurion announced the foundation of Israel, while later he took a series about the new settlers. His photos were not accepted by his employers, saying that they were “too realistic”.
When he was shot at near Tel-Aviv in 1949, Capa immediately returned to Paris.

The late 40s and early 50s were the only peaceful periods in the photographer’s life. After many years, for the first time – instead of war and corpses, – he photographed European ski resorts, the French Riviera, a horse race in England on assignment by Holiday magazine, but he also took pictures of Picasso with his family in Antibes. He also took a series in Paris on assignment by Dior and he experimented with shooting a film in Turkey.

He carried on administrative work at Magnum until 1953, when he handed these tasks over to John Morris.

Due to the intensification of the Cold War, he was not only suspected in America but already accused of being a ‘communist’. His passport was withdrawn – although in 1945, when he obtained U.S. citizenship, he was honoured as a national hero and a war photographer, – so he got stuck in the French capital in 1953. He had to spend his remaining money on lawyers, he was not allowed to return home, so at the age of forty – at least financially – he was in the same situation as when he left Hungary at the age of 18.
He had no choice but to accept a Japanese publisher, Mainichi’s offer in 1954. His hands were not tied and he could photograph whatever he wanted in the island country. He decided to take a series about children. He was working on this project when he received an assignment from Life to cover the French colonial wars.

Capa already had enough of the war and also had misgivings.

However, he was in dire need of some money, so he took the job and arrived in Hanoi in May 1954. He got to Nam Dinh on 25 May.

He got on a military Jeep to cross the Red River. He photographed the soldiers before action, then he stepped on a landmine on the flank of a dike at 2:55 p.m. His left leg was blown to pieces and he had a serious wound in his chest, but he was still alive when he was found.

His life could not be saved.

André Kertész learned the news on 8 June. He dedicated his photo of New York at dusk, taken on that day, to Capa’s memory.



Capa, Robert. (1999). Slightly Out of Focus. Modern Library Edition.

Kincses, Károly. (2006). (M)érték [Measure]. Association of Hungarian Photographers – Hungarian Museum of Photography.

Kolta, Magdolna and Kincses, Károly. (2005). Robert Capa képei a Magyar Fotográfiai Múzeumban [Robert Capa’s Photographs at the Hungarian Museum of Photography].  Hungarian Museum of Photography.

Kolta, Magdolna and Tőry, Klára. (2007). A fotográfia története [History of Photography]. Digitális Fotó Magazin [Digital Photo Magazine].

Sándor, Anna. (2003). Interview with Éva Besnyő photographer.


The text was written using the author’s book about the history of Hungarian photography, to be published in September 2016 by Látóhatár Kiadó.