Home/ Robert Capa

Robert Capa

(Endre Ernő Friedmann)
22 October 1913, Budapest, Hungary – 25 May 1954, Thái Bình, Vietnam

He never avoided challenges – he brought his restless, adventurous spirit and toughness from Hungary. He hardly had anything else in his luggage when he left his native country in 1931. He made photo-history with his war reportage on the Spanish Civil War, WWII, China, and Vietnam. His stories and, in particular, his slogan – “if your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” – made him a legendary person. But he made a mistake in Thái Bình. He went too close.

His brother wrote about him: “He lived a lot and suffered a lot during his short life. He was born poor and died poor. He bequeathed us the chronicle of his unique career along with the visual proof of his conviction: not only can mankind endure a lot but it is able to win every now and then.”

Robert Capa (Photo: Gerda Taro)

His parents – Júlia Berkovits and Dezső Friedmann – were tailors, who ran a prosperous show-room in Budapest. Their first child was László, followed by Endre and five years later by Kornél. After a Lutheran elementary school, Robert Capa went to study at Madách Secondary School. Inspierd by Lajos Kassák, he became interested in journalism in 1929, one year before his matriculation. After 1930, he was a photographer.

He was a good friend of Suzanne Szász, i. e. Székely Zsuzsa, already in Budapest. He lived at the same house as Éva Besnyő, who was his first childhood love.

He was shortly imprisoned because of his leftist connections and his participation in a leftist demonstration on 1 September 1930. In prison, he learnt the methods of the infamous investigator Péter Hain, who beat him so hard that he lost consciousness. He was released through his parents’ connections and he almost immediately left the country.

According to one of the legends, he only had a stick of salami in his luggage when he left. His train ticket to Vienna was paid by the Jewish Community of Pest, from there he went on to Prague through Brno and somehow he eventually arrived in Berlin. He left in July 1931 and it took him two or three weeks to get to the German capital. He studied journalism at the German Political College (Deutsche Hochschule für Politik). Since his parents were becoming poor and were not able to support him, he went to work as a photo lab assistant at the photo agency Dephot (Deutscher Photodienst). In the beginning, almost everybody spoke Hungarian at Dephot. No wonder since it was founded by Simon Guttmann and its financial manager was László Fekete, known as Ladislaus Glück at that time.
There were László Czigány (Taci) and György Markos among his fellow-workers and friends. He received his first camera at this time, a Voigtländer 6×9 from György Kepes. Later he got a Leica from Guttmann to carry out smaller assignments.

In 1932, he was sent by Guttmann to make the report which made him famous: he took the photo of Leon Trotsky at the Socialist Congress in Copenhagen. He was the only one to succeed in taking a photo of Trotsky, since photography was strictly forbidden at the meeting. The photo was published by Weltspiegel on a full page.

He was assisted in adapting himself to the foreign city and culture by his friends from Budapest, György Kepes and Éva Besnyő. They often invited him for dinner at their home, actively contributing to his subsistence besides his spiritual development. (At this time he stealthily ate the everyday roast-meat chop of his landlady’s dachshund.) He had to leave Berlin in 1933, which became more and more dangerous for left-wing Jewish intellectual immigrants. He went to Vienna and from there to Budapest by boat. He went to court schoolgirls at Lajos Pécsi’s studio in Dorottya Street almost everyday with his friends from the Munka-kör (Work Circle), among them Lajos Kassák. He worked for photographer Ferenc Veres in Budapest, taking photos of Budapest for touristic leaflets and publications. But he did not do it just howsoever! He did it by the metre. The photographer bought the exposed and developed Leica-films by 26 frames, i. e. by the metre from Endre Friedmann. We do not know what happened to these pictures or those he made in 1933 at the World Scout Jamboree in Gödöllő. Some of them were certainly taken to Paris, where a photographer friend of his tried to sell them to French photo agencies – without any success.

He moved to Paris in September 1933, still not as Capa, but neither as Bandi Friedmann any more; he tried to sell his photos under his new name André Friedman – with little success. He was starving more often than eating well. The young Hungarian with many names yet being actually an unknown photographer was helped by André Kertész with work, connections, his friendship and – knowing Capa – certainly with some money, too. (Later – already in America – he designed Capa’s book titled Death in the Making [Így készül a halál] from Gerda Taro’s and Capa’s photos taken in Spain.) He came into contact with Gisèle Freund, Hans Namuth and Chim at this time. Soon after he made friends with Henri Cartier-Bresson.

His first photo report was published in 1934 in Vu Magazine. He changed his name to Capa around this time almost together with his girlfriend Gerda Pohorylle, whose name became Gerda Taro. Foreign literature wrongly put together the name of Robert Capa from those of Robert Taylor and Frank Capra, but, to our knowledge, he was called Cápa (shark) because of his big mouth and pushy behaviour already at secondary school in Budapest. All he did abroad was to make it sound English by dropping the accent. The change of his name was also motivated by financial interests, since Gerda was able to sell the photos of a successful American photographer at a price three times higher than those of André. His appearance was also significantly transformed together with the change of his name. He had his long hair cut and he began to wear well-ironed suits, believing that it would be the seal of his success. However, it was difficult for him to work up the change of his name and the radical transformation of his appearance mentally.

He went to record the Spanish Civil War in 1936/37 together with Gerda Taro (whom he taught photography), assigned by Regards, a leftist French weekly magazine. And why should he not have received accreditation when his commissioner, Regards had a Hungarian editor, Pál Aranyossy writing under the name of Falus? Dezső Hoffmann was also working here at this time. Gerda died during an air-raid, but Spain became the springboard to world-wide fame for Capa since his photo titled “The Falling Soldier” irrevocably became a classic.

He worked in London, Paris and returned to Spain to take photos at the fall of Barcelona. He was everywhere where the sky was resounding. Besides the weekly magazine Regards, his photos were also published in LIFE. A countless number of his photos were published by Stefan Lorant in his journals, in Weekly Illustrated and in Picture Post. Lorant coined the slogan “The Greatest War Photographer in the World: Robert Capa,” which accompanied him all through his life.

He spent six months in China with film director Joris Ivens and cameraman John Fernhout during the Japanese occupation. He learnt English from the Dutch in the middle of China and he taught them songs of Hungarian highwaymen in exchange. By the way, Fernhout was Éva Besnyő’s first husband, whom she met earlier in the Spanish Civil War.

Capa returned to Paris, then went back to Spain again to take the series of photos published on 11 pages in Picture Post, two pages in LIFE and five pages in Regards.

After his father died in Budapest, he had nothing else binding him to Europe, so he moved to the United States in 1939 following his mother and his younger brother. Not only his photography, but also the typical Hungarian “lecho” (lecsó) dish cooked by Júlia Friedmann became a legend in the larger group of their friends. He preserved his Hungarian bonds: in his writing “Why have I left home?” he wrote about the conspiracy with his secondary schoolmates under the pillars of the Chain Bridge in Budapest. At the time, he mostly made reportage for LIFE, for example about the presidential elections in Mexico, where he met Kati Deutsch again, a former pupil of Hungarian photographer Lajos Pécsi.

He authored a book in 1941 together with writer Diana Forbes-Robertson about the air battle of London, entitled The Battle of Waterloo Road. After Hungary’s declaration of war, for being a citizen of an enemy state, he was not allowed to leave a ten-mile range of New York and he was also forbidden to take photos. However, in a rather short time, as perhaps the only alien enemy, he achieved to be accredited by the U. S. Army. He only had these personal documents at that time: U. S. residence permit, a Hungarian passport and letters of assignment from various journals. It did not pose an unsolvable problem to him, since he already succeeded in crossing international borders with an expired passport and a nicely decorated Hungarian restaurant menu – and with his big talk – already ten years earlier.

He took photos in England, North Africa, Sicily and in other parts of Italy. He landed with the first American troops on D-Day. He covered the last German offensive in Belgium and took photos about the fall of Leipzig. In the last day of the war he was asked by the Paris correspondent of the American Army’s radio to read an appeal in Hungarian on the air to persuade the population of besieged Budapest to turn against the Germans. Capa accepted to do it; however, by this time his Hungarian had become so rusty that he had to give it up in disgrace. After this incident, his friends were teasing him unmercifully about being a fake Hungarian. At this time Hemingway’s saying became a classic: “Capa speaks seven languages, but all of them poorly.”

At the end of the war, he was about to have a business-card printed with the title “Robert Capa, war photographer, unemployed.” Being aware of the course of world history since that time and Capa’s life story, he could hardly have distributed a lot of these cards. He received U. S. citizenship after the war, officially under the name of Robert Capa.

He went to the Soviet Union in 1947 with John Steinbeck, who wrote about him: “Capa was able to see and use what he had discovered. He was able to show the whole population’s hatred on a child’s face… Capa’s work is the proof of his great heart and his exuberant compassion… I frequently travelled and worked with Capa. He may have had much closer friends but nobody liked him as much as I did. He liked to seem to be easy and carefree in his work. But he was not. His photos are not accidental.”

In the same year, he founded Magnum in New York with Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour, George Rodger, Maria Eisner, William Vandivert and his wife. Organizing the agency, getting clients and making money took much of his time. He wrote to Maria Eisner around 1950: “I enjoy so much to be able to take photos again that I think I will get into to the habit.”After his death, Magnum was taken on and managed by his younger brother, Kornél Friedmann – or as he is better known: Cornell Capa.

In 1947, Robert Capa went to Turkey with a 16 mm film camera. A little bit later he covered the birth of the State of Israel. In Tel Aviv he met a lot of Hungarian acquaintances and then, guided by Paul Goldmann, a photographer of Hungarian origins, he took pictures of the heroic defence at the Kibbutz Negba in the Negev Desert. He also recorded the immigrant Hungarian battalion fighting for the liberation of Jerusalem.

In 1948, he spent six weeks in Hungary, taking photos of the war-torn country with the more and more evident signs of communist influence. At this time reconstruction works were implemented under the first three-year plan. He was accompanied by György Markos, his friend in Berlin and then in Paris. He took photos at the Ganz Shipyard, he recorded the first rice harvest in Békés County and the city of Budapest reviving from the ruins. “The day before I left, I went to get my exit visa. The sergeant who handled foreigners studied my passport very thoroughly. After stamping my exit visa, he asked me which school I went to. I told him the name of my secondary school in Budapest and he promptly listed my teachers and found out the year of my matriculation. He attended the same school, which he finished two years later than me. He gave back my passport and said: “If you had been born two years later with your talent, you either would not be alive today or you would be a secretary of a minister. This way, however, you are only a troubled Western liberal. This is historical materialism.” This story, entitled Conversation in Budapest was published a year later in Holiday Magazine.

Until 1952, he mostly reported about his travels on assignment by Holiday Magazine, often writing the articles as well. Although he never grew rich, he was always full of ideas hiding opportunities to make a lot of money. Once he said: “I will never make millions. You make millions if you have one good idea. When you have twenty a day, you have to share them.” He was proud of his shrewdness that he attributed to being Hungarian. He reversed the well-known slogan from Hollywood, quoted earlier. In his version he said: „It is not enough to have talent, you also have to be Hungarian”.

In 1954, he was sent to Indochina by LIFE to cover the French colonies. On 25 May, he stepped on a land-mine and died. He was honoured with a posthumous Croix de Guerre by General René Cogny.

Capa’s memory has not faded – neither in Hungary, nor abroad. This is, not the least, due to his younger brother who, after the deaths of Capa, Bischof and Chim, felt that he did not have a more important task in his life than ensuring eternal life for these geniuses of photography. His zeal is attested by several exhibitions and books. His work was not without success: almost thirty years after Capa’s death, one of the best Hungarian writers, Ferenc Karinthy wrote about the photographer in his book The End of the World (Vége a világnak). Also András Simor wrote a poem as an homage to the photographer and to the soldier he made immortal. Film director Miklós Jancsó wrote an essay for the fortieth anniversary of Thái Bình. And above all: there is no photographic history or textbook without mentioning both of their names with Robert Capa on the top.

Károly Kincses (2005)