Blurred and out of focus, the 11 photos Robert Capa took off the coast of Normandy, France on June 6, 1944 secured his reputation as the most famous war photographer.
Seventy-five years after the end of World War II, the images of what would become commonly known as D-Day remain globally iconic.
Capa was the only photographer to go ashore with US troops as they invaded a stretch of coast in northwest France. He photographed the soldiers from behind as they stormed “Omaha Beach,” the American military code name for the beach segment, defended by German troops.
Other images, such as “The Soldier in the Surf” (above), show soldiers up to their necks in water or taking cover. It was a daring and courageous operation, but in recent times questions have emerged as to how the photos came about, consequently casting a shadow on Capa’s reputation as a war photographer.
‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough’
Capa’s career began during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), when he photographed the Republican troops fighting the forces of General Francisco Franco, a Hitler ally.
Together with his partner Gerda Taro, Capa established a new style of photojournalism that used small portable cameras to get as close to the action as possible. “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” Capa is famously quoted as saying.
Taro was killed in 1937 while working on the frontlines in Spain.
The knew each other from the Spanish Civil War: Capa (l) and Ernest Hemingway (r) accompanying US troops in France in July 1944
From Europe to the United States
Capa was born Endre Friedmann into a Jewish family in Budapest in 1913. He moved to Berlin as a young man and later headed to Paris to escape the Nazis. There, he began to use the alias Robert Capa and started traveling to Spain for work.
In 1939, he entered the US on a tourist visa and was able to secure freelance commissions by using his contacts among journalists, photographers and authors.
Capa was not the only war photographer to document WWII, but he was considered particularly courageous and ambitious, even among the Allied troops.
In his 1947 memoir, Slightly out of Focus, he presents a highly fictionalized account of his work during World War II, his fears and his motivation.
Capa was after exclusive photos and he absolutely wanted to be on-site during the Allied invasion. Despite his Hungarian citizenship — Hungary was allied with Nazi Germany — the US military added him to the small group of reporters allowed to be present for the planned D-Day.
Exclusive rolls of film: From Omaha Beach to editors in New York
It wasn’t just important that the 30-year-old photographer survive the D-Day mission; he also had to meet his editorial deadline. The rolls of film had to be transported from the French coast across the English Channel to London, where they would be developed. The military censor had to give the okay and then an airplane at the ready would fly the negatives across the Atlantic to the New York offices of Life, the magazine where Capa worked. Texts would also be written to accompany the images. Meanwhile, the photographer stayed behind with the advancing Allied troops.
Capa’s D-Day photos are not only some of the most famous images of World War II; at the time, they also played a major role in cementing his reputation as a war photographer.
Prior to D-Day, he had already photographed the fighting in North Africa and the Allied advance in Italy, among other things. In 1947, US General Dwight D. Eisenhower presented Capa and 19 other correspondents with the Medal of Freedom, which honored civilians who aided the US effort in WWII.
The defeat of Nazi Germany and post-war life in Berlin
Capa witnessed the liberation of Paris on August 25, 1944, from a military jeep. In March 1945, he jumped from a plane with US paratroopers, landing behind the enemy line near the German town of Wesel.
Capa did not photograph the Battle of Berlin. “There was one story Capa did want to cover — the liberation of Leipzig,” Alex Kershaw noted in his 2002 biography Blood and Champagne — The Life and Times of Robert Capa.
It wasn’t until after the war had ended in summer 1945 that Capa came to Berlin, where he took photos of the liberated city and its people. He also met and fell in love with Swedish Hollywood star Ingrid Bergman. Their love affair ended in early 1947.
Many of Capa’s photos from that summer will be on display at an exhibition in Berlin starting September 9 at the New Synagogue Berlin – Centrum Judaicum.
What really happened at Omaha Beach?
The legend around Robert Capa, war photographer, has repeatedly been challenged. In 2014, author Allan Douglas Coleman launched a blog where he and others try to reconstruct the events of D-Day. Their research casts doubt on the long-recounted story of how the D-Day images came about.
The criticism, in a nutshell, is that Capa was on Omaha Beach later than previously reported, when the worst of the fighting was already over, and that he did not stay as long as previously assumed. The total number of photos he shot is also contested, with Capa supposedly taking far fewer photos than he said he did, perhaps not even more than the 11 famous photos. The Life editorial team claim that a London lab technician accidentally destroyed the other negatives by heat is disputed as being technically impossible.
So did Capa take only those 11 iconic D-Day photos?
The former Life editor John Morris, who was responsible for the publication of Capa’s Normandy photos in 1944, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in 2014 that it appears the destroyed rolls of film did not contain any negatives.
“It now seems that maybe there was nothing on the other three rolls to begin with. Experts recently have said you can’t melt the emulsion off films like that and he just never shot them,” Morris said. “I now believe that it’s quite possible that Bob just bundled all his 35 [millimeter film rolls] together and just shipped it off back to London, knowing that on one of those rolls there would be the pictures he actually shot that morning.”
Irme Schaber, biographer of Capa’s partner Taro and curator of the first Gerda Taro exhibition with the International Center of Photography in 2007, said it is “not unthinkable that Capa embellished the potentially meager yield of Omaha Beach with curious stories designed to distract and draw attention. He knew no scruples about such things, this is known. The straightforward military aspect was also never very important to Capa. For him, it was first and foremost about the human aspect.”
Debate about ‘The Falling Soldier’
Doubt was already being cast on another famous Capa photo as early as the 1970s. Known as “The Falling Soldier,” the image from the Spanish Civil War allegedly depicts a Republican soldier at the moment of death. Today, it remains unclear whether the image is authentic or staged. What is certain is that Capa and Taro did not see themselves as uninvolved observers of the Spanish Civil War but rather stood on the side of the Republican troops and their allies against Franco.
“The photo of ‘Falling Soldier’ is a lesson in media history that raises questions far beyond Capa the photographer,” Schaber said. “The ongoing debate is necessary and exciting, and it ensures that this early iconic photograph will be carried onward in an instructional manner into the digital age.” Both the D-Day photos and “The Falling Solider” show that the question of truth in war is particularly serious, she added.
Reconstructing the hours of June 6, 1944, on Omaha Beach is a difficult and ongoing process. For instance, the identity of the man in Capa’s photo “The Soldier in the Surf” remains unknown to this day. Both Edward Regan and Huston Riley claim to recognize themselves in the shot. Schaber, who herself has extensively researched Taro, maintains that photo and military historical research are still necessary and important.
Robert Capa: ‘Great artist and photographer’
As far as Kershaw is concerned, the critical questions surrounding the images’ origins don’t change a thing. “They are the best images of D-Day and were real. They are amazing,” Kershaw told DW. Capa’s standing as one of the most famous war photographers also remains immutable, he added. “He was a great artist and photographer. A rock star, a great reporter.”
After World War II, Capa and his colleagues Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour (Chim) and George Rodger founded the Magnum photo agency, still considered one of the most renowned today. Capa photographed two more wars: the first Arab-Israeli War following the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 — an assignment that was very important to him — and the First Indochina War (1946-54).
Capa supposedly always carefully decided which wars he was willing to risk his life for and which wars he wasn’t. He actually did not want to go to Indochina, an area of French colonial possession in present-day Vietnam. The question as to why he went in the end remains emotionally charged, Kershaw wrote. One possibility is that he missed that kind of work. A gambler, Capa desperately also needed money. Or maybe he wanted to renew his reputation as a war photographer, another theory supposes.
Capa’s war photography went beyond the battles: Two women and a child weeping during the First Indochina War, 1954
‘Was the risk worth it?’
On May 25, 1954, the 40-year-old was accompanying a French unit in action against communist Viet Minh soldiers. He walked a bit into a field, where he stepped on a landmine and was fatally injured. He reportedly clung to his camera.
If Kershaw could speak to Capa today, he would have two questions for him: “Was the risk worth it? Dying at 40?”
He would also like to know: “What was it like having Ingrid Bergmann be madly in love with you?”
Adapted by: Dagmar Breitenback and Cristina Burack