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Luck & Pathos
by Kildare Dobbs

The great age of photo-reportage began with the availability, after the First World War, of the Leica 35-millimetre single-lens reflex camera. Hitherto news photographers had relied on the Speed Graflex, a large-format bellows camera using four-by-five inch plates, too clumsy for use in stressful situations. Through the 1930s to the 1950s a talented group of photojournalists using 35mm SLRs covered the disasters and wars of that violent period to record them for such picture magazines as Picture Post, Paris-Match, Life, and Look, and in Canada The Star Weekly. The rise of television in the early '50s, by draining off the advertising that sustained them, put the picture magazines and photo-reportage out of business.
In Europe the genre survives in Paris-Match and some other journals but, even though it's beefed up with colour, it has lost its potency. It's hard to imagine today the power and fascination of the black-and-white magazine photography of the 1930s.
Coterminous with the age of photojournalism, and one of its strongest talents, was the man called Robert Capa. A new picture book of some of his best work, called simply Robert Capa/Photographs, allows us to look back over the whole period from Paris in 1936 to French Indo-China in 1954, where Capa trod on a mine and was killed.
Born Endre Friedman in Budapest in 1913, the young man left Hungary for political reasons in 1931 to find a job as a darkroom assistant in a Berlin photo agency. Soon he was given an assignment to photograph Leon Trotsky speaking to Danish students; the contact sheet and one enlarged print are reproduced in the book. Hitler was on the rise and Friedman fled first to Vienna, then home, then to Paris in 1933.
He had not yet been reinvented as Robert Capa. That metamorphosis had to wait till he fell in love with Gerda Taro, a German girl who persuaded him to present himself as a hotshot American photographer called Robert Capa. He was soon unmasked, but the ruse became a reality, though he did not become a U.S. citizen until 1946. In 1936 he went to Spain to cover the Civil War: Picture Post ran his pictures, calling him the world's greatest war photographer. (Gerda, already a photojournalist herself, was accidentally killed by a "friendly" tank in 1937.) From this period came the most famous of all images of the Spanish conflict, Capa's close-up of a Loyalist militiaman at the very instant of his death.
What the book doesn't tell us is that Capa took this picture without seeing it. He held his camera above the trench in which he was sheltering and shot off a roll or two. He did not know what was on the film until later, when he saw the contact sheets. This lucky shot was supported by many other, more conscious images of battle and its victims, military and civilian. Like great military commanders, photojournalists need luck above all things. And of course they shoot a great many frames to be sure of the picture, bracketing the exposures and generally being lavish with film.
Capa's war images are full of pity; they are seldom gruesome. Photos of the dead are exceptional, and always seen with pathos.
It has to be said that thanks to the relentless succession of bitter warfare around the world in our own time, the images that Capa show us are all too familiar. The faces of hunger, of fear, of grief and anger, the long lines of refugees, the bravado of warriors, they are part of the nightly entertainment called TV news. Perhaps we have become callous. But even this is not new; witness the satiric line of Louis MacNeice:

Die the soldiers, die the Jews.
Die all the breadless, homeless queues.
Give us this day our daily news.

The conflicts of Capa's time were in Spain, China, Mexico, Italy (1933-1944), France (1944), Israel (1948-1950), Japan (1954), and Indochina (1954).
With his friends Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour, George Roger, and William Vandivert, Capa in 1947 founded the famous photo agency Magnum. He became its president and recruited a number of brilliant younger photojournalists for the group, including the Dutchman Kryn Taconis, who came to Canada and worked for The Star Weekly in its last days as well as for Life and Look. I was lucky enough to be his friend and work with him on occasion.
The world of Magnum, centred in Paris, was socially brilliant and glamorous. Some of Capa's peacetime images are here, among them portraits of great men like Picasso, Matisse, Steinbeck, and Hemingway. A revealing portrait of Gary Cooper finds him crossing stream in wooded country, balancing himself with a fishing rod as he places his feet gracefully like a dancer on the bridge-a fallen log. Cooper is, of course, impeccably suited and hatted.
There are also photographs of the rich, which are vaguely satiric. Capa's images of them are much like any other photographer's. Subjects are seen at the race track or in classy restaurants and cafés. The viewpoint is that of an outsider, unlike that of Karsh, who always seems sycophantic, like a trusted upper servant.
The book includes a preface by Henri Cartier-Bresson, probably the greatest of the photographers of Capa's period. It deserves to be quoted in full and in French, since it is short and the accompanying translation is weak:
"Capa pour moi portait l'habit de lumière d'un grand torero, mais il ne tuait pas;-grand joueur, il se battait généreusement pour lui-même et pour les autres dans un tourbillon.-La fatalité a voulu qu'il soit frappé en pleine gloire."

Kildare Dobbs's first book of poems, The Eleventh Hour, has just been published by Mosaic.


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