Driven to shoot on the frontlines

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

The camera never lies — or does it? The double-barreled exhibition now on at the Yokohama Museum of Art suggests that it doesn’t always tell the truth either.

“Two Photographers: Robert Capa Centennial/ Gerda Taro Retrospective” is a time-traveling trip back to the middle of the last century — a period of fast-moving political struggle and military conflict — through the lenses of legendary photojournalist Robert Capa and his partner Gerda Taro.

Capa is regarded as a heroic figure, as someone who bravely used his camera in the noble fight to get the truth out, but, to those prepared to look deeper, this exhibition presents enough material to raise a few questions about this myth. Most significant is the inclusion of Taro’s work and narrative. She was Capa’s girlfriend and worked closely with him during the Spanish Civil War, the period that established his legend.

As a time of intense ideological struggle, the 1930s was also a period of cynical propaganda and concocted image, something that is echoed by the fact that the names of both photographers were actually aliases. Both Capa and Taro were Jews who changed their original names — Endre Erno Friedmann and Gerta Pohorylle — even though they had escaped persecution by leaving their respective homelands of Hungary and Germany.

“Capa” was chosen for its similarity to the name of the Italian American film director Frank Capra, because Friedmann thought it would go down well in America; while Pohorylle took the name “Taro” from the then little-known Japanese painter Taro Okamoto, whom she had met in Paris.

But Capa and Taro were not just into personal rebranding. They were also prepared to distort the truth in their photography. Driven by left-wing sympathies and the desire to make a buck, they tried to give the newspapers and picture periodicals the kind of images that best fitted the favored narrative of heroic Republican Spain battling against its evil enemies.

One of Capa’s most famous images, “Republican Soldier, Cordoba Front, Spain” (1936), shows a Republican militiaman falling heroically in battle, but this photo is now widely thought to have been staged.

Other images in the exhibition also serve a propagandistic role, striving to show the Republicans in an idyllic and positive light, even though, as famously revealed in George Orwell’s memoir “Homage to Catalonia,” there were serious tensions within the Republican side, in particular between Communists supported by Stalin’s Russia and various left-wingers unaligned with Moscow.

After turning down a marriage proposal from Capa, Taro went her own way, but soon died in confusing circumstances near the frontline, probably in a traffic accident. There are rumors, however, that she may have been killed in a purge because of her links to the Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany, an exiled Trotskyist group that was on Stalin’s hit-list.

This tragedy had little effect on Capa’s work, as what seems to have driven him was the excitement of his job. As soon as the Spanish Civil War died down, he was off looking for new conflicts. In 1938 he traveled to China to record the Japanese invasion from the Chinese point of view. Then, soon after that, World War II began, providing Capa with plenty of opportunities for daring photography, not least participating in the D-Day landing. It is hard not to see Capa as some kind of adrenaline junkie, who got a kick out of being in the thick of the action.

The title of his memoir of the war years, “Slightly Out of Focus,” is revealing. Many of Capa’s photos are indeed slightly out of focus and the question arises: why? Partly it is because of the chaotic conditions under which he shot, but there is also a sense that his hand may sometimes have simply been shaking with sheer excitement.

As a Jewish photojournalist, it is surprising that he did not shoot the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps. But he was clearly more drawn to excitement and action than to dull, dispiriting tragedy. Going by the many pictures he took, Capa was much more interested in the scenes of French collaborators having their heads shaved and being marched through the streets of Paris than in the Holocaust.

In the postwar years, Capa’s pictures calm down and accordingly the focus improves. Pictures of celebrities, the Jewish settlement of Palestine and a trip to Japan, interesting though they are, hint at a fish out of water. Action and danger was the element that he craved and he found it again in Vietnam, but it was also there that it finally killed him, when he stepped on a landmine.

This is a fascinating exhibition, but it could have been staged better. The prints are quite small and are hung close together. This forces visitors to form a slow-moving “conveyer belt” close to the walls that effectively blocks the images. An arrangement that utilized the full floor space of the galleries and encouraged visitors to move about in a nonlinear way would have greatly improved things.

“Two Photographers: Robert Capa Centennial/ Gerda Taro Retrospective” at the Yokohama Museum of Art runs till March 24; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,100. Closed Thu. www.yaf.or.jp/yma.

  • Dave Powell

    I went and saw this and it was excellent…