Robert Capa (October 22, 1913 – May 25, 1954), born Endre Ernő Friedmann, was a Hungarian combat photographer and photojournalist who covered five different wars: the Spanish Civil War, the Second Sino-Japanese War, World War II across Europe, the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and the First Indochina War.
He documented the course of World War II in London, North Africa, Italy, the Battle of Normandy on Omaha Beach and the liberation of Paris. His action photographs, such as those taken during the 1944 Normandy invasion, portray the violence of war with unique impact.
In 1947, Capa co-founded Magnum Photos with, among others, the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. The organization was the first cooperative agency for worldwide freelance photographers.
At the start of World War II, Capa was in New York City. He had moved there from Paris to look for new work and to escape Nazi persecution. The war took Capa to various parts of the European Theatre on photography assignments. He first photographed for Collier’s Weekly, before switching to Life after he was fired by the former. He was the only “enemy alien” photographer for the Allies. On October 7, 1943, Robert Capa was in Naples with Life reporter Will Lang Jr. and photographed the Naples post office bombing.
His most famous work occurred on June 6, 1944 (D-Day) when he swam ashore with the second assault wave on Omaha Beach. He was armed with two Contax II cameras mounted with 50 mm lenses and several rolls of spare film. Capa took 106 pictures in the first couple of hours of the invasion. However, a staff member at Life in London made a mistake in the darkroom; he set the dryer too high and melted the emulsion in the negatives in three complete rolls and over half of a fourth roll. Only eleven frames in total were recovered. Capa never said a word to the London bureau chief about the loss of three and a half rolls of his D-Day landing film.
Although a fifteen-year-old lab assistant named Dennis Banks was responsible for the accident, another account, now largely accepted as untrue but which gained widespread currency, blamed Larry Burrows, who worked in the lab not as a technician but as a “tea-boy”.Life magazine printed 10 of the frames in its June 19, 1944 issue with captions that described the footage as “slightly out of focus”, explaining that Capa’s hands were shaking in the excitement of the moment (something which he denied).Capa used this phrase as the title of his autobiographical account of the war, “Slightly Out of Focus”.
In the early 1950s, Capa traveled to Japan for an exhibition associated with Magnum Photos. While there, Life magazine asked him to go on assignment to Southeast Asia, where the French had been fighting for eight years in the First Indochina War.
Despite the fact he had sworn not to photograph another war a few years earlier, Capa accepted and accompanied a French regiment with two other Time-Life journalists, John Mecklin and Jim Lucas.
On May 25, 1954 at 2:55 p.m., the regiment was passing through a dangerous area under fire when Capa decided to leave his jeep and go up the road to photograph the advance. About five minutes later, Mecklin and Lucas heard an explosion; Capa had stepped on a landmine. When they arrived on the scene he was still alive, but his left leg had been blown to pieces and he had a serious wound in his chest. Mecklin called for a medic and Capa was taken to a small field hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival. He died with his camera in his hand…