Robert Capa’s Falling soldier – does the evidence stack up?

Sonw in London - October 2008

Update 19 July 2009: Fresh argument erupts

[Traveller's tip: Don't miss: This is war! at the Barbican till 25 January 2009]

I was fortunate enough to enjoy a ‘private viewing’ of the Robert Capa and Gerda Taro exhibition at the Barbican this week. Helen and I got doused by a storm walking from Moorgate, but once we were inside, the magic of the Barbican Centre took over. We spent the next 90 minutes immersed in some great war reportage and an installation of contemporary photojournalistic and new media commentaries on Afghanistan and Iraq.

On the way home I was caught in that wonderful (for an expat of 40 years) October snow. It was bitterly cold, but the chance to take this photo made it all worthwhile. The white blobs in the foreground are snowflakes.

Robert Capa and Gerda Taro were an amazing couple as well as great photographers. This retrospective provides hundreds of images showing how they worked together or alone and using a variety of cameras and techniques.

Many of the images in this collection are clearly staged and posed: including many famous images by both Capa and Taro from the Spanish civil war.

They first went to Spain in 1936 and their sympathies were with the Republicans (also known as Loyalists) who were defending their newly established (and left-leaning) government from the Fascist militias led by General Franco.

I don’t doubt Taro and Capa’s political allegiance to the Republicans. That was always the right side of the barricades and many fine socialists, intellectuals, poet, anarchists, workers, women and children died defending and extending working class political rights against the rising tide of European fascism.

But did this ideological sympathy for revolution in Spain create ethical problems for either Capa or Taro? One famous series of images by Robert Capa sheds some interesting light on this debate.

Known universally as ‘the falling soldier’, one iconic image is at the centre of a longstanding question hanging over Robert Capa’s reputation as one of the finest photojournalists of the 20th Century.

I was dying to see the falling soldier in the sequence of seven images that are on show at the Barbican amid a large number of other shots taken on 5th September 1936 at Cerro Muriano, reputedly one of the most dangerous frontlines in the battle for the Spanish republic.

Capa and Taro visited a Republican unit based on the Cordoba front in September 1936. Taro took photos of refugees from the fighting while Capa spent a day with the troops.

In most of the images it is clear that the soldiers are posing for Capa’s cameras. They are not shown under fire, unlike many of Capa’s photographs taken on other frontlines as the fascist forces gained the ascendancy.The soldiers are standing on their ramparts waving and smiling. If the enemy had been close they would have come under fire. They were not close to any fighting at the time Capa was there.

How then did the unlucky falling soldier come to die? This is the crucial question as this image has always been regarded as one taken at the ‘moment of death’. Capa never contradicted the popular notion that this photograph was real.

It seemed that Capa had indeed taken advantage of a lucky shot – in this case, perhaps doubly lucky. Though unlucky enough for the dying soldier if he was indeed shot as he ran past Capa’s camera.

I have previously canvassed most of the arguments to-date about this. The biggest dispute is between the journalist and author Philip Knightley and one of Capa’s biographers, Richard Whelan. Knightley argues that the ‘falling man’ is a staged image. Whelan maintains that the image is true – it is a photograph of a Republican soldier who has been shot and killed.

As I wrote in my earlier post, this seemed to settle the dispute in Capa’s favour:

In September 1996, however, the controversy was definitively settled in Capa’s favor by the discovery of the identity of the man in the photograph—Federico Borrell García, whose death at Cerro Muriano, on September 5, 1936, is recorded in the Spanish government’s archives and whose identity in the photograph was confirmed by his younger brother, Everisto.

[Robert Capa: Is that photo really real? EM September 2007]

So, if the man is Federico Borrell Garcia and the archives are correct, this is indeed one of the most remarkble images taken by a photojournalist who took many remarkable shots of war and death in Spain, all across Europe, in China and in Vietnam.

The falling man sequence

The Barbican exhibition promotes itself with the proposition that the sequence of photographs being shown here (most of the photos are original prints) provides the conclusive proof of the authenticity of the falling man image.

But you know what, I wasn’t totally convinced. For me there is still a nagging doubt that the falling man photograph is, like so many others of that period, one of Capa’s well staged ‘action’ shots.

‘Falling man’ sits at 5th spot in a series of seven images in this display.

  • Image 1: soldiers on the ramparts at Cerro Muriano

The first shot is of about a dozen soldiers standing on a rampart above a trench waving their rifles. Many are smiling. Capa is standing on a slope below the rampart and he would have clearly been in the fascists’ sights if they were close enough to see him. I’m sure the Republicans would have made juicy sniper targets too, standing in open shirts on high ground.

Image 1 in the series of 7

Image 1 in the series of 7

The falling man – Garcia, if it is him – is clearly identifiable on the far left of this shot. Another soldier standing 3rd from the left is also important. He is the mysterious second ‘falling man’ [see below]. The plot (Or is that the fog of war?) thickens.

  • Image 2: Soldier running

Shot two is a typical Capa action shot – a soldier is crouching forward and running from left to right. We know that there are earlier posed photos in the sequence and on other rolls that Capa shot on 5th September 1936. This photo is also most likely staged. At no time does Capa mention coming under fire in his captions for these photos.

  • Image 3: Soldier’s firing over rampart

In the third shot we see a group of three soldiers firing over the rampart. Garcia is in the shot. Shot 3 is almost certainly a staged shot, there is no gunsmoke or any other sign. The soldiers are tightly grouped, rather than spread out.

In other shots taken on the day we see the soldiers in small groups pointing their rifles over the rampart. The shots are well composed and almost perfectly lit. This indicates that Capa had plenty of time. There are no tell-tale puffs of smoke indicating that the republican troopers are firing at anyone or anything.

  • Image 4: Soldiers jumping trench

In this fourth shot there are three soldiers jumping over a trench. Capa is positioned in the trench shooting up as the comrades leap over his head. Assuming this is the same trench and rampart system seen in previous and contemporary images, it appears that the soldiers ran at speed to leap across the trench. They were not scrambling up out of the trench to charge the enemy.

Falling man ( Garcia) is 2nd from the right in this shot. The soldier in the darker uniform (the one I’m calling falling man 2) is in the background of this shot.

  • Image 5: This is the famous falling man image
Robert Capa's famous 'falling man' image 5 Sept 1936

Robert Capa's famous falling man image

This is the man identified by his brother as Garcia and records indicate that a soldier with that name died at Cerro Muriano on 5 September 1936. Acording to the  exhibition notes he was killed by a sniper bullet while on a training exercise being staged for the benefit of Capa’s cameras. There are several arcane arguments about when this image and others in the sequence were shot (morning or afternoon light?), but I don’t think you need to get so technical to solve this mystery.

Image 6: Falling man#2

Second falling man from Cerro Murriano

Second falling man from Cerro Muriano

Now, the second falling man. This is not Garcia. There are clear indications that this is a different soldier (uniform and hat are different). However, this shot here is a detail. In the larger shot, the pose is very similar to falling man #1, though he’s at a more parallel angle to the ground. In the larger image it is clear that the two images (5 & 6) were taken in nearly the same spot. The angle of the background, the sky, the grass and the slope are all consistent with the spot where Capa was shooting the other images in this sequence and on that day.

  • Image 7: The body of falling man #2 lying on the ground

Falling man #2 is apparently dead in this shot. There is no evidence of a wound, or blood. The body has its back to the camera.

This is how the images were first published in the French publication ‘Vu’. On the next page you can see images of refugees from Cerro Muriano taken by Gerda Taro.

Vu magazine 23 September 1936

Vu magazine 23 September 1936

You can see here the full versions of both photos, which indicates they were taken in a very similar position. There’s a very handy rock at the foot of falling man #2 and I can’t help wondering if this was a marker laid out by Capa to indicate the position where the soldier should fall.

while we walked around the Barbican chatting about this series of images, Helen came up with the best insight into the incident – she had never seen the photo before and was not really aware of the controversy around it – she asked me why one of the long exhibition note captions mentioned that the falling man was killed by a ‘stray fratricidal bullet’. I had already written a note about this in my book, along side a note saying ‘two falling man theory?’. Helen asked was Garcia killed by friendly fire? What did the Barbican curators mean by ‘fratricidal’? I took it to mean in the context of the civil war, Garcia was shot by another Spaniard. Helen took it literally as shot by a brother, meaning a republican comrade.

The Taro link

There’s another interesting link in the chain here that becomes clear when you see the full range of images that Capa and Taro took in Spain between 1936 and 1939. There’s a full sequence of photos by Taro taken on the Cordoba front in 1937. The exhibition notes show that these images were a re-enactment of an earlier battle ‘for Taro and Capa’s cameras’.

I think that there is still some doubt that the falling man image is an actual moment of death photograph. I think the fact that there are two such images shot at the same place within the timeframe of a single day is beyond the possibility of coincidence. I think the images are staged. I don’t believe that the evidence of the sequence in the Barbican exhibition is strong enough to discount this possibility. Garcia may have died later that day, or not, but I do not think he was dying in the famous ‘falling man’ image.

There is clear evidence that on 5th September 1936 and on many other ocassions, both Capa and Taro used staged and posed images. This makes sense in that if you’re shooting in the heat of battle, you could easily get your head blown off.

Capa and Taro also wrote their own captions for many images and Taro’s reveal her allegiance to the republican cause. Many of the posed images have a naive socialist-realist cast to them with captions like ‘Strong defenders of the Republic’ over a group shot of workers and peasants in uniform, called up to defend Barcelona.

I can’t help wondering if their political views might have led to them portraying the falling man as a real image in order to elicit sympathy for the Spanish cause in Europe and the USA. The power of the photograph as a symbol of the Republic under attack and falling to its knees cannot be underestimated. If Capa had admitted at the time that this was a posed image, the propaganda value would have been considerably less.

[Driblejaws disclaimer]

I want to make it clear that I am not criticising Capa and Taro here for being sympathetic to the Republican cause. On the contrary I admire their conviction. However, if the falling man image(s) are not true moment of death photographs (and I still seriously doubt it) then they should be recognised as propaganda images.

This does not, in my view, lessen the value of Capa’s contribution to photojournalism, nor should it take away from his deserved reputation as both a man and a photographer (I have no opinion on Capa’s alleged whoring and drinking binges). Gerda Taro was also an outstanding photojournalist. Her technique and technical skills are at least equal to Capa’s and it is fantastic to see her getting recognition.

Unfortunately, Gerda Taro’s life was cut tragically short. on 25 July 1937 she died after being crushed by a tank at Brunette. Her funeral in Paris took place on what should have been her 27th birthday.

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16 Responses to Robert Capa’s Falling soldier – does the evidence stack up?

  1. fisheye says:

    wow, that really is researched! I still think it’s real though, mostly because I want to believe it’s real.

  2. luca pagni says:

    Richard Whelan in “This Is War! Robert Capa at Work” 2007, wrote:

    “The image, known as Death of a Loyalist militiaman or
    simply The Falling Soldier, has become almost universally
    recognized as one of the greatest war photographs ever made
    (fig. 40). The photograph has also generated a great deal
    of controversy. In recent years, it has been alleged that
    Capa staged the scene, a charge that has forced me to
    undertake a fantastic amount of research over the course of
    two decades. (Note 3)

    ” 3 For a review of the debates and evidence both pro and
    con, see the comprehensive dossier compiled by photography
    critic Luca Pagni at
    http://www.photographers.it/articoli/cd_capa/index.html
    Proponents of the argument that The Falling Soldier was
    faked include Phillip Knightley (to be discussed below) and
    Caroline Brothers; for the latter, see her War and
    Photography: A Cultural History (London: Routledge, 1997),
    pp. 178-84.”

  3. T Roberts says:

    One of the most arcane arguments is the question of the response of the human body to being shot. McNab and Keeter in “Tools of Violence” argue that the immediate drop to the ground after being hit by a standard rifle or handgun bullet is a fiction (they quote several studies in support of this). They point out that the shooter doesn’t fall to the ground after firing the gun; Newton’s Third Law applied here suggests that the shootee shouldn’t either, at least not immediately. Whatever the validity of this argument, it suggests that the photographs of the two soldiers might have been taken over a longer timespan than the 2.5 seconds suggested by one researcher, allowing for the possibility that the two would react differently to being hit.
    Capa took these photos on a Leica (he replaced it with a Contax II shortly afterwards), which also suggests that there’s a time gap between the two photos- try winding one on whilst holding it to your eye!

  4. alexng says:

    if you put the 2 falling man’s photo in photoshop, you can find the 2 falling man was falling at the same position, I made a comparison here:
    http://img.blshe.com/resserver.php?blogId=74&resource=two%20falling%20soldier.jpg&mode=medium, I also discussed the 2 falling soldier’s photo in my blog ( sorry , in Chinese):
    http://wuzhenrong.blshe.com/post/74/169922

  5. [...] raised the issue of the veracity of the Spanish Civil War image which purports to show a Republican soldier, identified as Federico Borrell Garcia,   at the [...]

  6. [...] EM’s review of the Barbican exhibition November 1, 2008 [...]

  7. [...] I saw this exhibition at the Barbican Centre  in London last year and I  wrote extensively on the series that includes “falling man” #1 and “falling m…. [...]

  8. Bougeno says:

    I first saw “The Falling Man” photo many years ago and took it on faith that it was a real event. Today, I saw for the first time the 2nd falling man photo and I am now convinced that they are both staged, regardless of any other arguments one might come up with. Here’s why:

    Look at the cloud formations in the distant background. They are the same. As anyone knows, cloud formations change constantly, sometimes in seconds, usually in minutes.

    Another feature to look at is the slender shadow in the grass in “The Falling Man” on the right-side bottom of the photo, going from lower right to upper left. You see the same shadow in the grass in the 2nd falling man photo.

    If one or the other died here and the pictures were real, where is the body of the other one that died first?

  9. [...] the Capa/Taro exhibition, This Is War! in London and basically outlined the exact same arguments in a blogpost  dated 1st November. So Mr Will is a year late on this one. The story was in the New York Times on 17 August this year, [...]

  10. Bob Ingraham says:

    I am intrigued by the statments and quotations in T. Roberts’ post above that the “shootee” in a gunshot incident would not instantly fall to the ground. From personal experience, I beg to differ. I was shot through my right thigh in South Vietnam. The bullet fractured my femur, and I was on the ground so “instantly” that my impression was that I had been knocked to the ground by a hammer blow of incredible energy. In fact, what brought me to the ground was not the bullet but the fact that my femur had been shattered and could no longer support me. Gravity took over, and in about a fifth of a second I was flat on my back.

    There are far too many variables in such circumstances to categorically state that a “shootee” — cute, but you should put yourself in that position before writing so glibly — will or will not fall to the ground “instantly”. Stance, soft tissue, bone, joints, distance, calibre of the bullet, construction of the bullet (steel jackets or hollow point or explosive) all need to be taken into account.

    As far as the controversy goes, I don’t think it matters. Capa was a humanist photographer. If the photo was faked, it was for a good cause. That’s better than starting a war by faking an attack on an American destroyer or “inventing” WMDs.

    Bob Ingraham
    Vancouver

  11. [...] course, Capa could simply have faked his Falling Soldier, as very many of varying degrees of credibility have alleged. Nonetheless, it is an image we are [...]

  12. themilos says:

    Capa was a professional and used Leicas, if you leave the winder slightly extended (out from body so you can get a thumb under the lever) and hold the camera correctly you can blast off photos fast providing you do not have to adjust exposure, focus or using a slow shutter speed. ( I was an old school professional, practice and familiarity help you get real fast) Two photos is a second? Achievable. Notice the horizon line? When you wind you push the right side of the camera, would he have thought to fake this?
    Second point is, Faking……. Would he risk it? If he got caught then the revolutionary cause could be compromised, would he risk this for one picture? Would Taro let him?
    Third point, the guy got shot the same way later in the day? Highly unlikely, also, it would be the only faked dead/dying photo Capa ever took out of hundred of photos, seems statistically unlikely.
    Fourth, Capa did re enact, but this was noted and in fact, he said so about this picture sequence EXCEPT for this one pic and how he got it.
    And finally, the guy put his balls on the line for a photo so often, had an international rep, why would he fake it? His Omaha photos would have been his ultimate images of they had not been ruined in developing. Read the story of that, and realize he took six rolls of film in that situation, waist deep in water behind a beach obstacle and got off the beach in under half an hour…
    Falling Soldier is the only “controversial” photo of his whole career, what does it say about the people who see this exhibition which was his life, and death’s work and out of hundreds of photos they home in on this one… Its like seeing a Leonardo exhibition and going through it microscopically until you find one average drawing pointing at it, and saying “See he wasn’t that great”….

  13. JMac says:

    Commenting on the photo and specifically to themilos in his comments…

    “Second point is, Faking……. Would he risk it? If he got caught then the revolutionary cause could be compromised, would he risk this for one picture?”

    Well….yes! In the 1930s photographs were not under the scrutiny that they are today because deadlines and communication wasn’t instantaneous. It was far easier to fool people back then it seems since people were certainly more believing in the press….but then again in very recent history wars have been started based entirely on lies but it didn’t seem to harm anyone’s reputation and the people who lied are even feted as great men and women.

    Capa’s reputation hadn’t been established in fact it was this photograph that established it more than anything else. The problem was (as it is today) is that the media then (and now) were partners in ‘small’ deceptions and everyone in the business understood it, so the only people who could criticize it were part of the problem. Life magazine would hardly reveal that they had published faked pictures no more than CNN or Fox News would reveal that they went along with an obvious propaganda campaign aimed at overthrowing some Middle Eastern dictator.

    The argument that this early photo of Capa’s was faked doesn’t and isn’t intended to take away from any of his later great work. He was probably the greatest conflict photographer we have had…but the discussion is whether THIS photograph is real or staged and I’m afraid it was almost certainly staged.

  14. Gaston says:

    It’s strange in Photo 1 the group of soldiers. All the men photographed are holding their rifles with left hands. Those rifles are heavy, the normal is to hold them with your right hand. Is the picture inverted?

  15. Good question, let’s take a closer look

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