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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.