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

November 1, 2008
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.

Read the rest of this entry »


Robert Capa – was that photograph really real?

September 7, 2007

For many years I’ve been talking to my students about the ethical dilemmas associated with photojournalism. One of the key case studies that we discuss is the image of a Spanish soldier at the point of death that Magnum agency photographer Robert Capa took in 1936.
In the shot the Loyalist soldier appears to be falling back after being hit by a sniper’s bullet.


For years there’s been controversy around this image. Some historians and journalists, notably Philip Knightley, have argued that this is a faked image. Posed by the soldier for Capa’s camera.

In a review of a biography of Capa (Blood and Champagne by Alex Kershaw), Knightley is scathing in his attack on the man, and the famous image.

Let’s get the bad stuff over first. Robert Capa was a liar, a compulsive gambler, a depressive, a heavy drinker, and a womaniser (especially with prostitutes). He used people, broke promises and when he was accused of being a communist and the U.S. State Department kept his passport, he “named names”, to get it back.

At the urging of the appalling Henry Luce, the founder of Life and producer of the March of Time newsreel series, he staged Republican attacks on Fascist positions during the Spanish Civil War and filmed them, noting that they looked “more real” than if they had actually taken place. And, I maintain, he faked the most famous war photograph of all time, the Spanish soldier at the moment of death.

But the Wikipedia entry and other bloggers have suggested that it’s real. The entry is quite clear on the story, but doesn’t mention Knightley’s criticism:

From 1936 to 1939, he was in Spain, photographing the horrors the Spanish Civil War. In 1936, he became known across the globe for a photo he took on the Cordoba Front of a Loyalist Militiaman who had just been shot and was in the act of falling to his death. Because of his proximity to the victim and the timing of the capture, there was a long controversy about the authenticity of this photograph. Historians eventually succeeded in identifying the dead soldier as Federico Borrell García, from Alcoi (Valencia) and proved it authentic. [1] This is one of the best-known pictures of the Spanish civil war.

This position receives some support, for example this comment from a discussion thread at photo.net:

The photo has been proved to be in no way “a set up” by the photographer, despite a claim by someone who wasn’t anywhere near the place where it happened.

In a response this this, another post suggested:

I never said the photograph was a hoax. Robert Capa had asked the soldier to perform for a photograph(duck and roll I believe) when he was shot and killed(in reality)

In amongst all the discussion of cameras, lenses and focal lengths, there’s some support for Capa on the photo.net site. Here’s another post on a different thread that seems to support the Wikipedia entry:

Knightley claims to have proved in 1974, Capa Falling Loyalist Solider photo was faked. Well, a few years ago, the soldier was positively identified by records and family members. Knightley still refuses to accept this. A long time ago, I read his evalution and found it lacking. In addition, I believe, he did not have access to the Capa archives and never saw the original contact sheet(s) from the event. The original negative has been lost. The very best source of ACCURATE Robert Capa facts, is the Richard Whelan biography, first published in 1985.

There is a piece by Richard Whelan online that backs this story and provides more detail. This extract talks about the controversy and maintains that the image is real. However, it says here that the soldier was a Republican fighter. I thought the Loyalists were Francos’ fascists. I’ve always thought the image was of a Republican and given Capa’s political leanings I would imagine he would have been with Republican units, not Franco’s.

After photographing in Barcelona, Capa and Taro went to the stalemated Aragón front, where they visited the militia of the Trotskyite POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista) that George Orwell would serve with that winter. Capa and Taro then moved south toward Andalucía. Republican forces had begun an offensive to recover Córdoba, and the Madrid government reported new advances daily, even emptily boasting that its troops had entered the city. For photographers eager to cover Republican victories, the Córdoba front was a compelling destination.

There, just outside the tiny village of Cerro Muriano, on September 5, 1936, a 22-year-old Capa made one of his most famous images, perhaps the greatest of all war photographs—that of a Republican militiaman who has just been shot and is collapsing into death.

The internal evidence of the series of photographs to which that picture belongs suggests that Capa ran down a barren hillside with the vanguard of a Republican attack, and, as they came into range of an enemy emplacement, he threw himself down and hugged the ground (as we can see from the camera angle); from there he photographed several men as they were shot in succession. “Falling Soldier” received its first publication soon afterward in the September 23, 1936, issue of Vu.

In 1975, a controversy began over the authenticity of Capa’s great photograph when O’Dowd Gallagher, an elderly British journalist of failing memory, charged that the photograph was staged. The claim was published in Phillip Knightley’s book The First Casualty: From the Crimea to Vietnam: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker.

In a world always eager to believe the worst, Gallagher’s allegations spread rapidly. Refuting evidence was largely ignored. 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.

Through circumstantial evidence, which I pieced together while working on my biography of Capa, we know for certain that Capa and Taro were in Cerro Muriano on that day. Indeed, on the vintage prints preserved in the files of Capa’s estate with their original chronological numbering, the numbers on the sequence of pictures to which the “Falling Soldier” belongs immediately precede those of a Cerro Muriano refugee series. The numbering on the vintage prints clearly suggested that Capa made his “Falling Soldier” picture at Cerro Muriano on September 5, 1936. Capa repeatedly confirmed during his lifetime that he had made his photograph on the Córdoba front.

There is another, more detailed account of this story from Richard Whelan at PBS, written in 2002. This image purports to show the relative positions of Borell Garcia and Capa, taken from a trench on the front lines.
Here’s Whelan’s final thoughts on the subject, from the PBS American Masters documentary on Capa:

The arrow indicates [in the photo above] where Federico Borrell García was standing when he was shot; the X indicates where Capa was hugging the side of the gully.

There can be no further doubt that The Falling Soldier is a photograph of Federico Borrell García at the moment of his death during the battle at Cerro Muriano on September 5, 1936. May the slanderous controversy that has plagued Robert Capa’s reputation for more than twenty-five years now, at last, come to an end with a verdict decisively in favor of Capa’s integrity. It is time to let both Capa and Borrell rest in peace, and to acclaim The Falling Soldier once again as an unquestioned masterpiece of photojournalism and as perhaps the greatest war photograph ever made.

Whelan provides more photographic evidence in this piece, published in 2003.

I haven’t been able to find any response to this from Phillip Knightley. If you know of one, perhaps you could let me know.