Robert Capa / Magnum Photos. Leon Trotsky, 1932
I don’t mind admitting that Robert Capa was an early photographic hero of mine as I suspect he has been for many aspirant photographers. I devoured his pictures and his swashbuckling autobiography, and when I periodically encountered more critical opinions of him I did my best to dismiss them. However as those criticisms became more numerous my view of him gradually changed. I came to view him not as the prototype for what all photographers should be, but rather as an unpleasant self-promoter, perhaps even a liar, and maybe most unforgivable of all, the man who had been a shit to Ingrid Bergman.
With this in mind I went along to a small exhibition of his photographs at ATLAS Gallery with a certain amount of pessimism, trying to balance my dislike of Capa as a human being with some open mindedness towards the photographs on show. Even if in the end I came away feeling much the same about Capa as a person, this small exhibition did to a considerable extent reassert my faith in him as a photographer.
On show are about fifty photographs, predominantly from Capa’s coverage of the Spanish Civil War and Second World War. They are a mixture of well known images and less commonly seen ones, but even those that are familiar to the point of boredom are worth seeing in the flesh. For example there are eight of the D-day landing photographs famously half melted by a darkroom assistant. Seen printed large the damage somehow manages to feel less like an accident or aberration but rather almost intentional, the same goes for Capa’s fantastic and similarly degraded portrait of Leon Trotsky caught in mid flow as he delivered a speech in Stockholm, his intensity appearing to melt or buckle the film.
Just as there are some incredibly famous photographs, there were quite a number of less well known ones. For example ‘Mothers of Naples’ showing a cluster of grief stricken Italian women, one of them holds a photograph, perhaps of a missing son or husband, and some similarly evocative images from the Spanish Civil War. Capa’s photographs from Spain particularly remind you why in some respects he was a photographer worth noting. His ability to very much zero in on, and provokingly photograph a brief moment of a person’s life, be it one of grief, fear, exhaustion or relief.
The Capa prints cohabit the space with a smaller display of photographs by Dimitri Baltermants, a Russian photographer active in the same period on the eastern front. Baltermant’s photographs focus more noticeably on soldiers, dynamic images like Attack form an odd contrast to Capa’s comparatively quiet photographs of sleeping refugees. Viewing both sets of work it was hard to avoid the inevitable question of how much time should be allowed to pass (if any) before work like this can be hung on gallery walls and sold at extortionate prices, or if it ever should be. Mothers of Naples for example is on sale for £11,000.
It may just be that I have a particular interest in the period Capa photographed, and that I have relatives still alive who lived through it, but to me it all still feels just a little uncomfortable and a little raw. Perhaps still too soon for these admittedly often quite beautiful photographs to be admired and sold as art.
Death in the Making: Robert Capa Photographs is on at ATLAS Gallery until 17th August 2013.