Photography: Good eye, steady nerve, generous heart

Robert Capa's images of war were created with courage and an unerring instinct for composition.
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The Independent Culture
AT FIRST SIGHT the image resembles a dance, perhaps a line-up to bouzouki accompaniment in a Greek taverna, or in the Old Cathedral plaza in Barcelona where sardanas are danced in linked circles on Sunday evenings. Look more closely, read the caption, and one realises the three "dancers" with their held hands and crossed shins are all blind, led by the only one who is not a dancer - a small child, apparently leading them towards the communal dining hall in an Israeli "village for blind immigrants".

The three men are silhouetted against a perfect mackerel sky, fronted by a diminishing line of huts whose angle accentuates that of their reaching arms and sideways gait. Their circus aspect is accentuated by the diamond lozenges on the jerkin of the middle man; the rakish angle of the cane propping the man next to him; even the fact that, though dressed in rags and largely barefoot, all three wear caps. The sighted child scowls in concentration over her task; the man she leads looks as if, roles reversed, he is attentively attempting to help her. The sightlessness of the other pair lends them a near-beatific remoteness, like tightrope walkers.

Robert Capa went to Israel for its inauguration in May 1948, stayed six weeks and returned many times in 1949 and 1950. Neither his diaries, nor Irwin Shaw's text in Report on Israel (the book they published together in 1950) make detailed mention of this nameless village described as somewhere "south of Tel Aviv". None the less, the New Jerusalem was, for many new immigrants, a disappointment, even a betrayal.

Interned in camps, or pressed into uniform to fight the Arab Legion, it was (as Shaw wrote) "history going in a slightly different direction from what was expected". It produced, he concluded, "a state which the early Zionists never imagined but in which a million Jews have found sanctuary from their enemies and can wrestle with their own enemies". Shaw wrote candidly of the racism against, not the Arabs, but North African or Palestinian- born Jews, such as those in the picture.

Capa was a man whom one biographer, Jean Lacouture, called "a young and exuberant Jew ... the Hungarian loner with the velvet-black eyes ... proclaiming cheerfully that no curse exists that cannot be swept away by courage and an enterprising spirit". He was also more than the war-junkie some have made him out to be. In his early twenties, at the start of the Spanish Civil War, he harnessed not only his courage but also his political convictions and his self-taught craft. And in the process, he lost the great love of his life, to whom he dedicated his first book in 1937: "For Gerda Taro, who spent one year at the Spanish front and who stayed on."

In Spain, Capa also learned the cruel importance of remaining consistent to his calling, although it took until 1941 for the message to be reasoned out in his mind. The British fighter pilot with the gashed head whose sardonic enquiry: "Are these the pictures you were waiting for, photographer?" so caused Capa "to hate myself and my profession" that "a conversation with myself about the incompatibility of being a reporter and hanging onto a tender soul at the same time" fired his determination to "show people the real aspect of war".

It is less the gore than the humanitarian aspect of his war images, widely published in Picture Post, Life and Illustrated that strike home. Humanism, combined with a socialist sensibility, and the like- mindedness of his fellow "concerned" photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson, "Chim" Seymour and George Rodger, led to the formation of the first cooperative photo agency, Magnum, of which Capa became president in 1951. Named after the champagne bottle, its all-boys gung-ho clubbiness led to Capa's private reputation as "someone I'd trust with my life, but not with my wife". If bravery and effrontery were two salient personal characteristics, then an utterly natural instinct for timing and composition were what formed his pictures, so exact and convinced that they blaze ineradicably into memory.

Capa was blown up by a land-mine at Thai Binh in former Indochina in 1954. He left a legacy of images, predominantly of people and wars, their anguish and frivolities, in Europe and the US, North Africa and China, the Middle East and Asia. The French posthumously awarded him the Croix de Guerre. Only his mother's intervention prevented him being buried with full military honours. The anti-war war photographer, born Hungarian and naturalised American, took one secret to his grave: his name. Born Endre Erno Friedmann, westernised to Andri, he assumed the name Robert Capa in 1935, the year he professionalised his photography and fell in love with Gerda Taro. Thereafter he would talk of "Andri" as a separate person, nothing to do with photography. But why should "Capa" trip off the tongue so much more simply than "Friedmann"? and does its dual meaning ("sword" in Hungarian; "cape" - as worn by a sword-wielding matador - in Spanish) have any significance? Was the camera in any sense Capa's weapon, his instrument of denunciation, of the horrors and waste of killing? If so, it has succeeded where many failed.

Next door to the Capa retrospective at the Photographer's Gallery is work by the young Polish photographer, now resident in New York, Piotr Uklanski. Consisting of friezes of Hollywood Nazis, it is its own version of ridicule, since every portrait is a film star whose personality deliberately over-rides his characterisation: Clint Eastwood, Roger Moore, Terry-Thomas, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Peter O'Toole, each smoking a Sobranie or a Gauloise and sporting a ludicrous eye-patch or monocle, still winkingly himself beneath the forked eagle stamped on his cap.

The shots are taken from film stills or off video frames, standardised to the actual dimensions of a human head, which further effectively cuts the cut-out Goebbels and Goerings, Streichers and Hitlers down to size. Astonishingly, even before the opening, individuals phoned the gallery to protest at the supposed belittling of the Holocaust. Astonishing, too, that the gallery director should have written to the press and its "friends" to assure us that no anti-Semitism was intended, nor any "sensationalising or celebrating" of fascism.

Uklanski's pictures are no more a paean to Nazism than Capa's are nourishment for war-mongers. So return next door, to the work of that "young and exuberant Jew" who sought not to glamorise war but to illuminate the human values that are all we can throw in its face. As Steinbeck, who wrote The Russian Journal with Capa in 1948, said: "The camera need not be a cold mechanical device. Like the pen, it is as good as the man who uses it. It can be the extension of mind and heart." Ultimately, Capa's best weapon lay not in his camera, but in his heart.

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