On the night of 25 May 1954, when Capa was killed while on assignment for Life magazine in Vietnam, his friends John Huston, John Steinbeck, Irwin Shaw and their cronies held a wake in Capa's favourite bistro in Par-is, to celebrate their friend's achievements and to drink champagne till dawn. Many tales were told that night.
There were so many facets to Robert Capa that it was hard to know which Capa to start with: the photographer, the adventurer, the phrase-coiner, the editor, the friend, the lover, the gambler, the romantic, the man whose political acumen could sniff out where in the world each new trouble spot would erupt. He was all of these char-acters - plus he was known as the man who always got his picture, and always got his girl.
Life and Picture Post called him the greatest photographer in the world. He covered five wars, including working in the Spanish Civil War with Ernest Hemingway. He numbered Picasso among his friends, photographed Matisse and Gary Cooper and was Ingrid Bergman's lover. He was a creature of myth and legend both during his lifetime and after his death.
I met Capa in New York in 1950 at the offices of Magnum Photos, the co- operative that was his brainchild. I had come to show him my photos with an eye to possible membership. I was trembling, but he was laughing - laughing at the assessment he made of my work. He said: "Your pictures, metaphorically of course, fall between Marlene Dietrich's legs and the bitter lives of migratory potato pickers."
Although English was not his first language (Capa was Hungarian), he was a great phrase-maker, the mot was always juste. In 1953 he coined the term "Generation X" for a picture series about the young people around the world who had been born during the Second World War, and the future they faced. The series was photographed by Magnum photographers and written by Bertrand Russell. Capa sold the stories to Holiday magazine for $15,000 (real money then) after an all-night poker game in Paris during which he won another $15,000 from Ted Patrick, the magazine's editor.
Capa was daring and fearless; myths abounded about him during his lifetime and haunted his name after his death. He was accused of having faked his most famous photo, the Dying Spanish Soldier - a man who had been felled by a bullet and was in the throes of falling to his death, his gun flying in the air, abandoned by him. This photograph came into the public consciousness as a universal symbol of war and death. It is part of the Capa legend that the controversy about the image raged for decades, only to have Capa vindicated at the end. No fake - real death.
He is remembered, too, for his quips: the story goes that when Cartier- Bresson complained to Capa that he wasn't getting many assignments, Ca- pa said, "Stop calling yourself a photo-journalist, and start calling yourself a surrealist." And to beginning photographers, including me, he said, "If your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough."
Capa became my photographic university. I studied his contact sheets image by image. At first I was puzzled: the pictures were not consistently well designed, he wasn't persistent in pursuing an image the way Ernst Haas did - beginning before the action, following through to the peak of the action, then tapering off - nor of making the single, formal, definitive photograph like Cartier-Bresson. He got to the core of the situation, but in his own idiosyncratic way.
I didn't understand his work until I met the New Yorker writer Janet Flanner (of the "Letter from Paris" column) later in 1950. She put things in perspective for me. Since I was a Magnum photographer did I know her friend Robert Capa? Yes. She talked glowingly about his courage, his intelligence, his understanding of world affairs. She talked and I listened.
Noticing my silence, she started to probe. I blurted out that I thought his pictures didn't design well. She looked at me pityingly. "My dear," she said, "history doesn't design well either."
I began to understand the strength of his work. Just by being where the action was he was opening new areas of vision. He was aware that, like all good journalism (which tries to project the message with immediacy and impact), it is the essence of a picture, not necessarily its form, which is important.
Perhaps his real legacy to photo- graphy is the idea of the photo co- operative, which started with Magnum in Paris and then went on to be copied by many others worldwide - to a point where there was even a group of 16-year-olds (founded by my son and three others) called Minim. By gathering in groups, the individual photo- graphers became stronger to a point where we were able to force newspapers, magazines and book publishers to permit us to own our own copyright (as do authors). Capa spearheaded this battle in France and in America for the personal ownership of copyright.
It is interesting to speculate on what a scrapper like Bob would be doing now about copyright in the electronic age. Sadly his luck didn't hold - in his 40th year, in Vietnam, he stepped on a land mine. RIP.
! 'Robert Capa: Photographs' is published by Aperture on 21 October (pounds 35).
Main picture: Women knitting - ambulance drivers near Cassino, December 1943. Capa documented the Second World War fighting in mainland Italy, including the liberation of Naples.
Above: Soldiers in the sea - the D-Day landing of American troops at Omaha Beach on the Normandy coast, 6 June 1944. The strange character of the quality of the film is due to an error that was made in the darkroom while processing, when an assistant turned up the heat during drying. It was fortunate that the picture - taken by Capa under gunfire at risk of his life - managed to survive.
Left: Hollywood sound stage - Ingrid Bergman being directed by Alfred Hitchcock (right) in 'Notorious', 1946.
Below: Picasso with Francoise Gilot - during August of 1948, Capa spent a week on the beach at Golfe-Juan, France, photographing Picasso and his family. Here is Picasso with Francoise Gilot, the mother of his children Claude and Paloma. Behind Picasso is his nephew Javier Vilato
Left: Gary Cooper, photographed in Sun Valley, Idaho, October 1951.
Below: Truman Capote - Ravello, Italy, 1953, where Capa spent three weeks on assignment for 'Picture Post' photographing the making of 'Beat the Devil'. Capote wrote the script with the director John Huston. During filming Capa and Capote both lost heavily at poker to Huston and Humphrey Bogart, the movie's star. 'Their services on the picture came pretty cheap,' Huston wrote later, 'because we regularly won back whatever salaries we paid them' Far left: Henri Matisse sitting in bed working on his drawings for the Dominican Convent in Vence, Nice, 1949.
Left: Ernest Hemingway - Capa met Hemingway during the Spanish Civil War and immediately, as he said later, 'adopted Hemingway as a father'. Hemingway enjoyed the role of mentor and they became good friends. This photograph was also taken in Sun Valley, in 1940, when the two went on a hunting trip togetherReuse content