Photography: So good, so true, and so close to his pictures

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SADLY but unavoidably, the careers of war photographers fit into chapters given over to the conflicts they witnessed and recorded. In the case of Robert Capa, who has a retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Scottish Art in Edinburgh, the main sections of the display are given to the Spanish Civil War, then the Japanese invasion of China in 1938, followed by Hitler's war, then the troubled birth of Israel from 1948- 50, and finally the war in Indochina in 1954.

But this is not all. Capa was a portraitist. His photographs of Picasso, Matisse, Hemingway and others have proved to be vital images of their enduring fame. And he also succeeds in making icons from the features of people who were not at all distinguished or famous, yet had their own heroism: a Sicilian peasant woman; a French Resistance fighter; or a captured German soldier.

Capa belonged to the first great age of war photography, when it defined itself as a separate photographic genre. He was old enough to remember a peasant Europe before village life was shattered by the armies of demagogues. From beginning to end, his pictures are haunted by the desire for peace. He also, I think, was especially sensitive to other people's feelings for their homelands.

Perhaps this was because he was himself an exile. Capa was born in Budapest in 1913, left Hungary to avoid political oppression, and arrived in Paris in 1934. Thus his career has a sort of partnership with two other Hungarians in Paris, Brassai and Andre Kertesz. Yet his attitudes to the French capital were rather different. Capa was less even-handed than Kertesz, less in love with good looks than Brassai.

His main subject in the mid-1930s was the Popular Front. He carefully recorded veterans of the First World War. Parisian gaieties are represented in his pictures only by children playing in the street. The general atmosphere is of premonition, as though Capa sensed horrors to come in a way that his subjects could not.

The Spanish Civil War changed Capa from a photojournalist to a war photographer. So did his camera, which was a 35-mm Leica. Robert Whelan's useful catalogue commentary points out that in previous wars, heavy photographic equipment was burdensome and took time to set up. Capa's Leica allowed him, even compelled him, to get close to military action.

Near to the combatants, his camera found candour and intimacy with fear. Speed (war photographers need a sprint) and bravery, especially bravery, now became essential. Capa was the originator of that famous maxim, "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough." Not close enough to action, or to death. Capa's girlfriend, also a photographer and a person who taught him her professionalism, was killed by a tank as she took shots of the Spanish fighting in Madrid. Obviously, her loss affected Capa in ways that exceeded normal grief. Gerda was his muse. Her death spurred him on to that near-suicidal condition of the war photographer, when a man with a camera but without a gun gets as near as he possibly can to other men who are shooting each other.

Capa's celebrated The Death of a Loyalist Militiaman is the central image of the Spanish war, together of course with Picasso's Guernica. I have never before seen Capa's beautiful picture of Picasso with some friends in his studio at the time of the liberation of Paris in 1944. Note that big spotlight next to the door. It's the one we also see in photos by Dora Maar of the successive stages of the painting of Guernica in 1937. Picasso may have used it for painting by night, as he liked to do, or Dora may still have been using it for her independent photography. Anyway, Capa's alliance with painting is an interesting puzzle. Did he think that his photography turned the night of war into the daylight of knowledge and compassion? No doubt, and I also believe that Guernica could not have been conceived without the new revelations of the new war photography.

Yet I cannot imagine that Capa liked pictorial art all that much. War photographers shouldn't. Memories of painting get in the way when you need the most direct route between the camera and its subject. Nevertheless, many of Capa's peacetime subjects do compose themselves in a pictorial manner. A shot of blind immigrants near Tel Aviv reminds one of Goya. The 1944 picture of a shaven-headed collaboratrice, surrounded by a jeering crowd, is like a late medieval picture of peasants among demons, in hell or on their way to hell.

By all accounts (and there are not enough of them), Capa was a convivial man who made friends easily. His only advice to other photographers was, "Like people, and let them know it." He was a poker player, which is not surprising news. A 1952 portrait by Ruth Orkin shows us a dark, clever, shrewd and lovable man. He is wearing cuff-links so he must have been at some evening function, conceivably a dinner of the Magnum agency, of which he was a prominent member. As far as I know, Capa did not take self- portraits. Some photographers don't. Surely Capa kept himself away from his own camera because of a deep, instinctive feeling that other people's lives were as valuable as his own.

And this perhaps must be the unspoken credo of war photographers, who are never boastful, and seldom given to personal reminiscence. Like so many other people that he photographed, Capa died innocent, for no good reason and in banal circumstances. In 1954 he arrived in Hanoi on an assignment for Life magazine. A few days later, he went with a detachment of soldiers through a landmined field. He stepped on a mine, and was instantly killed. Capa has some memorials of the right sort, mainly in the form of awards for other photographers of courage. The Edinburgh exhibition is also a decent and proper memorial.

`Robert Capa': Edinburgh, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (0131 624 6200), to 12 Jul. The show travels to the Photographers' Gallery, WC2 (0171 831 1772) on 1 Aug.

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