Once upon a time in the Midwest, I worked in a Department of Photographs and Prints. (That’s where I met Mr S, when he was hired as the first museum Photographer, though he was initially known as the Badger in the Basement for the tenacity with which he defended his studio.)
I am fortunate to have a visual memory, and that’s part of how I got my job, and part of how I got to be an Assistant, and then a full, Photo Editor of the museum’s magazine. I love images, and I love photography, and I suppose I must love photographers, too, since there’s one around here somewhere in this place that I call home.
One of the best assignments was photo editing an article based on the World War II diary and service of a local doctor who served in the Army infantry. He wasn’t the most enlightened or unbiased man, but in the 1940s, I suppose that was sadly normal. I read the piece for placement and image ideas, not for tone or subtlety. North Africa, Monty, Casserine, Messina, Easy Red and Omaha: that’s what I underlined.
My go-to for WWII photography was Robert Capa first and last. There’s Blood and Champagne, but the book I read first was Slightly Out of Focus. It was written by Capa, just as he wrote Images of War. (I discovered these killing time on summer weekends in the air-conditioned fine art reading room of the downtown public library.) Capa did not love war, even as he thrived in the combat photography environment, and said, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” But he also noted, like Cartier-Bresson, that you had to like people to take good photographs of them.
His images are dark: not just the imagery, but the prints themselves. A well-printed Capa has deep, rich, dark tones (D-Day images excepted, thanks to a horrendous processing error), and even decades later, a vintage Capa print has magic.
I called Magnum, back in the days when one called, described what I had seen, cited the books I’d read, listed what I wanted prints of to use in the magazine. I think I knew enough to get a little more: vintage prints of images I hadn’t seen. They arrived, sandwiched in cardboard, in a FedEx envelope.
There were photos like this one, and one of a soldier shaving, using his helmet as a basin. There were images I’d seen, and some I had not. They were dark, and sympathetic, and captured the war and humanity as no other images I’ve seen have ever done.
His portfolio was huge, and includes not just war photography, but fashion and film and humorous photos, too. Holding one of his prints–or at least a print made close to the time when he had shot the negative, and might have been alive–was as close as I was ever going to get to meeting Robert Capa. For all he lived through–escaping Fascism, documenting the Spanish Civil War, the Rape of Nanking, the Blitz, all of World War II– Robert Capa died after stepping on a land mine on the road to Thai Binh in what was then French Indochina.
It seems so sad, and yet one has to remember that he died working, doing not just what he loved–taking photographs–but what he had to do. He didn’t love war, but he loved people. The beauty of the images he made almost undoes their purpose, in recording war’s horrors, but the real affection for people that comes through in those contrasty prints redeems the violence, I think, giving us sympathy for the people uprooted, displaced, used and abused by war, whether soldier or civilian. Through that love,Capa found courage and we can find truth. Keep looking: there is more to see.