Robert Capa / FRANCE. Normandy. June 6th, 1944. Landing of the American troops on Omaha Beach
© Robert Capa / Magnum Photos. FRANCE. Normandy. June 6th, 1944. Landing of the American troops on Omaha Beach

Robert Capa is one of the greatest photographers to have ever lived. When he was still alive, he was proclaimed as “The Greatest War-Photographer in the World”. He captured some of the most intense wars during his time, including the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), Chinese resistance to the Japanese invasion (covered in 1938), the European theater of World War II from (1941-45), the first Arab-Israeli War (1948), and the French Indochina War (1954) and tragically passed away by stepping on a mine.

During his lifetime, he co-founded Magnum alongside photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger, David “Chim” Seymour, and William Vandivert in 1947. He also mentored many young photographers in Magnum such as Eve Arnold, Elliot Erwitt, Burt Glinn, Inge Morath, and Marc Riboud.

Capa also famously coined the phrase: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough and his bravery on the front-lines helped him capture some of the most intense, intimate, and emotional photos of war.

So who exactly was Robert Capa, the man and the photographer? How did he start off as a photographer, start Magnum, and create a legacy that has lasted for decades? I wanted to learn more about Robert Capa and did some research on him through the biography “Blood And Champagne: The Life And Times Of Robert Capa” as well as the autobiography Capa himself wrote: “Slightly Out of Focus” where he shares his personal stories from World War II.

Interested in learning more about the legend Robert Capa? If so, read on.

Robert Capa’s youth

Robert Capa / Magnum Photos. ISRAEL. Haifa. 1949-50. Woman carrying luggage accompanied by a small boy.
© Robert Capa / Magnum Photos. ISRAEL. Haifa. 1949-50. Woman carrying luggage accompanied by a small boy.

Robert Capa was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1913 under the name of André Friedman. Ever since he was a young kid, he hung out with gang of kids who “lived on their wits” and even had the nickname: “Capa” (which means shark). Growing up, he constantly complained of being bored, and he wanted to always seek out danger. His father (a compulsive gambler and adventurer) would tell Capa all these incredible stories as a child (which I think inspired Capa to seek out a life of adventure himself).

Capa was never afraid to try out new things– even if it was dangerous. For example, he started skiing with no knowledge of it whatsoever. When he was young, he also involved himself with leftist revolutionaries.

How Robert Capa got started in photography

robert capa portrait

When Robert Capa was 18 years old, he moved to Vienna, then to Prague, and finally set roots in Berlin. While in Berlin, he was going to study political science. However looking back at what he was truly interested he considered studying journalism as a career while still in Budapest. Instead, he decided to choose photography. This is what Capa says about his decision in 1953:

“While pursuing my studies, my parents means gave out, and I decided to become a photographer, which was the nearest thing to journalism for anyone who found himself without a language.”

While in Berlin, Capa sought out photographer Eva Besnyo and asked her if she could help him find a job with an agency or in a studio. This is what happened between them two:

“This photography business, is it a good way to make a living?” – Capa

“You can’t talk like that! It’s not a profession. It’s a calling.” – Besnyo

“Never mind about that. Is it good fun?” – Besnyo

“Yes. It is very enjoyable.” – Besnyo

Eva Besnyo knew some people who could help Robert Capa (at the time still known as Andre Friedman) and referred him to Otto Umbehrs, an ex-miner who studied design a the Bauhaus school of art and design, and was now director of portraiture and advertising work at a prestigious agency called “Dephot.” Besnyo called Umbehrs and asked if he could use a “very clever boy.” Umbehrs told Besnyo to call over Capa.

Eva Besnyo self-portrait, 1932
Eva Besnyo self-portrait, 1932

Next thing we know, Capa was working in Dephot’s darkroom as an assistant, refilling bottles of fixer and developer, hanging up prints to dry, and learning the basics of exposure and printing.

Over time, Capa started to assist Felix Man, an esteemed photojournalist and other photographers. With them, he went out on assignments to record daily life in the city.

During this time he also borrowed an early model of the Leica from the Dephot office and quickly learned how to take advantage of its technical advantages. It gave him a lot of flexibility to capture action on the streets, as the exposure times would go all the way to 1/1000th’s of a second.

During the time he was in Berlin, Germany was in political disarray. Capa was able to make his first break as a photographer when he saw images of India by Harald Lechenperg, one of Dephot’s most esteemed reporters.

He rushed into Simon Guttmann’s office (Dephot’s director) and exclaimed how amazing Lechenperg’s photos were. At this moment, Guttman noticed Capa’s passion, and decided to take Capa under his wing. This eventually lead Guttmann to send out Robert Capa on his first big assignment: to photograph Leon Trotsky as he lectured on “the meaning of the Russian Revolution”.

Robert Capa / Magnum Photos. Leon Trotsky, 1932
© Robert Capa / Magnum Photos. Leon Trotsky, 1932

During Trotsky’s lecture– Capa wasn’t the only photographer there, but he took the most dramatic photos. This was because he got really close to his subjects– just a few feet away. Although his images weren’t technically perfect, they were full of intimacy and intensity— something that other photographers lacked in their images. This lead Capa to gaining his first full page layout in the magazine: “Der Welt Spiegel”. Soon afterwards, Capa decided to leave Berlin, because of Nazi uprising (being a Hungarian jew).

Moving forward, I will go more in-depth about the lessons I’ve learned from Robert Capa– and how I apply these philosophies to street photography.

1. Invent yourself

Robert Capa / SPAIN. Cordoba front. September, 1936. Death of a loyalist militiaman.
© Robert Capa / Magnum Photos. SPAIN. Cordoba front. September, 1936. Death of a loyalist militiaman.

After Capa fled Berlin, he ended up in Paris. He struggled to eat in Paris being dead-broke, and even had to sell his prized Leica in 1934 to survive. Even at one point he resorted to fishing just to eat.

While in Paris, he met Gerda Pohorylle (later changed her name to Gerda Taro) and started to teach her photography.

Portrait of Gerda Taro and Robert Capa
Portrait of Gerda Taro and Robert Capa

Around the time, Robert Capa (still known then as Andre Friedman) had a great idea with Gerda: to form an association of three people. They thought the idea of creating an association would end up bringing them more jobs (and help them pay the bills).

  1. The first person in the association would be Gerda, worked in picture agency— as secretary and sales representative.
  2. The second person would be Andre Friedman who was the Andre as darkroom hired hand.
  3. The third person would be the rich, famous, talented, (and fake) American photographer named: “Robert Capa”, who was allegedly visiting France at the time.

In a radio interview in 1947, Robert Capa explains why he made up this fake persona:

“I had a name which was a little bit different from Bob Capa. The real name of mine was not too good. I was just as foolish as I am now but younger. I couldn’t get an assignment. I needed a new name badly”

So Capa came up the idea of making up a fake name– and shares why he chose the name “Robert Capa”:

“I was figuring on a new one… Robert would sound very American because that was how somebody had to sound. Capa sounded American and it’s easy to pronounce. So Bob Capa sounds like a good name. And then I invented that Bob Capa was a famous American photographer who came over to Europe and did not want to bore the French editors because they didn’t pay enough.. So I just moved in with my little Leica, took some pictures, and wrote Bob Capa on it which sold four double prices.”

Apparently because this fictitious Capa was supposed to be so rich, Gerda wouldn’t sell his photos to any French newspaper for less than 150 francs a piece— three times the prevailing rate. this ended up serving them well.

Takeaway point

What I found very inspirational about Robert Capa making up this false alter-ego was that it took guts, cunning, and showed that he held his own fate in his own hands.

Rather than complaining that his name: “Andre Friedman” wasn’t enticing enough to editors he made up his own alter ego: “Robert Capa”.

It took a lot of guts to do so– and he actually got caught a few times by some editors about his fake persona. However when the editors would figure out that Andre Friedman and Robert Capa were the same person they simply ignored the fact as they loved “Capa’s” photographs.

man who invented himself

How can we practically apply this lesson to our own lives as photographers? I don’t suggest all of us to go out and make fake pseudonyms for ourselves as photographers.

However Capa has taught me that the perception we give off as photographers is all fabricated. By controlling the images we decide to show, our accomplishments, and personality– we can (somewhat) control how other people perceive us.

So if you want to become a famous photographer, know that you will have to do a top-notch job marketing yourself. Show your accomplishments and “sell your name” and show strong images. Editors and curators love to feature photographers who have a “brand”.

Not to say that all of us have this aspiration. If your aspiration is to simply make photographs for a hobby and for pure fun– that is totally fine too. But if you want to have your photographs reach a larger audience and build your name and brand– you will need to learn how to “market” yourself.

To learn to better market yourself online, you can read my article: “On Social Media and Street Photography“.

2. Create your own cooperative

Robert Capa / Magnum Photos. GERMANY. Near Wesel. March 24th, 1945. American paratroopers landing in Germany.
© Robert Capa / Magnum Photos. GERMANY. Near Wesel. March 24th, 1945. American paratroopers landing in Germany.

At the time that Robert Capa lived, photographers had very little control, copyright ownership, and protection over their images. Corporations such as Life magazine would often take advantage and exploit photographers.

So Since 1945, Capa was active in the American Society of Magazine Photographers to promote photographers’ rights and control.

Fueled by this frustration he said to photographer Gisele Freund, “Why be exploited by others? Let’s exploit ourselves.”

Apparently the idea Capa had for Magnum went all the way back in 1935, when a picture of his showing the Paris stock market was bought and captioned by the Nazi Muncher Illustrierte Presse to show how the French Jews planned to destabilize the French franc. Pissed off how his image was used in a deceitful way to promote anti-Semitic propaganda, he thought a cooperative like Magnum could proven this from happening (if photographers had more control over their images).

Robert Capa with George Rodger in Naples, 1943
Robert Capa with George Rodger in Naples, 1943

Fast-forward and in Mid-April, 1947, Capa met with a group of photographers on the second floor of the Museum of Modern Art in NYC (with lots of champagne). Present at the meeting was Life photographer Bill Vandivert and wife, Rita, Maria Eisner, and David ‘Chim’ Seymour. Announced the birth of his brainchild— a cooperative named “Magnum”. They later involved George Rodger and Henri Cartier-Bresson as founding members.

FRANCE. Paris. The photographers David SEYMOUR "Chim" (left) and Robert CAPA. 1952.
FRANCE. Paris. The photographers David SEYMOUR “Chim” (left) and Robert CAPA. 1952.

So why the name: “Magnum”? according to Pierre Gassmann, the agency’s name arose spontaneously from earlier meeting at Paris where a Magnum of Champagne was uncorked and somebody shouted: “Magnum!”

Journalist Russell Miller writes:

“It was . . . presumably agreed by those present [at the first meeting] that Magnum was a fine new name for such a bold new venture, indicative as it was of greatness in its literal Latin translation, toughness in its gun connotation and celebration in its champagne mode.”

So how would Magnum split up photography assignments? This was the outline:

  • Chim would cover Europe
  • Cartier-Bresson would cover India and the Far East
  • Rodger would concentrate on Africa and the Middle East
  • Bill van Divert would cover the United States
  • Capa would go wherever he pleased

According to the original agreement, each founder would provide $400 in startup fees. Magnum would take 40% of fees from assignments setup for photographer-members, 30% of the fees from assignments the photographers found themselves, and 50% of resales.

Bill Vandivert and wife, Rita would run the NY office at 8th street in Greenwich village, with Rita receiving $8000 a year as the Bureau’s manager. Maria Eisner run the Paris office from her home at 125 rue du faubourg-st-honore, and received $4000.

French photographer Romeo Martinez (who knew Capa and the founding members) wrote about the brilliance of Magnum:

“Capa’s idea— specifically, that the journalist is nothing if he doesn’t own his negatives— will prove to be the sanest idea in the history of photojournalism.” (1997). “The co-op is the best formula for retaining those rights and for ensuring the freedom of action of each of its members.”

Capa also realized that Magnum needed to provide commercial content: mainstream picture-essays to stay economically variable.

A young Henri Cartier-Bresson
A young Henri Cartier-Bresson

Around this time Capa was a bit concerned with Henri Cartier-Bresson as his style was “surrealistic.” Capa thought that the “surrealist aesthetic” wouldn’t appeal to magazine editors who had money.

The famous advice Robert Capa gave Henri Cartier-Bresson was the following:

“Watch out for labels. They’re reassuring but somebody’s going to stick one on you that you’ll never get rid of— ‘the little surrealist photographer.’ You’ll be lost— you’ll get precious and mannered. Take instead the label of ‘photojournalist’ and keep the other thing for yourself, in your heart of hearts.”

Although Capa wasn’t good with money (he often gambled it away), wasn’t good at managing people, or the business side of things– Capa was a superb charismatic front-man of Magnum, charming editors and developing post-war contacts wherever he saw potential revenue sources.

Takeaway point

We are always stronger as a group rather than just as individuals. The same applies in photography. To be a part of a photography collective is helpful in many different ways: having more people to critique your work openly in honestly, to continue to develop and grow, to have more marketing power, as well as the ability to put on group exhibitions and shows, and potentially books and other opportunities.

I have seen many street photography related collectives pop up through the years: Burn My Eye, ECHIE, That’s Life, Tiny Collective, OBSERVE, Publigraphy, Street-Photographers, STRATA, STROMA and others which have been around longer such as strange.rs and In-Public.

The inspirational thing about all these collectives are that these photographers learned to put their strengths together– to create something greater than just themselves.

So if you want to gain more recognition, have a sense of community, and to continue to grow and improve– consider joining a collective (or starting one of your own).

It doesn’t have to be big or fancy– you can start off a collective just by having an informal group of photographers meet up and discuss images. Then perhaps down the line you guys could do a group exhibition, a group book, a group workshop, lecture– the opportunities are boundless.

3. Capture emotion

Robert Capa / Magnum Photos. ITALY. Naples. October 2, 1943. Women crying at funeral of twenty teenaged partisans who had fought the Germans before the Allies entered the city.
© Robert Capa / Magnum Photos. ITALY. Naples. October 2, 1943. Women crying at funeral of twenty teenaged partisans who had fought the Germans before the Allies entered the city.

Robert Capa wasn’t the most edgy, innovative, or technically advanced photographers. Jim Morris, Capa’s friend and editor at Life Magazine said this about Capa’s work of the liberation:

“At the time, I remember not being too impressed— I was disappointed by them… It was easy to edit his pictures, not difficult to follow his line of thought. He didn’t go in for crazy angles. He was pretty much an eye-level photographer. You might say that it was a weakness— he wasn’t fluid enough in his approach to subject matter.”

However looking back around 60 years later this is what Morris said about Capa’s work: “Would love to see those contact sheets of the liberation story again.”

Although Capa was limited in his technical and artistic range– he still had the incredible ability to capture “the decisive moment” and record raw emotion in his images.

TUNISIA. April, 1943. American pilot.
© Robert Capa / Magnum Photos. TUNISIA. April, 1943. American pilot.

This is what writer John Steinbeck said about Capa’s work in his memorial portfolio in Popular Photography:

“Capa knew what to look for and what to do with it when he found it. He knew, for example, that you cannot photograph war, because it is largely an emotion. But he did photograph that emotion by shooting beside it. He could show the horror of a whole people in the face of a child. His camera caught and held emotion.”

Steinbeck continues about the love and compassion he had in his work:

“Capa’s work is itself the picture of a great heart and an overwhelming compassion. No one can take his place. No one can take the place of any fine artist, but we are fortunate to have in his pictures the quality of the man. I worked and traveled with him a great deal. He may have had closer friends but he had none who loved him more. It was his pleasure to seem casual and careless about his work. He was not. His pictures are not accidents. The emotion in them did not come by chance. He could photograph motion and gaiety and heartbreak. He could photograph thought. He captured a world and it was Capa’s world.”

The famous photographer and curator Edward Steichen said this about Capa at his memorial service:

“He understood life. He lived life intensely. He gave richly of what he had to give to life… He lived valiantly, vigorously, with a rare integrity.”

Takeaway point:

Robert Capa photographed 5 of the most tragic and emotionally stirring wars in his lifetime. He did so with great compassion, integrity, and love.

To photograph war, destruction, and death is emotionally and psychologically jarring. Even after Capa went home after photographing war– he suffered many symptoms of PTSD, and resorted heavily to drinking, sleeping with prositutes, and gambling. He lived a life where death was just around the corner.

Although Capa wasn’t a saint in his personal life– the images he created gave so much back to society. He photographed his subjects with great dignity, empathy, and soul. If it weren’t for his images– we wouldn’t know of the brave men and women who gave their lives in the war, to defend their own country.

As street photographers we don’t even get close to the intensity of war. We don’t have as much of an ethical duty to capture “truth” and “objectivity” in our images– and document war, death, and famine. However, we still do have a duty to capture the human condition of everyday life.

To create memorable images that will last beyond your life– focus on emotion. Capturing composition is important, but Capa didn’t have the most interesting compositions. Focusing on emotion and how your images affect the hearts of your viewers is paramount.

4. Create photos for people to remember

Robert Capa / Magnum Photos. GERMANY. Leipzig. April 18, 1945. American soldierkilled by a German sniper.
© Robert Capa / Magnum Photos. GERMANY. Leipzig. April 18, 1945. American soldier killed by a German sniper.

Capa also had a drive to photograph to document history– and raise awareness of the wars he recorded to the public.

Capa created images so people wouldn’t forget. He wanted people to remember the atrocities of war, and the pain and destruction the war caused.

Even though Capa did love the sense of adventure in his photography, he knew the personal risks he took. During the war this is what he said of it in Life Magazine:

“The war is like an actress who is getting old. It is less and less photogenic and more and more dangerous.”

In an assignment he had for Life magazine in 1944, he showed the awful truth of the coverage of winter advance around Monte Pantano in Italy in a story headlined: “It’s a tough war.”

In the story they describe the images Capa shot:

“With the troops of the Fifth Army during the battle for the Liri valley… was Life photographer Robert Capa. His pictures, are grim and unsentimental, but they tell something of what war is like in Italy.

Readers in America were shocked by the images that Capa recorded. One civilian said this to Life’s editor:

“We need stories like ‘It’s a Tough War’ to slap us in the face and keep us awake to realities”.

Another soldier wrote this about Capa’s images:

Capa’s pictures clearly portray the bitterness and grimness of the battles to be fought before we reach Berlin and Tokyo. It also brings homie the realization of our responsibilities in doing all we can do to support the boys with bonds an work on the home front.”

Capa’s photographs served an important social purpose– for people to remember the atrocities of war. Capa’s images were able to influence and emotionally affect the public. Capa’s images also rose awareness of what was actually happening overseas in the war.

Capa recounts the “last photograph of World War II” of an American soldier killed by a German sniper:

“It was obvious that the war was just about over, because we knew the Russians were already in Berlin [sic] and that we had to stop shortly after taking Leipzig. We got into Leipzig after a fight, and just had to cross one more bridge. The Germans put up some resistance so we couldn’t cross. There was a bog apartment building which overlooked the bridge. So I figured, “I’m going to get up on the last floor and maybe I’ll get a nice picture of Leipzig in the last minute of the fight.” I got in a nice bourgeois apartment where there was a nice young man on the balcony—a young sergeant who was [setting up] a heavy machine-gun. I took a picture of him. But, God, the war was over. Who wanted to see one more picture of somebody shooting? We had been doing that same picture now for four years and everybody wanted something different, and by the time this picture would have reached New York probably the headline would be “Peace”. So it made no sense whatsoever. But he looked clean-cut like it was the first day of the war and he was very earnest. So I said, “All right, this will be my last picture of the war.” And I put my camera up and took a portrait shot of him and while I shot my portrait of him he was killed by a sniper. It was a very clean and somehow a very beautiful death, and I think that’s what I remember most from this war.”

And when asked why the image was so important to him, Capa stated:

“It was certainly a picture to remember because I knew that the day after, people will begin to forget.”

Takeaway point:

Know that the photographs you capture today will be historical in the future. You are photographing history as it is actively happening.

I know a lot of street photographers who shoot in the streets to document their communities, city, and society. They see how times are always changing– and they feel that they have an ethical duty to capture this change.

Know that as a street photographer that your images will record a sign of the times. Your images aren’t just funny photos of weird things happening in the streets. They serve as an important social document to our future generations.

Create images that people won’t forget– and let us follow in Capa’s footsteps.

5. Be brave

Robert Capa / Magnum Photos. FRANCE. Normandy. June 6th, 1944. Landing of the American troops on Omaha Beach.
© Robert Capa / Magnum Photos. FRANCE. Normandy. June 6th, 1944. Landing of the American troops on Omaha Beach.

Robert Capa once famously said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

What made Capa’s images stand out from his peers is that he got closer to the action than anybody. With physical proximity, he gained emotional proximity to his subjects. His images made the viewer feel that they were really there.

However Capa was still a human being. There were many times he was scared and afraid to take photographs.

For example, when he went in to photograph the Normandy invasion during D-Day, this is what he said (with humor and self-deprecation):

“The war correspondent had his stake— his life— in his own own hands, and he can put it on this horse or on that horse, or he can put it back in his pocket at the very last minute. I am a gambler. I decided to go in with Company E in the first wave.”

When Capa was on the beach, he was quite horrified. He managed to shoot around 79 images on his two Contax cameras, while dodging bullets from the oncoming German fire. He saw countless people die around him, with the water turning blood-red. After shooting around 4 rolls of 35mm film, he was barely able to escape.

Contax II, the camera Capa used during this period.
Contax II, the camera Capa used during this period.

 

He then passed out from exhaustion, and awoke next to another soldier. The soldier felt guilty for leaving the invasion so quickly and being a coward– but Capa said that he too, was afraid– and regretted leaving so quickly. Those images ended up being the most powerful photographs ever taken at D-Day (even though 3 films were ruined by Life’s darkroom staff, in an attempt to rush to develop his films).

What fueled Capa’s courage to photograph moments like this– which put his life at risk? Capa shares:

“It’s not easy always to stand aside and be unable to do anything except to record the sufferings around one.”

Takeaway point:

Don’t be brave just for the sake of being brave. Don’t be brave to show off. Rather, use your bravery as a way to create meaningful images.

In street photography, overcoming your fear is one of the most difficult things to do. Although we don’t have to worry about death (like war photographers do)– we still have a fear of getting attacked physically, verbally, upsetting people, or making people feel uncomfortable.

But know that street photography isn’t a selfish pursuit. You are trying to captures that will record, document, and paint a picture about society. Your images will serve a social purpose. They can inspire your viewers, force them to reflect on life, and hopefully feel some sort of emotion inside.

So whenever you are nervous or afraid in street photography– know you are photographing for others, not yourself. You are photographing in the streets for a greater purpose.

If you want to build up your confidence in street photography, I recommend downloading my free Ebook: “31 Days to Overcome Your Fear of Shooting Street Photography“.

Some other articles you can read:

6. Mentor younger photographers

Robert Capa / Magnum Photos. ITALY. 1944. Drivers from the French ambulance corps near the front, waiting to be called.
© Robert Capa / Magnum Photos. ITALY. 1944. Drivers from the French ambulance corps near the front, waiting to be called.

One of Capa’s great traits was that he was extremely loving and supporting of young photographers. While he was still alive, he mentored many new Magnum recruits– including Eve Arnold, Elliot Erwitt, Burt Glinn, Inge Morath, and Marc Riboud.

For example, one of Robert Capa’s earliest recruits include Werner Bischof, a Swiss photographer who impressed Capa with photos he took in 1946 of Europe’s refugee children.

Although Capa was only 3 years his senior, Bischof saw him as father figure. Capa encouraged Bischof to continue pursuing his artistic work, while making a living for mainstream magazines.

Another photographer Capa mentored was Inge Morath. When Capa first took her under his wing, he advised her to assist Henri Cartier-Bresson. Upon meeting Cartier-Bresson, Morath was impressed and said he was “the fastest” photographer she ever saw at work. Morath learned to look inconspicuous like Cartier-Bresson, wearing plain overcoats, and trying to visualize her photos before taking them. Cartier-Bresson also suggested Morath to look at images upside down to judge her compositions. If it wasn’t for Capa recommending Morath to Cartier-Bresson, she wouldn’t have fully flourished as a photographer. This is what Morath specifically said about Capa:

“He was extraordinarily generous with his time. And with money when he had it. He had the most amazing instinct for people, and for how to get the best out of people that I’ve ever seen. He was inspirational mentor, and all remember him with enormous affection.

Ernst Haas, another of Capa’s early recruits said this about Capa:

“Capa was trying to create a ‘poetry of war— a tragic poetry.’ He ‘considered himself anti-art, religion, poetry, sentimental, but it was his hands that really gave away his character. They were tender and feminine and the opposite of his whole appearance, voice, and so on… Capa wanted to state purely “I was there” , and he wanted to do it without any composition so you would feel the reality of a happening. And you don’t really oppose if you just land with a parachute. That is a feeling, and he created this kind of feeling.”

Takeaway point:

One of the most rewarding things in my life has been to mentor younger photographers. When I was fresh out of college and working full-time, I volunteered 2 hours every Friday morning to teach photography to underprivileged students at a continuation school called Phoenix High. With much generosity from you– we were able to donate cameras to their program and help them flourish creatively despite their tough circumstances in life. It made me so happy to see how excited they were about photography, and how they were able to express themselves through their work. Many of them even turned their lives to the better (away from gangs and drugs) and focused more on photography.

One of the things I also love the most about teaching street photography workshops is seeing attendees build their confidence, improve their photographic skills, and build a sense of community with other students. Whenever I see a student at one of my workshops overcome their fears of shooting in the streets and build their confidence– it makes me feel so proud and fulfilled.

Regardless of your experience in street photography– you can always be a mentor to someone else. It can be as simple as your kid, your spouse, your cousin, or volunteering time at a photography program at a local school. Even simpler– you can devote time to critique and give constructive feedback to other street photographers on the web.

By mentoring other photographers, you will not only help them grow and develop– you will also become a more knowledgeable photographer yourself. For example, I found that when I tutored my friends in high school in some of my classes– it helped me learn the material better. Also in writing these articles about the master street photographers, I have learned an incredible amount myself.

So donate your love, time, and energy to other photographers– and you will benefit greatly.

7. Be charismatic

Robert Capa / Magnum Photos. FRANCE. Arras. March 23rd, 1945. An American Parachutist preparing to board the plane for the jump accross the Rhine River.
© Robert Capa / Magnum Photos. FRANCE. Arras. March 23rd, 1945. An American Parachutist preparing to board the plane for the jump accross the Rhine River.

One of Capa’s greatest strengths as a photographer was his charisma. Milton Wolff, a commander described Capa’s character:

“Capa always put on a good face. No gloomy Gus, that madman Hungarian! We all admired his photographs, his guts. You can see from his pictures in Spain how close he was most of the time to the front. He’d butter up officers to get into their good books, so he’d get close to the action.”

In other accounts I read on Capa, apparently he would go near the front lines with a flask of whiskey and share them with soldiers and commanders. When he built up a sense of trust and good-will with them, he was given access to take photographs he wanted.

Takeaway point:

I think having charisma as a street photographer is a hugely beneficial trait. Having charisma allows you to be more confident in the streets, interact with people more comfortably, and also defuse potentially negative situations.

Whenever I go out and shoot in the streets, I advise going out with a smile. A smile immediately disarms people who might be suspicious of you. Not only that, but talk to strangers and interact with them. Also feel free to ask for permission to take their photographs. By showing charm and enthusiasm when on the streets– it can lead to great street photography opportunities.

8. Report “the truth”

Robert Capa / Magnum Photos
© Robert Capa / Magnum Photos

On Robert Capa’s autobiography: “Slightly Out of Focus” he wrote a disclaimer on the dust jacket:

“Writing the truth being obviously so difficult, I have in the interests of it allowed myself to go sometimes slightly beyond and slightly this side of it. All events and persons in this book are accidental and have something to do with the truth.”

Showing the “truth” in photography is a noble pursuit– but you will never show the whole truth. All photography is subjective. You decide where to stand, when to click the shutter– and what to include in the frame (and what to exclude). I don’t believe there is any true “objectivity” in photography.

John Hersey, a Pulitzer prize winner and friend of Capa while he was in Sicily in 1943 writes about capturing the “truth”:

“Capa has a clear idea of what makes a great picture: “It is a cut of the whole event which will show more of the real truth of the affair to someone who was not there than the whole scene. Above all — and this is what shows in his pictures— Capa, who has spent so much energy on inventions for his own person, has deep, human sympathy for men and women trapped in reality.”

So what Hersey says is that sometimes showing a small piece of an event will show more of the “real truth” of a scene than showing the whole scene.

Takeaway point:

In photography you can’t just shoot everything with a fisheye lens. We make conscious decisions what to include in the frame and what to exclude.

Robert Capa experienced so much pain, anguish, strength, joy, and all of the overwhelming feelings of war. But how could he capture all of those experiences in his images? Rather than just showing the entirety of scenes– he would focus on individuals; children in the streets, the proud soldiers, people he would encounter– as well as individual scenes. By showing fragments of his experiences and stitching them all together in a body of work could he describe a “true” portrait of war.

But what ultimately matters in Capa’s work is his deep humanistic empathy towards his subjects. That is something that cannot be debated (although perhaps some of the “authenticity” of his images can be debated– like the controversy over the his famous ‘falling soldier’ image).

As street photographers know that we can never accurately portrait the ultimate “truth” in our images. What we capture through our lenses will always be a representation of the reality we experience. And our job as street photographers is to take our subjective view of the world and share it with others.

I feel as a street photographer we don’t share the same ethical duties as documentary or photojournalist photographers. With documentary and photojournalists, they strive harder to show a more “objective truth.” But as street photographers, we have more freedom to show our own view of reality. I feel the difference is that documentary and photojournalists are documenting certain events of individuals over a longer period of time– whereas street photography tends to be more random and fragmented in terms of the imagery we capture.

So know that although you will never show “objective truth” about humanity through your photographs– you can always show your love, empathy, and viewpoint of society and the world. Aim to create your own reality through your images, and share your unique viewpoint with the world.

Conclusion

Robert Capa photographed by Ruth Orkin
Robert Capa photographed by Ruth Orkin

Robert Capa was an incredible photographer and a human being. He came from nothing– and through his wit, cunning, and charm was he able to build up his image as “The Greatest War-Photographer in the World”. He never liked playing by the rules of others– and helped found Magnum, which has influenced photographic history more than any other cooperative that has existed.

Even though his personal past is littered with scandals, gambling, and other illicit activities– his deep human empathy and compassion was evident through his actions and images. He mentored many younger photographers and took them under his wing all of whom became great photographers. His images also show deep love to his subjects, and he often put his life on the line to create the most dramatic images of war (to show all the horrors and ills of it).

Although Capa may not have been the greatest photographer in history, he was surely one of the most courageous, inspirational, and influential.

Videos

Robert Capa “In Love and War” 2003 Full Length Film

Robert Capa – the rare 1947 radio interview

John Morris – Robert Capa and D-Day

Books

Below are some books on Robert Capa which I recommend:

1. Blood And Champagne: The Life And Times Of Robert Capa

blood and champagne

The best biography on the life of Robert Capa I’ve read. Most of the information for this article were extracted from this book.

2. Slightly Out of Focus

slightly out of focus robert capa

An entertaining and easy-to-read memoir/autobiography by Robert Capa himself. Lots of fun to read– and you get a great sense of Capa’s personality and humor through the book!

3. Robert Capa: The Definitive Collection

phaidon - robert capa

An affordable introduction to the work of Robert Capa– a truly definitive body of work. Always can trust Phaidon to produce quality photography books at affordable prices!

4. Robert Capa at Work: This is War

capa-this-is-war

An extensive book of Robert Capa’s work with lots of unseen original materials including vintage prints, contact sheets, magazine layouts, and biographical background on Capa.

5. Capa in Color

capa in color

A book full of Capa’s not-as-well-known color work. Personally not my favorite images– but if you are a die-hard Capa fan and interested in color photography, it is an interesting body of work to see.

6. The Mexican Suitcase

1x1.trans 5 Insights The Mexican Suitcase Has Taught Me About Street Photography

One of my favorite books– chock-full of contact sheets from Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, and David “Chim” Seymour. You can read the extensive article I wrote on the book here: 5 Insights “The Mexican Suitcase” Has Taught Me About Street Photography

Make sure to also see more of Robert Capa’s work on the Magnum Photos website.

Related masters to learn from

If you like Robert Capa, Below are some other masters similar to him I recommend learning more about:

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