8 Lessons Cornell Capa Has Taught Me About Photography

Cornell Capa: without him we wouldn’t have the ICP (International center of photography in NYC), and we wouldn’t have these iconic photos of JFK, and more.

“One thing that Life and I agreed right from the start was that one war photographer was enough for my family; I was to be a photographer of peace”

Cornell Capa certainly wasn’t as famous as his brother Robert Capa, but I think Cornell Capa’s educational legacy is stronger.

Not only that, but I still love the photos by Cornell Capa: the elegant and simple compositions, and also I love his iconic photos of JFK, and his documentation of the campaign trail. It shows the power of photography to document history, and also politics (two essentials to humanity).

Above all, Cornell Capa’s legacy is his love for humanity, and realizing the power of photography to transform the world for the better. Here are my favorite ideas from him:


1. Of course photography is personal!

The idea that any photography can’t be personal is madness! I see something; it goes through my eye, brain, heart, guts; I choose the subject. What could be more personal than that?

2. The power of photography to change public opinion/society

With all the arguments and discussions about the Vietnam War, what did the visual image do? It ended the war.

3. Be a concerned photographer

The Concerned Photographer produces images in which genuine human feeling predominates over commercial cynicism or disinterested formalism.

4. Awaken the conscience of your viewers!

Images at their passionate and truthful best are as powerful as words can ever be. If they alone cannot bring change, they can at least provide and understanding mirror of man’s actions, thereby sharpening human awareness and awakening conscience.


5. What makes a successful photographer?

What will obviously make the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful photographer is the intellectual ‘baggage’ he brings with him. He should have a heightened sense of curiosity and be able to foresee and predict certain sequence very quickly. I think the old-fashioned statement ‘f/8 and be there!’ is true even today. The ability of the photographer to ‘get in’ to shoot is 99 percent of the battle and requires that he be ‘trusted’. – Cornell Capa

Let us follow our curiosity, with no pretneiousness. 99% of the battle of photography is won just by showing up!


6. Make a difference with your photo stories!

“I am not an artist and I never intended to be one … I hope I have made some good photographs, but what I really hope is that I have done some good photo stories with memorable images that make a point and, perhaps, even make a difference.”

7. Correct and appreciate with your photography

Inmates playing chess
Inmates playing chess

From an obituary, when Cornell Capa died at age 90:

Mr. Capa “often quoted the words of the photographer Lewis Hine: ‘There are two things I wanted to do. I wanted to show the things that needed to be corrected. And I wanted to show the things that needed to be appreciated.’”

8. Tell stories through your photography

“Single photographs are not what I do best. My most effective work is groups of photographs which hang together and tell stories”


My favorite photos from Cornell Capa:


USA. Nevada. 1959. Spectators at a space-age air show.
USA. New York City. 1960. Senator John F. KENNEDY and Jacqueline KENNEDY campaign during a ticker tape parade in Manhattan.
USA. 1960. John F. KENNEDY on a campaign tour.

USA. 1960. John F. KENNEDY campaigning.
USA. 1960. John F. KENNEDY campaigning.
USA. 1960. John F. KENNEDY campaigning.
USA. 1960.
USA. September 1960. John F. KENNEDY during the nationwide whistle-stop campaign tour that took him to 25 towns in 5 days.
USA. 1960. Jackie KENNEDY greeting people working on her husband’s presidential campaign.
USA. Nevada. 1960. (Left to right) Marilyn MONROE, Clark GABLE, Montgomery CLIFT and Eli WALLACH on the set of “The Misfits.”

USA. Nevada. 1960. Marilyn MONROE during the filming of “The Misfits.”
USSR. Russia. Moscow. 1958.
USSR. Russia. Moscow. 1958.
USSR. Russia. Zagorsk. 1958. Russian Orthodox nuns and priest.
USSR. Russia. Peredelkino. 1958. Boris PASTERNAK on the grounds of his home.
USSR. Russia. Peredelkino. 1958. Boris PASTERNAK at home.
ARGENTINA. Buenos Aires. 1955. Supporters of Juan PERON.
ARGENTINA. Buenos Aires. 1955. Supporters of Juan PERON.
ARGENTINA. Buenos Aires. 1955. Supporters of Juan PERON.
ARGENTINA. Buenos Aires. August 1955. Anniversary of Eva PERON’s death.
USA. 1952. Adlai STEVENSON, on the night of the election, learning that he had been defeated by Eisenhower.
USA. Boston. 1956. Adlai STEVENSON campaigning.
GB. ENGLAND. Winchester. Winchester College. 1951. Weekly cadet drill.
GB. ENGLAND. Winchester. 1951. Boys entering chapel at Winchester College.
GB. ENGLAND. London. 1952. An officer of the elite Queen’s Guard being dressed by his aide-de-camp.


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Prague, 1968. Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos
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