A Spanish film tries to solve the enigmas that surround the icon photography of Capa

There is never been finished with one of the most discussed photography of history: Has Robert Capa taken in action or put it in scene, in 1936, the soldier killed by a bullet during the war of Spain?
Documentary, “the Shadow of iceberg”, devoted to this mythical document - presented in the Spanish cinemas in December 2008 -, revivals the debate. In 75 minutes, the Spaniards Hugo Doménech and Raúl Mr. Riebenbauer reconsider the basic questions: who is this soldier? Who took the photograph? Where? How?

The photography is reproduced for the first time in the French magazine “Vu”, on September 23, 1936. In the same page another photograph is published, also signed Capa, taken at the same place but representing another soldier, also killed by a bullet. This curiosity, which suggests that Capa made play the scene with two combatants, causes few comments during decades.

In 1975, the British journalist Phillip Knightley, in his book The First Casualty, advances the first the thesis of “ an composed photography” He bases it on the declarations of O' Dowd Gallagher, a South-African reporter during the civil war, bringing back a conversation with Capa where this one explains how the soldiers had organized the scene for him.

But Capa, dead in 1954, is not here to answer. His brother, Cornell, also photographer, becomes the best defender of a " photography caught on the field ". Richard Whelan, author of the reference book Robert Capa: A Biography (Mazarine, 1985), supports it. Since, experts, journalists, historians do not cease tearing.

Documentary Spanish brings an important component on a point: the identification of this soldier. In 1996, Mario Brotons, a Spanish historian, affirms that he was Federico Borrell Garcia, which fought in an anarchistic column, in Cerro Muriano, near to Cordoue.

This information is relayed in the world press without discussion. But the authors of film unearthed an article of an anarchistic newspaper of 1937, Confederal Ruta, describing the circumstances of death of Federico Borrell Garcia: they are not to do with the scene of the soldier who falls. Moreover, the comparison between the photograph of Borrell Garcia and that of the soldier of Capa is not convincing - the soldier is clearly older. In short, nobody still knows who is reproduced on this document…

The arguments of film are less conclusive on a question that seems elsewhere regulated: who is the author of the photograph? Capa ensure the specialists. The film suggests that it could be Gerda Taro, partner of Capa, presents this day. It is true there is some uncertainty about paternity of images at this period when Capa and Taro worked together.

But, according to Irme Schaber, biographer of Taro, the hypothesis of film does not hold: she used a Rolleiflex (square format) and him a Leica (rectangular format). However the photograph is rectangular. The film still shows, after investigation into the ground, the difficulty in defining the exact place of the catch of sight. Remain the great business: how the photo one was taken? The documentarists stress that during the war of Spain the soldiers often pose for the photographers. They analyze the photograph then deduce that it is a setting in scene. They make testify a Spanish legist who points some absence of bullet impact on the head, as on the shirt, and that the position of the left hand seems not natural. In other words, the fall is not natural.

Richard Whelan had consulted an American legist who arrived to an opposite position. On this approach, which aims to do photography “speaks”, the experts risk to struggle during decades, without result. The whole sequence taken by Capa this day (forty d' images) is now known. It was presented at the exibition "Capa at War", which, after New York, will be presented in London, before Milan in spring and Barcelona in June. Richard Whelan agreed that a setting in scene could govern this photograph just before, suddenly, enemy started to shoot.

Another point of this movie is to show that Richard Whelan and Cornell Capa, respectively dead in 2007 and in 2008, adopted an attitude that, indirectly, supported the suspicions on this image. According to film, these "guardians of temple" refused to share documents with journalists and historians with the purpose to defend always, and even against obviousness, honesty of Capa in this business. Patrick Jeudy, author in 2004 of an unauthorized documentary on Capa, testifies to this difficulty in “Shadow of iceberg”.

Michel Lefebvre

Article published in Le Monde of 13.01.09.
Translated by pierre j.

In a 1947 radio interview, Capa reveals the story behind his famous image, "Death of a Loyalist Militiaman", Cordoba Front, September 1936

Capa: You see, this is a cagy question, because you never know if you have a press picture or not. Because when you shoot, nearly every picture is the same to you, and a press picture is born in the imagination of editors and the public who see them.

I had, once, one picture which was appreciated much more than the other ones, and I certainly did not know when I shot it that it was an especially good picture.
It happened in Spain. It was very much at the beginning of my career as a photographer, and very much at the beginning of the Spanish civil war, and war was kind of romantic, if you can see anything like that.

Interviewer :No, I can't!

Capa: It was there, because it was in Andalusia and those people were very green, they were not soldiers, and they were dying every minute with great gestures and they figured that was really for liberty and the right kind of fight and they were enthused, and I was there in the trench with about 20 milicianos, and those 20 milicianos had 20 old rifles, and on the other hill facing us was a Franco machine gun.
So my milicianos were shooting in the direction of that machine gun for five minutes and then stood up and said "Vámonos!" and got out of that trench and began to go after that machine gun. Sure enough, that machine gun opened up and mowed them down. So what was left of them came back and again took potshots in the direction of the machine gun, which certainly was clever enough not to answer, and after five minutes again they said "Vámonos!" and got mowed down again.
This thing repeated itself about three or four times, so the fourth time I just kind of put my camera above my head and even didn't look and clicked a picture when they moved over the trench. And that was all. I didn't ever look at my pictures there and I sent my pictures back with a lot of other pictures that I took.
I stayed in Spain for three months, and when I came back I was a very famous photographer because that camera which I hold above my head just caught a man at the moment when he was shot.

Interviewer 2: That was a great picture

Capa: That was probably the best picture I ever took. I never saw the picture in the frame because the camera was far above my head.

Interviewer 2: Of course, there's one condition that you've got to create yourself, Bob, in order to get a lucky picture like that, you've got to spend a lot of time in trenches.

Capa: Yeah, this habit I would like to lose.


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This texte is issued from Le Monde in 2009.
© Michel Lefebvre / Le Monde

The 1947 recording was found by the chief curator of the International Center of Photography Brian Wallis.
It was released to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Capa in 2013.

Created Juanuary 14th 2009, Completed November 8th 2013