Photographer Robert Capa during the Spanish civil war, May 1937, photographed by Gerda Taro. Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons
In 1936, with the Spanish Civil War still being fought and the outcome unclear, Robert Capa, already a well-known photojournalist, produced what, at the time, was widely considered one of the greatest images of war ever produced: the image of a Loyalist soldier, apparently captured at the precise moment he’d been fatally struck by a fascist bullet.
Two years later, that image appeared on the cover of Death in the Making, a volume of photographs taken in the first year of the war by three great photographers: Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, and Chim (born Dawid Szymin). The book was reprinted in 2020 by Damiani and the International Center of Photography (ICP), and now most of the photographs it contains—masterpieces of left-wing art—are on exhibit at ICP through January 9, 2023.
The photos are left-wing not just because they chronicle the early months of the defense of the republic against the coup led by General Franco, but because of their subject matter. There are almost no photos of leaders on display (the book contains only one, of the Communist leader Dolores Ibárruri, known to all as la Pasionaria). Rather we see the factory and munitions workers, the peasants who have occupied the land they work at the same time that they attempt to turn back the rebellion. The suffering of women features prominently, in the lined faces of the peasant women, and in the embraces of the wives saying farewell to their husbands as they leave for the front. We see women as fighters, too, playing an active part in the war.
The show and the book express the enthusiasm of the early period of the resistance to Franco and his troops: the children playing on barricades; the fighting men and women in street clothes more often that in uniform, some in helmets, some not. This is clearly a people’s war.
The photographs and Capa’s accompanying text subtly present the Communist (as opposed to the anarchist) position on how war should be fought. The ragtag army of the summer of 1936 is shown being turned into a disciplined People’s Army, the uniformed troops lined up in ranks carrying out military drills.
A section of the show and a chapter of the book are dedicated to the Republicans’ protection and preservation of Spain’s artistic heritage, in this instance the protection and preservation of church art. The church burnings and iconoclasm of the anarchists was not for Taro, Capa, and Chim.
By the time the book came out, Gerda Taro (Capa’s partner at the time) had been killed covering the war. Chim would be killed in 1956 covering the Sinai events. Capa would be killed in 1954, while photographing the French war in Indochina. The words “Death in the Making” are their collective epitaph; the book and exhibition are their monument.
Ironically, the ICP exhibit omits Capa’s iconic image of the falling Republican soldier, though it appears on a large vinyl poster at the entrance to it.
One of the most famous photographs of the twentieth century, it has symbolized the horror of war, the sadness of war, and, more specifically, the heroism of those who fought fascism. In its day, the photo contributed mightily to the sacralization of the Spanish republican cause.
But for a long time, questions have surrounded the authenticity of the image. In the 1970s, critics claimed the photo was posed: the apparently stricken fighter was in fact falling so Capa could create the perfect image for the purposes of art and propaganda.
It’s now widely assumed that some of Capa’s war photos were partially staged, with soldiers advancing just for the sake of the image—something not at all rare in war photography.
The debate over this photo is different, though. Countless websites and articles examine the image in exacting detail. The soldier’s left hand, barely seen emerging from behind his leg, is presented as definitive proof that he was, indeed, dying, since hands supposedly can only take that form and position in death. Others dispute the location and context of the photo, and even the actual identity of the victim, as if a photo that had been posed would undermine the cause it represents, which then stands condemned for dishonesty.
Though I think that the case for Capa’s image truly being that of a man’s final instant is far stronger than the case against it. Why would it matter if it were not what it claims to be?
To be sure, honesty in photojournalism is a primordial value. But art that is intended as a weapon operates under different rules, or perhaps none at all.
Consider Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph, Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, the image of American heroism in World War II, taken in February 1945. As we now know, the photo was not taken of the raising of the first flag on Mount Surabachi, freshly conquered by the Japanese. There is a photo of that flag-raising, but the flag was deemed too small to signal the mount’s seizure and inspire the American forces and demoralize the Japanese. A second, much larger flag was found nearby, one that was 96 inches by 56 inches, and the flag raising was given a do-over. The loose group around the first flag gave way to the image we all know of GIs striving together to raise the banner. It is not the original event, when Mount Surabachi was conquered, but the reenactment that has become immortal. A strong image trumped facts, and neither the act nor the cause was diminished.
The Soviet photographer Yevgeny Khaldei knew the Americans had struck gold with Rosenthal’s picture, and decided there would be a Red Army version of it. As the Soviet army advanced to the West, he had a relative who was a tailor make an enormous Soviet flag out of three red table cloths. He traveled with it, knowing where and at which event he’d put it to use.
Khaldei’s flag-raising photo was taken two days after Hitler committed suicide. Khaldei gave the flag he’d prepared to a soldier who was climbing atop the Reichstag while the photographer went to a vantage point that would render the image dramatic. The flag was planted, the photo was snapped—but there was a problem: the soldier had two watches on, a sign that he had likely engaged in looting. Khaldei airbrushed out the extra watch, and now the Soviets and the whole anti-Nazi cause had had their version of the raising of the flag, on Mount Suribachi.
The planned nature of the Soviet picture, and the fact that the American one was a reenactment, does not, in my opinion, diminish the strength of their message. Nor does the possibility that Capa’s image of a falling loyalist was similarly staged.
In a sense, photographs like these function in much the same way as Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting Washington Crossing the Delaware or Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Guiding the People. All of these images were idealized in order to inspire and move those who saw them.
All of these images in their day succeeded in doing so.
And no look behind the scenes can change their initial political impact—or undercut the beauty of their composition.
Mitchell Abidor is a Brooklyn-based writer and translator.