W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Robert Capa’

The debunking of the year, 2009

In Debunking, Photographs on January 2, 2010 at 1:22 pm

The nod for the most impressive debunking of 2009 has to go to the Spanish researchers who’ve seriously challenged the authenticity of Robert Capa’s famed “Falling Soldier” image, taken during the Spanish Civil War in September 1936.

It purports to show a charging loyalist militiaman at the very moment he is shot to death.

Capa's iconic and dubious image (Robert Capa/Copyright 2001 by Cornell Capa)

The earnest research of a university lecturer in northern Spain, José Manuel Susperregui, as well as that of historian Francisco Moreno, show fairly persuasively that Capa’s photo was shot about 35 miles from Cerro Muriano, where Capa claimed it was taken.

Susperregui, who last year published Sombras de la fotografía (Shadows of Photography), a book in Spanish about his research, maintains that “The Falling Soldier” was taken in Llano de Banda, near the village of Espejo.

The most compelling evidence is the horizon, which shows a ridgeline that nearly matches that in Capa’s photos, which were first published in Vu, a French magazine.  (See the Vu spread here.)

“The landscape around Cerro Muriano looks nothing like that in the photographs,” the London newspaper Guardian quoted Susperregui as saying in  July 2009. “I have no doubt that this was taken in Llano de Banda.”

Susperregui was further quoted as saying:

“My theory is that Capa went to Espejo because he knew it had been an active front. He found nothing going on there, so did the posed photographs. Then he went on to Cerro Muriano, which was active, and took a different set of photographs there of people fleeing the fighting.”

The Guardian has posted an audio slideshow that vividly describes the landscape around Llano de Banda and dramatically underscores the arguments of the Spanish researchers. (It should be noted that doubts about the authenticity of Capa’s “Falling Solider” were raised as long ago as 1975, in Phillip Knightley’s The First Casualty. Knightley’s account quoted an associate of Capa’s as saying the photographer told him the “Falling Soldier” photos were staged.)

As I wrote in a Media Myth Alert posting November 22, “the apparent debunking is a delicious one, given the status and standing that Capa’s photograph has gained over decades. It is considered among the most dramatic wartime photos ever made.”

Not only that, but “Falling Soldier” helped launched Capa’s fabled career in photojournalism. Capa was killed in Indochina in 1954.

The efforts of Susperregui and colleagues may not have received in the United States as much attention as they deserved. But they’re imaginative and intriguing — and they represent the debunking of the year 2009.


Catching up: Will on Capa

In Furnish the war, Media myths, Photographs on November 22, 2009 at 4:50 pm

I caught up today on several back issues of the Washington Post, including last Sunday’s edition, which carried an insightful column by George Will.

Will himself was catching up on intriguing research that challenges the authenticity of Robert Capa’s famous photograph of the moment a bullet strikes and kills a loyalist militiaman in 1936, during the Spanish Civil War.

Capa's iconic 'instant of death' photo (Robert Capa/Copyright 2001 by Cornell Capa)

Will notes that a Spanish historian “has established that the photo could not have been taken when and where it reportedly was — Sept. 5, 1936, near Cerro Muriano.

“The photo was taken about 35 miles from there. The precise place has been determined by identifying the mountain range in the photo’s background,” Will writes, adding that the historian “says that there was no fighting near there at that time, and concludes that Capa staged the photo.”

The historian is Francisco Moreno and his research into Capa’s iconic image received a fair amount of attention over the summer. According to the Associated Press, Moreno determined that the shape of hills in Capa’s photo matched a hillside just east of the town of Espejo.

This is not necessarily a media-driven myth — stories about and by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, on close examination, prove to be apocryphal or wildly exaggerated; they often promote a misleading interpretation of the power and influence of the news media. Few media-driven myths rest on outright fraud, which may have been the case here.

Still, the apparent debunking is a delicious one, given the status and standing that Capa’s photograph has gained over decades. It is considered among the most dramatic wartime photos ever made.

As Will correctly notes, its “greatness evaporates if its veracity is fictitious.”

Capa was a skilled war photographer who was killed in Vietnam in 1954. He supposedly maintained:

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

Now that’s a great quote: pithy, telling, instructive. Like other memorable quotes in journalism (such as “you furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war“)  it  seems almost too good, too neat and tidy, to be true.

I’ve done a bit of research into the derivation of Capa’s quote. And I have never been able to determine when and where he uttered that line.


%d bloggers like this: