Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The myth behind the fact: Robert Capa's Falling Soldier


Robert Capa's photo "Fallen Soldier," published in the July 12, 1937, issue of Life magazine
-it had actually appeared on two French publications, Vu and Regards in 1936.*
 
Alfredo Triff
 
Anyone who has browsed through a textbook on the Spanish Civil War, or a collection of outstanding photos of the Twentieth Century may have seen the picture, above. Then, I find this interesting piece by Larry Rohter in the New York Times. On a recent forensic investigation, Manuel Susperregui, a communications professor at the Universidad del País Vasco, concludes that Robert Capa's photograph, Falling Soldier, is a fabricated montage. This is not the first attempt to question -in a controversy that spans three decades- the reliableness of the famous image. Capa doesn't have many detractors. He is even admired by some of his critics, who present the matter as -less than knavery- a clever, unfortunate prank of a young reporter, a butterfly-effect that ends up smearing the myth of the idealistic, adventurous, womanizer, almost heroic, Wandering Jew. In fact, not everyone agrees with Susperregui's analysis: Read this extensive post by José Manuel Serrano 

Esparza (a Spanish member of Leica Historical Society of America).1
In 1975,
O.D. Gallagher, a South African-born journalist who had covered the Spanish Civil War for the London Daily Express told Phillip Knightley -author of "The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker" (1975)- that Capa had manipulated the photo. In recent years, the controversy over the authenticity of the image has taken a somewhat dramatic turn.2

The 2003 documentary directed by Anne Makepeace,
In Love and War, defends the photo's authenticity. A PBS site reproduces Richard Wheelan's article Proving that Robert Capa's "Falling Soldier" is genuine: A Detective Story.



Then in 2007, the Spanish documentary La sombra del iceberg,3 directed by Hugo Doménech and Raúl M. Riebenbahuer, concluded not only that Capa's shot is staged, but that the fallen soldier is not the militiaman Federico Borrell García, but someone else.



Who is right?

As with circumstantial evidence, you see what you want to see. To this day, in spite of the alleged proof that the photo was staged, some remain unmoved.
According to Rohther, "even as experts at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan, where Capa's archive is stored, said they found some aspects of Mr. Susperregui's investigation intriguing or even convincing... they continue to believe that the image seen in Falling Soldier is genuine, and caution against jumping to conclusions." Why should be any different? People have no problem believing that the earth is 5,000 years old, that dinosaurs did not exist or that miracles selectively happened in the Middle East during the 1st Century AD.


To get it off my chest: I sense a bit of geopolitical rivalry (but it's more complicated than that).

Surprisingly, after visiting Susperregui's exhibition, the Spanish Minister of Culture Ángeles González-Sinde asserts: Art is always manipulation, from the moment you point a camera in one direction and not another.
If art is -always- a manipulation, what's all the fuss about? 
 
Alex Kershaw's biography of Robert Capa entitled Blood and Champagne: The Life and Times of Robert Capa for The New Republic. Thomson produces a "so-what?" rebuttal. What is the big deal if Capa was cheating? "Are we just very sentimental about the kind of 'truth' that photography allegedly leads to?" To buttress his argument he follows a sort of aesthetic thread. What if Capa was a painter painting "Falling Soldier"?

A painter at the front lines could easily and legitimately paint a picture of a falling soldier. No one would object, if the painting was as strong as Capa's photograph. Nobody would cry deceit. Painting, after all, implies measured decisions regarding subject, size, composition, coloring, and so on. Why must photography be different? Is it so reliant on absolute fidelity to the moment?


One could argue that Capa is not painting a painting but shooting a picture. A camera's duty is to take a "quick shot" and so on. The real issue here is the blow to epistemological objectivity that is concomitant with photographic
journalism at a crucial moment, that is to say, the most important civil war of the Twentieth Century. Let's recall that -before Photoshop- the camera is the fact-producing instrument par excellence. "Falling Soldier" is right in the middle of the link between epistemology and the social order, between "what is" and "what should be."

"What is"

 
Unfortunately, the history of photography seems more like a mishmash of tendencies, reflecting our diverse interests more than some neutral non-subjective domain of human endeavor. Just to show the hand of manipulation in early photography take a look a Pictorialism. As early as 1880, photographers took on coloring their photos to achieve Impressionist-like effect, even then, a controversial manipulation of the medium.4
 
 
In Pond-Moonlight, bove, Steichen created the impression of color by manually applying layers of light-sensitive gums to the paper. Photography was an ideal medium for evidence and the science of forensics, the same discipline that now challenges Capa's shot by using the evidence provided by Capa's own -supposed- fake photo! What can be more "evidential" than a mug shot? No wonder photography has always been close to the field of criminology. In late-Nineteenth Century, the medium was used to support the pseudo scientific theories of Cesare Lombroso, 5 a bizarre moment in the history of criminology, which prompted the Alphonse Bertillon and the Francis Galton's "composite types".

The "composite process" was supposed to achieve "photographic average": 



Now we can understand Spain's Cultural Minister's statement, above. Only a minister could implode facts with ideas, reducing epistemology to the sphere of belief and science to the realm of aesthetics. We've lost our self-confidence! 
If we go back to a moment during the 1930's when Capa is taking some of his best war/pictures not much has changed. Below, Maurice Tabard's 1930 montage, Standing Nude with Superimposed Face. 
 
Alexander Rodchenko's Girl with a Leika (1934), where the artist explores what art historian Franz Roh called "the joy of reality and the subtle pleasure of the strange and hidden in the same surrounding world."

In the photo of Marlene Dietrich by Nicholas Murray (1930), below, the photographer explores the publicity "glamour shot."

On the other hand, August Sander picture of the baker (also from 1930), shows an anthropological concern with the German Volk.

From the formal point of view, Tabard's montage seems a more radical representation than Murray or Sander's pictures. Each photographer uses the camera to signify a constantly mutating phenomenon, if not, there would be no use in representing it.
It's obvious that (the medium of) photography subverts human intentionality. Here is a simile, which I think Ortega-Gasset would subscribe: More than a novel, Cervantes' Don Quixote is a "shot" of the Spanish culture. Just as a literary work can be reinterpreted, the camera "shot" can always expand its fit. Put differently, photographers don't "manipulate" any more than reality is being constantly manipulated by our vision. 
 
In Visual intelligence: Perception, image, and manipulation in visual communication (1997). A. M. Barry identifies three different kinds of violations: Active deception, when reporters stage events to expose wrongdoing or using hidden cameras and microphones; misrepresentation, with reporters impersonating non-reporters—doctors, policemen, victims' kin, and so on; and passive deception, by which reporters allow themselves to be taken for members of the public. 
 


What follows is a collection of manipulated images from the recent past:6
 
How about objectivity of the press? In 1981, The Washington Post's Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize for her story about Jimmy, an 8-year-old heroin addict, only to return the award and lose her job after it was discovered that Jimmy did not exist. In 1998, Boston Globe columnist Patricia Smith was sacked for inventing people and quotes in her columns. The New Republic fired reporter Stephen Glass for fabricating all -or part- of 27 articles and using phony notes. Popular Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle was forced to resign following charges of plagiarism. In 2003, the fallout over the Jayson Blair scandal reached dizzying heights at The New York Times, widely considered to be America's newspaper of record and one of the world's most influential publications. The Times found that Blair fabricated quotes, stole materials from other newspapers, and lied about his whereabouts over a 7-month period. Finally there's deception by omission or by commission. The former refers to any act that omits significant information with the intention to initiate or sustain a false belief. The latter is an act that involves active or deliberate altering of information. (source taken from A. M. Barry's Visual intelligence: Perception, image, and manipulation in visual communication, 1997).

"What should be"


That photo manipulation is part of the medium's elasticity does not mean one cannot resist the temptation to deliberately "create" facts, particularly when the information is relevant for the public at large. Standards of objectivity are indeed difficult but not impossible. There is a difference between "fact" and "fabrication" in the examples above. Bridging the distinction can have serious consequences. Which is why, if true, we'd get very upset to know that the Department of Homeland Security raised the levels of security right before the 2004 elections to influence the vote. Today, journalism is synonymous of corporate. Fewer people read news (or pay attention to news altogether). There is evidence that the public holds the press in diminished regard, even contempt. Television as entertainment has taken over journalism as news. The old opinion/fact validity/fallacy news/entertainment dichotomies have been eroded.7

No one really knows why some images are destined for greatness. Imagine a kind of public consciousness-museum where they end up, after going through a process of exhausting diplomatic negotiations. To alleviate our human curiosity, we are given to fill the casuistic holes with all sort of made-up factors. At this point, I don't care if "Falling Soldier" is authentic or not. The back-and-forth of the controversy misses the relevance of the image as a haunting and memorable token of the beautiful ideals and horrible atrocities of the Spanish Civil War. And with all the attention, Capa's photo has become one of the most important war symbols of the Twentieth Century. One way or the other, he should be proud.
_____________________
*The caption reads, "Robert Capa's camera catches a Spanish soldier the instant he is dropped by a bullet through the head in front of Córdoba." Though Serrano Esparza's account is a bit winded -and not my concern here- a crucial aspect of the discussion is whteher (Moroccan pro-Franco) rebel snipers were present at the cerro that morning.
2In his book, along with Gallagher's testimony, Knightley reports what people say Capa said. His final verdict is that the picture is an "ambiguous image." The Spanish film's trailer cleverly uses Capa's own identity creation right during the war from Endre Ernő Friedmann (aka André Friedmann). Surely, Capa's life seems out of a movie. According to ethe Wikipedia entry: "In 1934 André Friedman, as he called himself at that time, met Gerda Pohorylle, a German Jewish refugee. The couple lived in Paris where André taught Gerda photography. Together they contrived the name and image of "Robert Capa" as a famous American photographer. Gerda took the name Gerda Taro, becoming successful in her own right. She traveled with Capa to Spain in 1936 with the intention to document the Spanish Civil War. In July 1937 Capa went on a short business trip to Paris while Gerda remained in Madrid. She was killed near Brunete during a battle. Capa, who was reportedly engaged to her, was deeply shocked and never married."The Brotherhood of the Linked Ring was an association of late 19th and early 20th Century British photographers who pledged to promote Pictorialism. Founded May 1892, by Henry Peach Robinson, the Brotherhood was "a means of bringing together those who are interested in the development of the highest form of Art of which Photography is capable." Lombroso stated in 1871: "Only we white people have reached the ultimate symmetry of bodily form." For details of these and other recent pic manipulations click here. According to William Hatchen and Lawrence Earlbaum we are experiencing "a collectively sense of the end of an era." A Nieman poll on 304 journalists who had studied at Harvard for one year disclosed the following: 1-The distinction between news and entertainment is increasingly obscure. 2-Television and radio are gaining in influence but declining in journalistic quality, whereas newspapers struggle to maintain quality and are losing ground. 3-Media proprietors are more concerned with profits than product quality. 4-The public is losing confidence in the media.

72 comments:

ABREQUEVOY said...

Capa's life is simply amazing.

Wonderful topic and very well researched. Congratulations.

Anonymous said...

Triff: Nice article. Keep writing and good luck!

Anonymous said...

First, Good luck with your blog.

The dependability of news today leaves much to be desired and I don't know who is to blame for that. My guess is that is part of the corporatization of our lives. Second, regarding Robert Capa, I buy somewhat into the geopolitical grievances between Spain and the US (and even a bit of subconscious antisemitism?). An undercurrent, not in the front but in the sidelines. It's like saying "how come you guys have the best pic of our own war."

Glenn Marcaccio

Anonymous said...

1,2,3, testing.

Feminista said...

Triff: Thanks for the post. I didn't know about Capa. I'm glad you didn't fall for the relativist trap.

A.T. said...

Thanks, Abrequevoy, Glenn and Feminista.

Anonymous said...

The author of mbourbaki.blogspot.com has written an excellent article. You have made your point and there is not much to argue about. It is like the following universal truth that you can not argue with: It takes as long as it takes is a stupid phrase Thanks for the info.

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