From Roger Fenton’s prints of the Crimea to mobile-phone images of Baghdad, every era of war photography has been marked by new technology. But what has always mattered more than technical brilliance, argues Geoff Dyer, is getting close enough to the epicenter of history.
Geoff Dyer’s text is about Robert Capa’s photography. He debates the authenticity of war photography, specially the famous “Falling Soldier” picture.
“The Falling Soldier” shows the moment of a republican soldier’s death in the Spanish civil war. Or so it was claimed and widely believed. Then doubts began to circulate. Perhaps the picture was posed, fake. Robert Capa’s biographer, Richard Whelan, has gnawed away at this issue for decades. The explanation put forward by him in the catalog accompanying an exhibition at the Barbican is that, during an informal truce, a group of soldiers simulated a bit of a battle charge for the benefit of the camera. Fearing a genuine attack was being mounted, enemy troops opened fire. The trigger was pulled, the camera clicked simultaneously – and a man died. Make-believe became tragically real.
Whelan’s explanation is unlikely to be improved on, but it is worth considering something that David Simon, in his book Homicide, learned from ballistics experts: that “no bullet short of an artillery shell is capable of knocking a human being off his feet“. This is not to say that people don’t fall down when shot. They do, but “only as a learned response. People who have been shot believe they are supposed to fall immediately to the ground, so they do.”
This adds an unexpected twist to the moment of simulation, but there is a larger irony too: the more one learns about the circumstances in which Capa made his famous photograph, the less those circumstances matter. Even if it is now established that this is what happened, it is too late. Over the years, the photograph has come adrift from those circumstances, floated clear of what it depicts. One of the standard ideas about photography is that it is strong as evidence, weak in meaning. The Falling Soldier shows this formulation in reverse: it has become more and more questionable as evidence, but its meaning has continued to deepen. Somehow the image is able to accommodate all the different accounts of its making, accounts that have themselves assumed the quality of after-the-fact interpretation. Ultimately, the only proof it offers is of something that has long been accepted – that photographs can be as mysterious as works of art.
Robert Capa said that he would rather have “a strong image that is technically bad than vice versa”. He realized early on that a little camera-shake created a dangerous air of bullets whirring overhead. In certain circumstances, then, technical imperfection could be a source of visual strength. When his pictures of the D-day landings were published in Life magazine, a caption explained that the “immense excitement of the moment made Capa move his camera”. The blurring actually came later, as a result of a printing error at the lab in London. In the excitement of receiving Capa’s films, most of the 72 pictures were completely ruined. Eleven survi’ved, all wounded, maimed, but the darkroom accident imbued them with sea-drenched authenticity and unprecedented immediacy.
Alongside the Robert Capa exhibition is another devoted to Gerda Taro, who died in June 1937, aged 26. Taro and Capa were lovers and collaborators, sometimes working together under the rubric “Capa & Taro Reportage”. After her death, and due to Capa’s increasing fame, Taro gradually faded from photographic history, except as girlfriend of the great war photographer. Through no fault of Robert Capa’s , several pictures now known to be by Taro were attributed to him. Leaving the gender politics aside, such confusion is hardly surprising. As Susan Sontag pointed out in the early 1970s, “the very success of photojournalism lies in the difficulty of distinguishing one superior photographer’s work from another’s, except insofar as he or she has monopolised a particular subject.”
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