There Are No Black-and-White Answers in War -- Then Lost Negatives Turn Up

Curator Brian Wallis inspects long-lost negatives, which may show whether Robert Capa's most famous Spanish Civil War photo was staged.
Curator Brian Wallis inspects long-lost negatives, which may show whether Robert Capa's most famous Spanish Civil War photo was staged. (By Kathy Williens -- Associated Press)
By Richard Pyle
Associated Press
Friday, February 1, 2008

NEW YORK -- When he died in a land-mine explosion in Indochina in 1954, Robert Capa went from journalistic celebrity to instant legend. Now, a veil of mystery cloaking the war photographer has been lifted, with the recovery of thousands of Capa negatives from the Spanish Civil War in which he had first made his name 18 years earlier.

Three cardboard boxes of black-and-white film -- perhaps as many as 4,000 negatives -- were recently delivered to the International Center of Photography, a New York-based museum and archive founded and directed by Cornell Capa, Robert's younger brother.

ICP curator Brian Wallis said the cache of negatives, believed for decades to have been lost, may answer many questions about Capa's life and work during the 1936-1939 struggle for Spain, in which fascist forces under Gen. Francisco Franco ultimately defeated the Republican loyalists and their international supporters.

First among these questions, he said, is whether Capa's famous "falling man" picture -- showing a Republican militiaman at the apparent moment he was hit by a fatal bullet -- was possibly faked, or whether Capa was even the photographer who made it.

The picture, taken in September 1936, has been called too perfect not to have been staged -- especially in an era when setting up and posing action photos was not the journalistic taboo it is today -- and because the whereabouts of the original negative are unknown.

Wallis said the proof may lie somewhere on a still-unexamined roll of film in the collection.

"We don't know yet if the negative of that picture is here, but if it is, the series of frames will clarify the sequence of events -- we will be able to see what happened just before and just after the photo was taken," he said. It would also confirm whether it actually came from Capa's camera.

In fact, Wallis said, the archive's significance lies largely in revealing how Capa and two other photographers whose negatives are included in the collection did their work, depicting events in sequence, each picture in relation to those on either side of it.

He said Capa was one of the inventors of the photo essay, which was immensely popular in weekly photo magazines including Life, for which Capa later worked.

"Capa was really adept at creating a whole story in one day: Here are the characters, here is the beginning, the action shots, the end, and the effect on civilians. If you look at his work not as great individual shots, but as stories, you get a completely different picture of him, and I think a more accurate and valuable picture.

"These negatives will further amplify that story, not just a few stories but dozens of stories that went out. It is like a sketchbook -- he was trying out various ideas, and some worked and some didn't."

Oddly enough, Wallis said, Capa originally set out to be a newsreel cameraman but proved far less capable in that technique than with the still camera. The irony was that his movie shots were static and his stills created an almost cinematic effect.

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