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Cornell Capa, 90; Founder Of N.Y. Photography Center

Photojournalist Cornell Capa, who founded the International Center of Photography and illuminated social and political topics from the campaigns of the Kennedy brothers to the destruction of native cultures in Latin America, dies at age 90.

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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 24, 2008

Cornell Capa, a globetrotting photojournalist who founded the International Center of Photography in New York and dedicated himself to preserving the legacy of his older brother, war photographer Robert Capa, died May 23 at his home in New York of Parkinson's disease. He was 90.

Early in his career, Mr. Capa stepped away from the battlefield focus of his brother, whose photographs of the Spanish Civil War and World War II are some of the most stark and memorable images of warfare. Saying that "two war photographers in the family was too much," the younger brother concentrated on "opening the door to worlds that people would not have seen otherwise," with a portfolio that ranged from scenes of political oppression to candid shots of Marilyn Monroe.

He coined the term "concerned photography" to describe an emotional engagement with his subjects that often blurred the border of journalistic objectivity. Working as a staff and contract photographer for Life magazine for more than 20 years, Mr. Capa infused his pictures with a quiet, revealing drama that made him almost as renowned as his dashing brother.

One of Mr. Capa's stylistic traits was to show telling details by narrowing his camera's view. In photographing the 1949 funeral of tap dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Mr. Capa focused not on the faces of the mourners who were lined up along a street, but on their shoes. While covering John F. Kennedy's race for the White House in 1960, he showed Kennedy's hands reaching into a crowd.

In the 1950s, he photographed life in the Soviet Union and the world of mentally ill children, sensitively revealing a subject that had been all but ignored.

He created one of his most memorable photos while following Adlai Stevenson on the presidential campaign trail in 1952. As Stevenson spoke from the back of a train, Mr. Capa photographed the candidate from behind, with the crowd spreading out before him.

In 1960, he took time out from the presidential campaign to visit the Nevada movie set of "The Misfits," the final completed movie of Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe.

Sensing that Kennedy represented a change in political style, Mr. Capa and seven other photographers chronicled the president's first 100 days in office. The resulting book, "Let Us Begin," appeared 10 days after the final photograph was taken and became known as "instant history."

As time passed, Mr. Capa developed a sense of mission about preserving the history and conscience of his craft. Some of his most lasting contributions to photography came after he put his camera down in 1974 and organized the International Center of Photography.

In 20 years as executive director, he built the ICP into one the world's foremost museums of photography. He made it the world's largest repository of his brother's work and regularly presented exhibitions of his photography.

Robert Capa, who once said, "If your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough," was killed at age 40 when he stepped on a landmine in Vietnam in 1954 while on assignment for Life magazine.

"From that day," Cornell Capa told Newsweek magazine in 1994, "I was haunted by the question of what happens to the work a photographer leaves behind, by how to make the work stay alive."


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