Robert Capa, the legendary Hungarian-born photojournalist who set the prevailing standard for war photographers, spoke seven languages none very well. He didn't need to. For over 20 of the bloodiest years of the 20th century, Capa let his cameras do the talking. "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough," he famously declared.
Getting close to Capa himself could also be a tricky business, though the challenge was usually surmounted by soldiers, poker players, bartenders, writers, artists and beautiful women. Nearly a half-century after Capa's untimely death while covering the French colonial war in Indochina and after four years of dogged research the British journalist and author Alex Kershaw has also gotten close. In his elegant Capa biography, Blood and Champagne (Macmillan; 298 pages), Kershaw portrays an indisputably brave and talented photographer who could also be reckless, cynical and opportunistic. Much as Capa held his camera only inches from the faces of the grief-stricken and the grievously wounded, Kershaw focuses tightly and unblinkingly on a man who "invented himself" and who was exposed to an excess of both joy and horror in his 41 years.
Born André Friedmann in Budapest in 1913, Capa entered a world in conflict, between nations and between his parents. In his teens, André poor, clever, bored, romantic at heart and discriminated against as a Jew became involved with leftist revolutionaries, seeking out conflict and danger. When he was barely 18, he moved to Berlin and took up photojournalism. His first big break came in 1932, when he was assigned to photograph Trotsky as he spoke in a Copenhagen stadium on the meaning of the Russian Revolution. His pictures were the most dramatic of the day, writes Kershaw. Taken within a meter of so of Trotsky, they were intense, intimate and imperfect the trademarks of the man who would become famous as Capa, or "shark" in Hungarian.
As Nazi power grew in Germany, Friedmann moved to Paris, the only city he would ever consider home. In France, he documented the social and industrial strife of the mid-1930s, struggled to earn a living and fell in love with Gerda Taro. Accepting him for what he was a charming rogue, a heavy drinker and a notorious womanizer Taro shared his work, his bed and his dreams. Together they invented Robert Capa, a rich, famous, talented American photographer whose name on a picture boosted its price. In 1936, they moved on to war-torn Spain, determined to fight totalitarianism with cameras. The following year, Taro was killed there, in a road accident. Capa was inconsolable, and part of him died with her. Still, he pursued his calling, traveling to China in 1938 to cover the Sino-Japanese war, back to Spain as the Republican cause was collapsing and then, as World War II raged, on to North Africa, Sicily, the Italian mainland and most traumatically to Omaha Beach and the slaughter of the D-Day invasion. It was in Spain that Capa took his best-known photo, which purported to show a militiaman a split second after he'd been fatally shot. Debate over its authenticity still rages. The "truth" of the photo, says Kershaw, is in its representation of a symbolic death. "The Falling Soldier, authentic or fake, is ultimately a record of Capa's political bias and idealism," he writes, adding: "Indeed, he would soon come to experience the brutalizing insanity and death of illusions that all witnesses who get close enough to the 'romance' of war inevitably confront."
In 1946, after more than a decade of front-line reporting, says Kershaw, "Capa had started to exhibit many of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder: restlessness, heavy drinking, irritability, depression, survivor's guilt, lack of direction and barely concealed nihilism." He fulfilled a dream in 1947, though, by setting up the Magnum photo cooperative, named after the large champagne bottle. Capa next traveled to the Soviet Union, but the cold war did not suit his talents. Grazed and badly shaken by a bullet in Tel Aviv in 1948, he sat out the Korean War. But the gambler in him was lured back into the fray in 1954, to work again for Life magazine.
"This is going to be a beautiful story," he said as he set out from the village of Nam Dinh, in Vietnam's Red River delta, on May 25, the last morning of his life. "I will be on my good behavior today. I will not insult my colleagues, and I will not once mention the excellence of my work." Eight hours and 30 km later, Capa was dead, killed by a landmine at Thai Binh, as he tried to get just that little bit closer.