A lost treasure trove containing thousands of negatives by one of the world’s most famous photographers, Robert Capa, has been recovered.
Hailed as the ‘holy grail’ of photojournalism, the discovery of the long-mourned cache of photographs after almost 70 years has sent shockwaves through the photography world.
‘This is the formative work of a photographer who, in a century defined by warfare, played a pivotal role in defining how war was seen, bringing its horrors nearer than ever,’ said Brian Wallis, chief curator at the International Center of Photography in midtown Manhattan, which was founded by Robert Capa’s brother, Cornell.
The discovery of the pictures, revealed by the New York Times, is being hailed as a huge event, partly because it is hoped that the negatives could settle once and for all the question that has dogged Capa’s legacy: whether what may be his most famous picture – and one of the most famous war photographs of all time – was staged.
Known as ‘The Falling Soldier,’ the sequence of photographs shows a Spanish Republican militiaman reeling backwards at what appears to be the instant a bullet strikes his chest or head, on a hillside near Córdoba in 1936. When the picture was first published in the French magazine Vu, it created a sensation and helped crystallize support for the Republican cause.
Doubts about the authenticity of the sequence emerged after Phillip Knightley pointed out in his book, The First Casualty, that at the moment of death the soldier was still clutching his rifle. Knightly also argued that a companion photograph, apparently showing the same soldier lying on the ground, proved the photograph was staged.
Richard Whelan, Capa’s biographer, later made a persuasive case that the photograph was not faked but doubts have persisted. A negative of the shot has never been found and the discovery of one could end the debate.
‘Capa practically invented the image of the globe-trotting war photographer,’ said Wallis, who is now working to conserve and catalog the 3,500-plus negatives. ‘William Saroyan wrote that he thought of Capa as "a poker player whose sideline was picture-taking". His fearlessness awed even his soldier subjects and, between battles, he hung out with Hemingway and Steinbeck and usually drank too much, seeming to pull everything off with panache.’
The lost negatives were photographs that Capa took during the Spanish Civil War. They were left behind in a Paris darkroom after the photographer fled Europe for America in 1939. He assumed they were lost during the Nazi invasion and he died in 1954, on assignment in Vietnam, still believing that to be the case. Then, in 1995, Jerald R Green, a professor at Queens College, part of the City University of New York, received a letter from a Mexico City film-maker saying he had inherited three suitcases of negatives from his aunt and had identified the contents as Capa’s masterpieces. Last week, after years of negotiations over where they should be kept, the legal title to the negatives was transferred by the film-maker, who has asked to remain anonymous, to the Capa estate.
‘The full story of how the negatives made their way to Mexico might never be known but Capa apparently asked his darkroom manager, a Hungarian photographer named Imre Weisz, to save his negatives in 1939 or 1940, when Capa was in New York and feared his work would be destroyed,’ said Wallis.