Death In The Making ... For The Last Damned Time

Robert Capa's iconic "Falling Man," 1936
Robert Capa's iconic "Falling Man," 1936

“This is not a war,” he used to say, “it is a comic opera with an occasional death.” – George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia



By Bruce Young
© 2009 News Photographer magazine


CAPE COD, MA (JULY 28, 2009) – When I met him at the Leica Historical Society of America conference, José Manuel Serrano Esparza wanted me to know, first of all, how much he respected and honored both Cornell Capa and Richard Whelan. As we talked, his words came in tight, enthusiastic streams. The English, though accented, was perfect and packed with eagerly recited details and statistics – such as the caliber and muzzle velocity of a Mauser rifle or the exact model and type of a Leica camera – repeated identically each time as if religious cant.

Serrano Esparza met me in November of last year in an elegantly decorated Louisville, KY, hotel lounge to explain his theory of how Robert Capa’s iconographic photograph of a death of a solider in the Spanish Civil War came to be made. He had spent 11 years at his own expense walking the landscape around the small southern Spanish town of Cerro Muriano (a name that sounded so romantic and exotic as he spoke it, lisping the S’s in the traditional continental way) to establish the exact place and moment.

Cornell Capa and Richard Whelan were, respectively, Capa’s brother and biographer. Until their deaths recently, they had been in what could alternately be described as a 30-year-long research project or a dispute over whether Robert Capa’s picture “The Falling Soldier” was authentic or posed.

The accuser was British journalist and author Phillip Knightley, who tried in his book, The First Casualty, written in the mid-1970s, to discover the events surrounding Capa’s picture. In the process he came to the conclusion that Capa had posed the photograph, a belief he holds to this day (as in this review of Alex Kershaw’s bio of Capa on Knightley’s Web site and this interview on the BBC).

Whelan countered in his biography of Capa, establishing to his satisfaction that the images were real and reducing the matter into a simmering ceasefire with a slight secondary aftershock for Capa-philes like me and Serrano Esparza (who speaks of the photographer in adoring tones) when the International Center for Photography released Whelan’s last book, This Is War!, in conjunction with a touring show of a selection of Capa war photographs.

In the new work, Whelan attempted again to establish the definitive account of that day in 1936, taking into account all that had been learned in the years since as well as an assortment of newly discovered prints and negatives in the ICP archives. (Despite the discovery of an entire suitcase of lost Capa negatives in Mexico -- the original of the Spanish soldier picture remains missing, not making the debate much easier.)

Whelan wrote that he thought Capa, his girlfriend Gerda Taro, and some Loyalist soldiers had indeed started that day in 1936 “knipsing,” or fooling around, making a series of well known secondary pictures of the troopers running and jumping as if in combat in the fields around the town. Then, the unexpected happened. “Just as Capa was about to press his shutter release,” Whelan wrote, “a hidden enemy machine gun opened fire.” The soldier – identified by Whelan through the man’s family as Federico Borrell Garcia – was killed instantly. A second man, following on, also was shot as Capa made another photograph, this one less motion blurred. The circumstances were less than morally pure, Whelan said, but the famous picture did indeed show a moment of death.

Serrano Esparza remained an unheard obsessive in the meantime, traveling time and again to Cerro Muriano, particularly in September (the month the original photograph was made) to check landscapes and light, talk to local sheepherders and make his own pictures. Most importantly, he was able to find what he thought was a critical piece of information, one which changed the whole tenor of the story and perhaps, rather than disproving the photograph’s authenticity, proved it beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Unlike Whelan and all the others (including what few times Capa told the story himself), Serrano Esparza believes there was no machine gun. In his version of the day, when Capa, Taro, and the soldiers proceed to play on the hill outside town, rather than the rattle of a machine gun there is the single crack of a sniper’s rifle. He says a unit of Moroccans, colonial troops who came from North Africa with Francisco Franco at the war’s start, had been sent to Cerro Muriano, well away from the main battle near Cordoba, to fix this Loyalist unit in place. That would be a logical maneuver to prevent it from joining the general action. He wouldn’t tell me how he discovered this, saying that to reveal his sources would be “like telling the secret recipe of Coca Cola.”

At any rate, that’s where it stood until this July, when the ICP gallery show of This Is War! opened in Spain. With that came articles in Spanish newspapers and then British newspapers (summarized on the Web in the States here and on the BBC Web site here), revealing research by José Manuel Susperregui showing the picture was not taken at Cerro Muriano but Espejo, even farther from the front than previously thought. “Capa photographed his soldier at a location where there was no fighting,” the Spanish paper El Periodico said. It “demonstrates that the death was not real.”

Despite years of hard work, Serrano Esparza was quick to admit error. “I do wish to congratulate Professor José Manuel Susperregui and publicly admit my error,” he wrote on the Web. “I firmly believed that Capa made his famous Falling Soldier picture … in Cerro de La Coja, a little hill on the east outskirts of Cerro Muriano village.” However, “there isn’t any doubt that Professor José Manuel Susperregui is right regarding the location of the picture in Espejo. “ And he even let slip his secret recipe. “There have been very old inhabitants of Cerro Muriano (who were children that September 5th 1936 … ),” he wrote, “who remember very well to have seen the Moroccan Tabor of Regulares soldiers of Sáenz of Buruaga´s column.” However, as always, he holds firm on the critical point: “We don’t agree at all with respect to his statement that the picture is false and The Falling Soldier got up again after Capa made the photograph,” he typed in bold print. In his opinion, the sniper – whether in Cerro Muriano or Espejo – remained.

The ICP’s curator, Cynthia Young (no relation to this author unfortunately – I’d love to use family connections to get inside the Capa collection), was quoted in The Independent as being interested, but unimpressed. “The ICP is open to new interpretations,” she said. "It is an interesting comparison. I see a few hills that could replicate that, but I am not sure. We are anyway still left with an extraordinary photograph."

And on that thought, we come to what is perhaps Knightley’s main point. While it’s not as attention grabbing as fingering the photograph as a fake, he says that it’s just not good journalism. Authentic or not, it’s not really a picture of an event of importance, but rather just an event – dramatic, perhaps curious, but not of an important development or an important battle. As he says: it depends too much on its caption for meaning.

Is this important? Is The Falling Soldier a great picture, or even the Greatest War Photograph ever? As much as I idolize Capa myself, I have to admit Knightley has an argument here. You could say, for example, that Capa’s own pictures of D-Day are as dramatic, as iconographic, and actually show a critical event in a more globally important moment. If journalism is reporting news, then the D-Day pictures are journalism, while The Falling Soldier is … what? Art? Symbolism? Should a news photographer be doing either of those things?

And so why do we care so? For one thing, this is the photograph that made Robert Capa, more even than in the usual figurative sense, because Robert Capa had only just been created by the young Hungarian photographer André Friedmann shortly before. From then on, Friedmann would be gone, to the point, as his Life editor John G. Morris told me, of being called Capa by his friends and even his mother in later years.

And one could argue that, without The Falling Soldier, there are no D-Day pictures. Even Knightley gives Capa that. Once Life had made the picture a sensation, he asks on his Web site, what was Capa to do? “I understand his dilemma,” Knightley says. “Should he have jumped up and down and shouted, ‘No. No. You’ve got it wrong. It’s not real?’ Or just have kept quiet, telling himself that the fuss had nothing to do with him?”

Or perhaps it’s that fascination with capturing the mystical moment between life and death. If real, Capa has seized and frozen the instant a man has left mortality; if fake, he’s made a pompous little melodrama of little importance and less meaning. Aside from all the talk of symbolism and standing in for the Spanish Civil War in particular and war in general, an authentic death photograph like this could hover on the very edge of religion.

Sadly, in the end, an exact answer seems as elusive as the picture’s original negative. Sometimes, like when the Mexican suitcase of Capa’s missing negatives was discovered, we seem tantalizingly close to the final truth, only to have it evaporate in a cloud of fascinating but in the end inconclusive details. It seems sometimes that the picture does indeed exist on the fringe of religion, asking the viewer for faith rather than proof. We all can have our theories – some, like that of José Manuel Serrano Esparza, earned by dint of careful research and years of hard work. But in the end we are perhaps left just to decide whether The Falling Soldier picture is authentic.