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Phil Coomes | 10:21 UK time, Tuesday, 21 July 2009

The falling soldier by Robert Capa

So it's a fake. Or at least that's the claim by Spanish newspaper El Periodico and followed up in The Independent amongst others.

Robert Capa's picture (above) is known as the falling soldier and is allegedly of a man's last moments during the Spanish Civil War in September 1936. It's a picture that has confounded critics and historians for many years.

Some argue it's a set up, and others, including Capa's biographer Richard Whelan, state that while the soldiers were posing for the camera a sniper managed to shoot this man, Federico Borrell García.

Whelan set out his argument in 2002 and concludes "There can be no further doubt that The Falling Soldier is a photograph of Federico Borrell García at the moment of his death during the battle at Cerro Muriano on September 5, 1936."

The latest claims however indicate that the pictures were taken 30miles (50km) away from any fighting, and seem to be worthy of further examination. The Spanish newspaper El Periodico has examined two other frames that help identify the location of the pictures and have found there was no fighting at this time in that area. Assuming this is accurate; it would indicate that the picture does not show the death of a soldier.

Does this matter now that the picture is more than 70 years old and no longer a news picture, but a work of art? Yes, of course it does. If it just shows a few men fooling around then it makes the world of difference. But does that ruin Capa's reputation? Most defiantly not.

The picture was initially published in the French magazine, Vu in September 1936 under the headline, How they fell, and later in the July 1937 issue of Life magazine.

Remember this photograph wasn't wired from the heat of battle. Capa's films would have been packaged with captions, shipped off, developed and published, probably before he'd seen a frame.

Omaha beach by Robert CapaFor me at least, this was never Capa's defining picture. If it's real, then it's a great news picture, but to me it has always looked like a man falling over. Unlike so many other pictures he took where you can feel the emotions dripping off the print, this one is remote.

His dictum that you need to get close to get a good picture rings true today. Not just physically, but emotionally too. Everyone has seen his pictures form Omaha beach on D-Day, the one reproduced here being arguably the defining image of the Second World War, but there are many more in the Magnum archive.

He was undeniably a brave photographer, and one that enjoyed the thrill of getting the picture. It should also be remembered that his untimely death in 1954 meant he was never able to address any concerns about the validity of the picture as it wasn't questioned until 1975.

One final thought, and that is that perhaps the falling soldier's legacy is to remind us pictures are not real, indeed all are fabrications to some extent. Yes, they are vital in that they provide a record of historical and personal moments, but they don't tell the whole story, the real story, just fragments of it.


PS. You can also view an audio slideshow I created with my colleague Caroline Briggs in which Cynthia Young, the curator of Capa's pictures at the International Center of Photography in New York, talks about Capa's pictures when they were on show at the Barbican in London in October 2008.

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