Robert Capa's vintage prints on show

Landing of the American troops on Omaha Beach, Normandy, 6 June 1944

To mark what would have been the 100th birthday of photographer Robert Capa, the Atlas gallery in London is holding an exhibition of his work. It comprises a wide range of prints from his time in Spain during the Civil War through World War II, and ending with the Indo China conflict where he lost his life.

Tales of Capa's exploits are the stuff of legends and his autobiography, Slightly Out of Focus, is a must read for anyone interested in the his life, or indeed photojournalism in the 20th Century.

The pictures are drawn from private collections, the Magnum Photo Archive in London and the estate of Robert Capa's work held by the International Centre of photography (ICP) in New York. Many of the images on show are well known, yet some are vintage prints, offering a chance to see an historic document.

The object itself communicates to the viewer, being both a moment from the past and an artefact.

Robert Capa

Robert Capa
  • Born Andrei Friedmann in Budapest in 1913
  • Studied journalism and political science in Berlin as well as working as darkroom assistant at Dephot Agency
  • Left Germany for Paris in 1933 where he shared a darkroom with Henri Cartier-Bresson and Chim (David Seymour) with whom he later set up Magnum Photo Agency
  • 1936-39 photographed Spanish Civil War - Picture Post termed him "the greatest war photographer in the world"
  • During WWII he moved to the US and freelanced for a number of magazines before becoming a war correspondent for Life and Collier's, travelling with the US army, documenting many major battles
  • Following the war he co-founded Magnum, one of the first agencies to insist the photographers retained copyright of their work
  • Killed on 25 May 1954 by a landmine while covering the advance of a French regiment in the Red River Delta in Vietnam during the first Indochina War

Yet Capa's photographs in the conflict zones of the mid-20th Century were taken for the news magazines of the time and not to hang on gallery walls. Is there a danger that the work becomes art as opposed to a document of record?

"I don't think it is art," says gallery owner Ben Burdett. "I think it is documentary photography, historical records of events. There is a sort of artistic approach to the framing and composing of the images but they definitely aren't art. I am sure he would be appalled if they were seen as art.

"Of course you can see something as art if you want. You can interpret it anyway you like, but I don't think he was an artist, he was a photographer - a photojournalist recording events. It is why it is so great, it is pure photography.

"With the exception of some of his celebrity work which is not on show here, there was no time to think about aesthetic issues other than aiming the camera in the right direction and not being shot."

Perhaps it is this pure approach that explains why Capa is still one of the best known photographers from the past century.

His work is not without controversy. The story behind his picture of the death of a loyalist soldier has been widely debated and quite possibly not exactly what it seems.

Yet Capa is not purely about his pictures. Part of his appeal is the whole aura he built around himself and his work.

"There is something about Capa's character and the stories of him as a person that has a fantastic sort of romance to it," says Burdett. "The fact that he came from Hungary as an unknown, raw emigre to western Europe and created a persona for himself, and a career and life story through sheer determination and force of personality. He managed to be present at all of these major events and turning points at the mid-20th Century.

"Of course he died early in the 1950s at the end of what was the most violent period of modern history. Had he lived for a another three or four months he would have probably survived it and become part of that generation of photographers who built careers as exhibiting photographers, not only in the commercial arena but also the museum world.

"His contemporaries like Henri Cartier-Bresson had another 50 years to become reputable names and their work sold in galleries and to develop their market. Capa died young, so all we have are the works up to that point. A very intense period of time."

Trotsky delivers his In Defence of October speech in Denmark in 1932

One of the prints that caught my eye is that of Trotsky delivering his In Defence of October speech in Denmark in 1932, Capa's first published photograph (above). Alongside the print in the gallery stands the Leica II camera Capa used to take the picture. The camera was given to him by Simon Guttmann, owner of the picture agency Dephot that year.

It was sold at auction in WestLicht Auction house in Austria last year along with a number of letters establishing its provenance, showing it had passed from Capa's mother to photographer Lisl Steiner in the 1960s.

To see the enhanced content on this page, you need to have JavaScript enabled and Adobe Flash installed.

But what of the market for this work? Burdett says that recent years have seen a colossal explosion of buyers in the art world, something which "even 20 years ago was a sort of aristocratic hobby".

"Buyers today are more focused and more knowledgeable about the history of different photographer's output and careers. Understanding when a print was made allows them to have an informed view of value in terms of types of prints."

That value varies, of course, from £1,000 or so for a relatively recent print to many times that for a vintage one.

The show can be seen at the Atlas Gallery in London until 6 July 2013.

Air raid in Madrid during Spanish Civil War People look to the skies in Madrid during an air raid in the Spanish Civil War
The liberation of Paris, 1944 Crowds cheers as Paris is liberated on 26 August 1944
People mourn at the funeral of 20 teenagers in Naples, 1943 The funeral of 20 teenagers who were partisans fighting against the German occupying forces who were killed four days before the liberation of Naples

You can also hear from John Morris, picture editor of Life magazine in the 1940s, friend of Capa and the first man to see his pictures from D-Day, in an interview on BBC Radio 4's Today.

Phil Coomes Article written by Phil Coomes Phil Coomes Picture editor

The dangerous beauty of the Himalayas

Photographer Neil White's images from the Himalayas.

Read full article

More on This Story

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.