War and Street - what can Robert Capa teach us?

Flicking through my Twitter feed, surrounded by toast, marmalade and coffee, and very much in a Sunday vibe, I came across a Magnum post inviting me to enjoy some of their archive. This is all part of the esteemed photo agency’s seventieth anniversary shindigs. It doesn’t take long to lose yourself in the various photo-articles: Dennis Stock’s beautiful jazz images; the genius that was Sergio Larrain and his published work from Valparaiso; anything of Elliott Erwitt’s.

The photographer's eye writes the story.   Guildford July 2017

The photographer's eye writes the story. 
Guildford July 2017

The article that particularly resonated this morning was about Robert Capa and his famous images from the first wave of the D-Day landings on Omaha Beach in June 1944. You can read it here: www.magnumphotos.com/newsroom/conflict/robert-capa-d-day-omaha-beach/

The story is well known. Hero photographer wades ashore with the US marines, scared out of his wits and shooting a series of iconic images with shaky hands as the bullets from German machine-gun posts ripped the bodies and water around him. After some time on the sand helping to save lives and pull men from the water to the waiting ships, he too joins them and heads back to England. Once there, his precious prints are largely destroyed by the impatience and excitement of a young technician charged with developing the first pictures from the invasion for a story-hungry press. One can only imagine how he met have felt, risking everything to only see a precious few end up in print.


Capa famously said that if your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough. No can argue that he didn’t get close. It was a landmine in Vietnam that took his life some ten years on from D-Day. The Magnum website article said: "Capa’s photography is all about being there, close. His art lay in risking where to be and when, in how he built and conducted the relationships that enabled him to be there, and in how he shaped and presented the narrative of events he witnessed.”


Now, I can’t claim to take anything like the risks that Robert Capa (or indeed any war correspondent or photographer) routinely took. But there is a good deal of the street photographer in that quote. 


Working with a focal length of about 35mm, your camera has to get close. As Bruce Golden said: "If you can smell the street by looking at the photo, it's a street photograph.” You have to be close to smell it. And that is risky. Okay, you’re unlikely to take a bullet and less likely to step on a landmine - but you may well upset one or two as you go about your business. I’m sure we can all think of times when we  have been confronted, challenged, rumbled and maybe even abused. I know I can. Equally, I can think of the shots that were perfect in my head but I put the camera away at the last moment because, well, I bottled it.


Yet, I keep going back. There is something in that risk. In that proximity. Something which sees me calculating where to be and when, making relationships in my mind’s eye. Something in the story that pulls me back, attempting to "shape and present the narrative of events."


You can find the Classic Magnum page here:www.magnumphotos.com/theme/classic-magnum/