The Falling Soldier
THE FALLING SOLDIER is an image taken by Robert Capa in 1936 and is one of the most famous war photographs of all time. The image propelled Capa into being proclaimed in 1938 at the age of 25 as “the greatest war photographer in the world” in the British magazine “Picture Post”. The image that set Capa apart was taken during the Spanish Civil War and shows the moment a bullet impacted a loyalist soldier.
Capa himself stated that “I was there in the trench with about twenty milicianos … I just kind of put my camera above my head and didn’t look and clicked the picture, when they moved over the trench. And that was all. … that camera which I hold above my head just caught a man at the moment when he was shot. That was probably the best picture I ever took. I never saw the picture in the frame because the camera was far above my head.”
The image, known as Death of a Loyalist militiaman or simply The Falling Soldier, has become almost universally recognized as one of the greatest war photographs ever made. The photograph has also generated a great deal of controversy.
It has been alleged that Capa staged the scene, although it has never been proved. One of the reasons some detractors have said they thought it “might” have been staged is that staging photos was a common occurrence during the Spanish Civil War because of limits imposed upon photojournalists’ freedom of movement: unable to go to active fronts, or cordoned off when they were, photographers resorted to pictures of soldiers feigning combat.
Capa claimed the photograph was taken at the battle site of Cerro Muriano, but research suggests it was taken near the town of Espejo, about 30 miles away. In addition, some claim that the soldier named in the image, Frederico Borrell García is not actually the man in the image. Frederico Borrell García is said to have been killed at Cerro Muriano and was shot while sheltered behind a tree. In addition to a lack of clarity of the location of the photograph, some suggest that Frederico Borrell García did not greatly resemble the subject of the photograph. It doesn’t help that Capa changed his story on some occasions on how the picture was taken, his vantage point and whether it was a sniper or machine gun bullet that struck the man in the image.
However, Spanish newspapers, including a newspaper from Barcelona later sent reporters to Espejo to verify the location of the photograph. The reporters returned with photographs showing a close match between the present day skyline and the background of Capa’s photographs.
Robert Capa, actually born Endre Friedmann, practically invented the persona of the globe-trotting war photographer, with a cigarette appended to the corner of his mouth and cameras slung over his fatigues. 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. He also more or less invented himself. He and female photographer Gerda Taro, whom he met in Paris, cooked up the persona of Robert Capa — they billed him as “a famous American photographer” — to help them get assignments. He then proceeded to embody the fiction and make it true.
He went on from covering the war in Spain to covering the Chinese resistance to Japan and on to the front lines of many World War II battlefields. He was in the second wave of the landing on Omaha Beach as a photojournalist for Life magazine where of the 106 images he took, only 11 survived after an accident in the film lab back in London. Still, he managed to bring back several images from the battlefronts that kept his name visible in the photography world. Namely, his Omaha Beach images known as “The Magnificent Eleven”, The Sperlinga image of a Sicilian girl pointing out to the Allies where the German soldiers had fled and his image of Raymond Bowman known as “the picture of the last man to die” who was killed by a sniper bullet while reloading his machine gun in the defense of a bridge in Liepzig.
After the war, in 1947 Capa founded a cooperative venture called Magnum Photos in Paris with Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Vandivert, David Seymour and George Rodgers. It was designed to manage work for and by freelance photographers and developed a reputation for the excellence of its photo-journalists. It was based on an idea of Capa’s and Seymour, Cartier-Bresson and Rodger were all absent from the meeting at which it was founded. (In response to a letter telling him that he was a member, Rodger wrote that Magnum seemed a good idea but, “It all sounded too halcyon to be true,” when Capa had told him of it and, “I rather dismissed the whole thing from my mind”.) Rita Vandivert was the first President, and head of the New York office; Maria Eisner the head of the Paris office. The plan was for Rodger to cover Africa and the Middle East; Cartier-Bresson to cover south and east Asia; Seymour and William Vandivert to cover Europe and the United States, respectively; and Capa to be free to follow his curiosity and events.
One more thing to add in to the mystery surrounding one of his most famous images is the discovery of “The Mexican Suitcase” that contained three cardboard boxes of negatives shot by Capa during that period of the Spanish Civil War.
However, the negative of Capa’s Falling Soldier was not a part of the collection. Despite the lack of the negative, hundreds of his other images have toured major art galleries and showed pictures taken at the same location and at the same time. A detailed analysis of the landscape in the series of pictures taken with that of the Falling Soldier has proven that the action, whether genuine or staged, took place near Espejo.
The suitcase — actually three flimsy cardboard valises — contained thousands of negatives of pictures that Robert Capa took during the Spanish Civil War before he fled Europe for America in 1939, leaving behind the contents of his Paris darkroom.
Capa assumed that the work had been lost during the Nazi invasion. But in 1995 word began to spread that the negatives had somehow survived, after taking a journey worthy of a John le Carré novel: Paris to Marseille and then, in the hands of a Mexican general and diplomat who had served under Pancho Villa, to Mexico City.
The discovery sent shock waves through the photography world, because it was 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. A negative of the shot has never been found and the discovery of one, especially in the original sequence showing all the images taken before and after the shot, could end the debate.
For an excellent video on The Mexican Suitcase, check out Ted Forbe’s of The Art of Photography video which is an excellent treatise on Capa’s long lost negatives.
In the early 1950s, Capa traveled to Japan for an exhibition associated with Magnum Photos. While there, Life magazine asked him to go on assignment to Southeast Asia, where the French had been fighting for eight years in the First Indochina War.
Although a few years earlier he had said he was finished with war, Capa accepted and accompanied a French regiment with two Time-Life journalists, John Mecklin and Jim Lucas. On May 25, 1954 at 2:55 p.m., the regiment was passing through a dangerous area under fire when Capa decided to leave his Jeep and go up the road to photograph the advance. About five minutes later, Mecklin and Lucas heard an explosion; Capa had stepped on a landmine When they arrived on the scene, he was alive but his left leg had been blown to pieces, and he had a serious wound in his chest. Mecklin called for a medic and Capa was taken to a small field hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.
So, what to make of it all? I can see Capa misstating the location as he was moving from front line to front line in a country he did not know well. Both Espejo and Cerro Muriano are close in proximity to one another so he could well have gotten where he shot it wrong given he wouldn’t have even seen his images till later.
As for his changing story on the image you can imagine that after taking thousands of images at dozens of locations, recalling the exact details of a particular shot could easily get confused or combined with other experiences.
As to why the negative of the image that made him famous was not in the collection of other images shot at that time – I can imagine he may have pulled it out for safekeeping since it was the primary shot that was his claim to fame. I know my “selects” get a different treatment than my other images and I can’t see why he wouldn’t do the same.
Now, where that negative is – is still a mystery.