Magnum: The Founders

25th September 2013

Robert Capa ,  David “Chim” Seymour ,  Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger, William and Rita Vandivert and Maria Eisner, the seven founding members of, the now, world-famous Magnum photo agency, and not as is more commonly thought just Capa, Cartier-Bresson, Rodger and Seymour.

Robert Capa

Robert Capa

Charismatic, flamboyant, extrovert, womaniser, drinker, gambler.  Robert Capa became known as the world’s greatest war photographer and died whilst covering the French war in Indo-China (Vietnam) in 1954 at the age of 40.

He made his first mark with an image of Leon Trotsky when he was in Copenhagen to give a speech and Dr Spiegel used the images from that shoot to produce a full-page spread accredited to Friedman – Degepht, his real, Hungarian surname and the agency he worked for.  He’d scooped his rivals apparently by using an innocuous, small, Leica, and sneaking in, whilst they with their large plate cameras were barred, tactics he would use time and again.

Moving to Paris in 1933 to escape Nazi anti-Semitism, he changed his name to Robert Capa in an effort to make his work more valuable by making an editor think he was a more successful American photographer.  It was here he met and became lifelong friends with David “Chim” Seymour and Henri Cartier-Bresson and was befriended by Maria Eisner who founded and ran the agency they all used, Alliance.

All three covered the Spanish Civil War from different angles and Capa’s charismatic charm helped get him to front-line action that he would otherwise not have reached.  He sent back images of war the like of which had never been seen before so close was he to the action; he was later said to use the quote, ‘If your images aren’t any good, you’re not close enough’.  It was during this period that he captured one of his earliest, iconic images, that of the dying militiaman with his arms outflung.  He also made very compassionate images of the civilians who were caught up in the horror and brought home their plight as they starved and were made homeless.

After the Spanish Civil War Capa moved to America where he obtained a contract with Life and very quickly ran foul of the US Immigration Service, but with his trade-mark elan he had become a favourite amongst the well-to-do and influential and  a girlfriend at the time, Toni Sorel, became a ‘wife of convenience’ so he could obtain an American passport.

When war erupted in Europe, Capa chafed at the fact Life wouldn’t send him to cover the action and it wasn’t until 1941 that he finally made in theatre.  It was during this period that he made friends with Bill and Rita Vandivert and expounded his ideas for what was to become Magnum.  He carried on with his war work in what some would describe as a ‘gung-ho’ fashion, taking more risks than most photographers and getting closer to the action, he even parachuted into the action with the American 82nd Airbourne.  It was on Sicily that he finally met up with George Rodger, who went on to cover the relief of Bergen-Belsen, and made another lifelong friend.

It was probably due to his zeal to ‘get the image’ that finally cost him his life.  Moving with a French column to provide relief to an outpost, they came under constant ambush and heavy fire.  Frustrated at the length of time it was taking to get to their final destination, Capa moved forward, on his own, to photograph the movement of a forward platoon and make images of his correspondent colleagues as their transport was to move by.  Unfortunately his luck ran out and he stepped on an anti-personnel landmine, virtually lost one leg and had a massive wound to the chest, he died before he could be got back to the hospital five miles away.

Capa was said to never have taken any images which he considered too gross and in bad taste and whilst he was best known for his action images his work at the back of the line was extraordinary too.  His compassion for the civilian refugees, the wounded and the destruction caused by war show clearly he was very moved and his images portray his feelings well.  His constant shortage of money due to his gambling, drinking, womanising and profligacy when in funds also made it such that ‘needs must when the devil drives.  This was certainly true when he took this last assignment as previous to this he’d said he didn’t want to cover any more wars, but his friends new that he was heavily inndebt and this assignment would be his resume, it could be that he was trying just a little too hard to get more valuable pictures.


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