Robert Capa and a Perspective on Ethics

A few 4X5 'roids left. Monument Valley, Utah, July 23, 2009. © Kevin Moloney, 2009

A few 4X5 'roids left. Monument Valley, Utah, July 23, 2009. © Kevin Moloney, 2009

Every decade for the past half century the debate over the veracity of Capa’s Falling Soldier image from the Spanish Civil War rages anew. It is all over the photojournalism blogosphere and the media this last week. I am a bit disappointed with the 21st-century demonizing of him for what may probably be a setup.

A decade ago I was eager to believe an elderly Spanish woman who claimed the subject was her dead brother, and the background of the image was where he was reported killed in action. It seemed to set the debate to rest and gratified my respect for Capa.

Of course she might have been mistaken, and new research makes a compelling case that she was wrong.

But regardless whether the image is real or not, we need to remember to judge the photo and the photographer in context.

In 1936 photojournalism and its ethics were in their infancy. Capa would not have had the training of modern journalism professors and an extra 70 years of photojournalism ethics on which to hang his work. It is quite believable that he may have set up the photo, among others. Ethics is an evolution and always starts out a bit feral before civilization is reached.

As late as the 1950s the vast majority of news photos, in the average paper, were completely set up. Fortunately for us and for history we have forgotten most of that work. And even in the early 21st century, many TV news images are set up, along with much suspect work on the Internet.

I have no doubt that as Capa matured, his work progressed and his ethics developed, his work stayed quite honest. A photojournalist’s eye on his work could tell immediately that the vast majority of the moments are spontaneous.

So we can’t and shouldn’t demonize him any more than we would W. Eugene Smith who unquestionably fused two negatives into one on a famous image of Albert Schwietzer, and used the edge of a negative in another from his Spanish Village story as if it were part of the real-world content. In that same story, using retouching brushes, he chose to change the direction of the gaze of a mourner. In his early Country Doctor story he unquestionably set up the lede photo of the doctor walking through a gate, and the closing image of the tired physician slumped with a cup of coffee after a long day.

In his powerful and mind-changing Minamata work, the most famous image is also set up. Smith chose the time of day to ask Tomoko Uyemura’s mother to bathe her so he could catch the light that so effectively evokes Michelangelo’s Pietà.

By standards of the late 20th century these are grave ethical breaches. Making even more subtle changes now get newspaper photographers fired and some magazine freelancers blacklisted from their clients. But at the time Smith was working these were not uncommon techniques.

We all revere Smith’s ability to tell a story, his amazing eye for form, contrast and content, and the wonderful stories he brought us.

And before we crucify Smith along with Capa, let’s remember this: Judge the photographer in context of time. Were they working today they would hopefully not behave this way. Would they, their colleagues and editors would have justifiable grounds to end their careers. They would have no excuses now. Our ethics have surpassed all this.

We also need to be careful not to throw stones. Seventy years from now our very own techniques may be under fire as falsehoods — excessive dodges and burns, exaggerated saturation and contrast, questionable use of light and flash…

Capa, Smith, and the often-mentioned-this-week Robert Doisneau, were imperfect men of their time, who despite their mistakes contributed hugely to our art, communication perspective and ethics. Collectively they created as many falsehoods among their work as the average daily photojournalist publishes in less than a week. And collectively they created as many honest, powerful and world-changing images in their careers as any Pulitzer-winning staff could hope to in a lifetime.

I judge Capa, Smith and their contemporaries based on their era. I will judge my students and colleagues based on this era.

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