The complicated history of the world's most famous war photograph.
- By Amanda VaillAmanda Vaill is the author of Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War.
In August 1936, two young photographers with sexy, made-up names got themselves an assignment to go to Spain to take pictures of that country’s civil war — a conflict that had erupted the previous month when right-wing generals, disgusted at the policies of the recently elected socialist government, rebelled and called on the rest of the population to join them. When Hitler and Mussolini recognized the rebels, sending men and materiel to support them, and when Stalin offered help to the Spanish government, the civil war became about more than Spain and its politics: it became a struggle between fascism and democracy (if you were on the government’s side) or between capitalist order and communism (if you were on the rebels’).
The two photographers, formerly André Friedmann and Gerta Pohorylle, who now called themselves Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, were definitely on the government’s side. Both were Jewish and had been briefly imprisoned for political activity in their native countries, Capa in Miklos Horthy’s Hungary, Taro in Hitler’s Germany; anti-fascism was a creed to them. And it sharpened their desire to be in on what was shaping up to be the journalistic story of the decade.
That story was uniquely exciting for photographers because for the first time they could carry cameras (the lightweight, fast-action 35 millimeter Leica II was only released in 1930) onto the battlefield and chronicle the action as it was happening. Coincidentally, and suddenly, there were also a host of photo-news magazines, such as Vu and Life, to publish the results. Capa and Taro, full of youthful zeal (he was 22, she just barely 26), could be forgiven for thinking they just had to show up to get pictures.
It turned out not to be that easy. The government placed most active fronts off limits, and the young pair, like almost every other photographer in the just-invented genre of combat journalism, found themselves resorting to staged images: soldiers running across a field (with no enemy in sight) or loading an artillery piece (with no one to shoot it at). At the one battle they were witness to, they were cordoned off behind the lines and could only shoot photos of fleeing civilians. And then, one morning in the hills southeast of Córdoba, their luck changed — or did it?
The photograph Robert Capa took there, later titled (by editors) “Falling Soldier,” became one of the most famous images in the world. It first became famous for the way it seems to capture, with terrifying immediacy, the moment when a bullet fatally strikes a Loyalist militiaman; later, it became famous for allegations that the photograph was “faked,” or at least (though this was common practice at the time) staged.
Similar allegations still dog even today’s most-praised combat photographers, such as the Associated Press’s Narcisco Contreras, or the Swedish freelancer Paul Hansen, both of whom have admitted to digitally altering or editing photographs from the Syrian civil war and Gaza, respectively, to enhance the reality they hoped to capture. Capa himself never made such an admission, at least not publicly, and maintained — in the extremely rare instances when he commented on it — that the picture was taken in the heat of battle. Why that might be so, and what really happened when “Falling Soldier” was taken, are questions I explore in the excerpt from Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War that follows. I don’t attempt to answer those questions definitively; I don’t think anybody can, not now. But as Capa himself said in a 1947 radio interview, in his sometimes slapdash English, “The prize picture is born in the imagination of the editors and the public who sees them.”
September 1936: Córdoba Front
In the first days of September, Robert Capa and Gerda Taro worked their way south from Toledo across the tawny plain of La Mancha, passing white stucco windmills Don Quixote might have battled against, toward the mountains of the Sierra Morena. Sometimes they stopped to stretch their legs and refill their canteens, and Capa snapped pictures of Gerda, in her worker’s coveralls, bending over a mountain stream and grinning flirtatiously back at him, or curled up like a sleepy child with her head resting on a stone boundary marker engraved with the letters P.C. — which meant partido communal, but which could just as easily stand for “Partido Comunista.” On the Sierra’s northern slopes, in the village of Almadén, they paused to photograph a mercury mine that had once been the property of the Rothschild banking family but had been — like so much else since the beginning of the war — taken over by a workers’ committee. Because mercury was an important element for munitions production the mine was good material for reportage; and the brutalist machinery and heroic laborers, the lead amphorae packed with mercury standing like so many soldiers in regimented lines, provided striking, resonant images for their cameras. But it still wasn’t enough, wasn’t combat. So they headed over the mountains, to Andalusia.
There, shortly after sunrise on the morning of Saturday, September 5, Nationalist Breguet bombers began attacking government troops encamped in the hills near the copper-mining village of Cerro Muriano, just north of Córdoba. By midmorning the rebel forces, which had launched their attack from Córdoba, had brought in artillery and were shelling both the village and the Loyalist encampment. By midafternoon, when the Nationalist infantry arrived with their machine guns, the place was in pandemonium. Men, women, and children were fleeing the village on foot, on horseback or on mules, in cars or trucks; the women sobbing, cradling their infants or leading mules or cattle; the men clutching forlorn bundles of clothing or household objects or valises. Nor were they the only fugitives: Behind them came scores of the Loyalist milicianos — terrified volunteers whose previous experience of firearms probably involved no more than shooting small birds on their farms. Now, crying out that rifles were no use against shells and bombs, they fled on foot or in commandeered automobiles, in some cases threatening to use their weapons on anyone who got in their way. Others, however, remained at their posts, and they and the few regular infantrymen managed to hold position until evening. At that point the rebels — planes, artillery, infantrymen — retired to Córdoba for the night; but they would return the next day to finish what they started and send the remnants of the government detachment back to its base camp at Montoro, twenty-seven miles to the east.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. After spending a month vainly firing at the rebel garrison in Córdoba along a line just east of the city, the Loyalist general, José Miaja, had planned a bold flanking maneuver in which a detachment from his Third Brigade would go to Cerro Muriano and stage a surprise attack, planned for September 5, on the rebels from the north. Miaja must have been very sure of success, because a handful of journalists — the photographers Hans Namuth and Georg Reisner, the Austrian writer Franz Borkenau, Clemente Cimorra from the Madrid daily La Voz, and Robert Capa and Gerda Taro — had been permitted to witness the action. In the event, what they saw was a table-turning rout.
The journalists were billeted in a 1920s country estate called La M
alagueña, on a hill of the same name just south of the village; and Capa and Taro probably didn’t get there until early afternoon, when the two- hour lunch break that combatants on both sides customarily observed would have given them the all-clear. By that time the refugees from the village were in full flight, and Capa, who always remembered that behind his images were actual people with actual emotions, trained his camera on the straggling families on the road — on the barefooted children in their cotton dresses and shorts, and their exhausted, terrified parents. This is what war does. In the late afternoon, the fighting started up again in earnest; but it seems as if the only photographs he and Gerda were able to make of the combat were of government soldiers carrying machine guns on their shoulders, or unspooling telephone wire to hook up field communications devices — all taken behind the lines, on the wooded slopes around La Malagueña.
That was more than Namuth and Reisner were able to get, despite being in the thick of fighting with Borkenau in Cerro Muriano itself, where the journalists had to hide in a railroad tunnel from bombs and insurgent machine-gun fire. But Taro and Capa were still hungry for action, and seemingly exhilarated by what they’d tasted so far. “They were like young eagles,” their friend Chim said of them later, “soaring in this new brilliant clean air of Spain.” Coming upon them at La Malagueña that afternoon, Clemente Cimorra — a dashing playwright-journalist in his mid-thirties with a flair for the dramatic — was enchanted as much by this eagerness, the “naïve courage” of this couple in love, as by their youth. Just kids, he thought when he saw them, armed with their cameras and nothing else, running out fearlessly to look at a spiraling enemy plane, and when he heard their excited talk about how they wanted to capture on film what was happening in Spain, no matter the danger to them. Brave, generous kids who are searching for the truth, he wrote, in a dispatch he filed with his paper the next day.
Before Capa and Taro left the Córdoba front they also stopped at a Loyalist camp — possibly the Third Brigade headquarters in Montoro, east of Córdoba: There Capa photographed an officer in grimy coveralls standing on a barrel to talk to his men while Gerda stood to one side, listening; then he walked around the little group to catch their upturned faces: one bored, one inspired, one downhearted, one frowning in concentration. And either at this camp, or another, during the siesta hour, he wandered among the sleeping milicianos, sprawled on the bare ground like bodies on the field of battle, one of them cuddling one of the dogs the troops kept as mascots: In sleep even the older men looked innocent and defenseless, and all seemed to prefigure the grim destiny that awaited so many of them. But as poignant as these images were, they didn’t have the drama Capa was looking for — the drama he’d been unable to capture at Cerro Muriano.
So one morning he and Gerda drove thirty miles southwest of Montoro, across the Guadalquivir and through rolling hills covered by wheat fields, bare now after the harvest, until they reached the camp of a small detachment of CNT militia just outside the farming village of Espejo. The journey wasn’t without danger: Just a few days earlier another journalist, Renée Lafont, had been fatally shot in an insurgent ambush nearby; but they reached their destination without incident. It was still early when they got there, and the sun made long, sharp shadows on the dry ground. The milicianos, men from the Murcian village of Alcoy, were happy to pose for the two young photographers, the dark, tousle-haired boy with the ready laugh and the pretty blond girl: They ran up one of the bare hills in a combat crouch, with their officer beckoning them on; knelt on the grass to aim their rifles at a distant target on the next hill; stood at the edge of a dusty trench and brandished their guns in a show of macho bravado. Then Taro and Capa squatted in the trench as the soldiers ran down the hill toward it and leaped across before taking up firing positions on its farther lip: The photographers closed in on them with both the Rolleiflex and the Leica as the men fired their guns into the empty air. The brightness of the sun, still low in the sky, lit the soldiers like a klieg light and threw every detail, from lumps of soil to the stitching on the men’s caps, into crisp relief.
Finally — it seems it must have been finally, given what happened next — either Capa or Taro asked if some of the milicianos would simulate being hit by gunfire. One, a dark mustached man in a khaki mono or boiler suit, ran down the hill toward Capa; then, pretending he’d been shot, he threw himself on the ground, hanging on to his rifle and breaking his fall with his left hand before coming to rest on his back, his gun across his body. Two others simulated corpses, lying on their sides in the stubble. Perhaps Capa wasn’t sure he’d got what he wanted, though; or maybe one of the other men wanted a turn in the limelight. However it was, another soldier, with a lean, creased face and heavy black brows, his shirt white under the straps of his leather cartridge boxes, came down the sunlit slope, his rifle in his right hand, the rope soles of his shoes crunching in the dry grass. And then — what? Was there a report, the sharp crack of rifle fire? Because suddenly the man’s legs went slack, his hands limp; with his rifle flying away from his loosened fingers, he too dropped to the ground, just where his comrades had been moments previously. And in the seconds before the soldier fell Capa squeezed the shutter of his Leica and took what would become one of the most famous photographs in the world.
What really happened on that hillside? Capa himself maintained almost total silence about it; although a year later a friend, acting as his interpreter for an interview with a New York newspaper, would give a highly colored account that places Capa and the white-shirted soldier alone on a hilltop, hiding in a trench from enemy gunfire until the miliciano attempts to break away to rejoin his detachment and is felled by the blast of a machine gun. A thrilling story — but one belied by the presence of Gerda, and of the other soldiers, by the other militiamen lying on the grass, by the difficulty of machine-gun bullets pinpointing a single target more than a hundred yards away across the mown fields. Ten years later, in a radio interview, Capa embroidered the Telegram story slightly: There had been twenty milicianos in the trench with him, he said, facing machine-gun fire from a neighboring hill; one by one the soldiers had surged out of the trench, only to be felled by enemy bullets, and Capa had got the last lucky shot by holding the camera above his head, never actually seeing the image in the frame. This narrative, too, is hard to square with the details of the actual photographs he took.
Sometime in the 1940s, however, Capa would privately tell another friend, a fellow photographer from Stuttgart, Gerda’s hometown, that he and Gerda and the soldiers had all been actors in a tragedy of coincidence. They’d been fooling around, he said, running, firing their weapons, acting crazy, laughing — this is how we’ll shoot those fascist bastards — and he’d been taking pictures; he didn’t hear any shots, “not at first.” But as the soldiers played at combat for the benefit of his camera, a real bullet, fired perhaps from a fascist sniper’s high-powered hunting rifle, or by one of the rebel Guardia Civil active in those hills, had pierced a real man’s heart.
Confiding this story all those years later, Capa — his friend would say — seemed stricken: “dejected and defensive, like a beaten puppy.” No wonder. I do not wish to hurt, a woman he knew recalled him saying; even at twenty-two, he was tender and compassionate, and he had never seen death, especially no
t a death of his own making. Although he might have been an indifferent bar mitzvah student, never bothering to remember all the stories and rituals his family’s rabbi had tried to teach him at thirteen, he’d surely learned that when he became a man he took on responsibility for all his sins — and this would have been a heavy one.
But what if the man in the photograph simply got up from the ground after the shutter clicked, dusted himself off, and went on his way, alive and well? Questioned about this possibility six decades after the fact, a homicide detective and forensics expert was dismissive: The slackened limbs and fingers looked like death to him, not mimicry. The other men lying on the ground might have been playacting; but this, the detective maintained, was the real thing.
Whether it was or not, however, a conundrum remained: Capa had come to Spain to capture the truth — to take the truest, best pictures, pictures that would show how the Spanish people were fighting for their ideals, pictures he would pursue without regard for personal risk. If the photographs from Espejo were staged, even though one of them might have been transformed by dreadful irony into reality, then the only one who had been at risk when they were taken was the man who had stopped a bullet. After Espejo neither Capa nor Taro let that happen again.
Shortly after the two photographers left Espejo they gave their rolls of film to a pilot who carried them from a nearby airfield and thence by stages to Paris, where they were developed and the strips of images cut up for easier submission to newspaper and magazine editors. On September 23 Vu ran a spread of six of Capa’s photos from the Córdoba front — along with one of Georg Reisner’s — and gave pride of place to the picture of the white-shirted miliciano. The caption had the cadence of an epic: “With lively step, their breasts to the wind, their rifles in their fists, they ran down the slope … Suddenly … a bullet whistled — a fratricidal bullet — and their native soil drank their blood.” Other magazines, in other countries, would publish other photographs from the sequence; and in July 1937, Life magazine would transform the image of the “Falling Soldier” into a symbol of the Spanish conflict by making it a visual epigraph to its editorial summary of the war. As Capa himself would describe it in his radio interview, “the prize picture is born in the imagination of the editors and the public.”
In that sense, then, the picture more than fulfilled the intentions its photographer had had when he went to Spain: It had become a symbol, even the symbol, of Loyalist sacrifice. For now, though, it was just one frame on a strip of film Capa had sent off to Paris without seeing the results; and he and Gerda were on the road to Toledo.
Excerpted from Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War by Amanda Vaill, published in April 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2014 by Amanda Vaill. All rights reserved.