Sunday September 23, 2012
Photographs that ‘talk’
Review by MARTIN SPICE
A love story of fire and intensity, this has all the right ingredients for the makings of a blockbuster.
Waiting For Robert Capa
Author: Susana Fortes
Publisher: Harper Press, 201 pages
THE story of Robert Capa and Gerda Taro is such a powerful and appealing one that it seems almost incredible that this novel is the first to be based upon it and that the shortly ensuing film will also be a first.
Even if the names initially mean little to you, their work is recognisable if you look at any collection of famous war photographs. In particular, Capa’s The Falling Soldier will seem familiar, that awful but breathtaking shot of a soldier falling backwards at the moment of a bullet’s impact, caught and immortalised in his moment of death in the Spanish Civil War. It is a photograph that exemplifies Capa’s assertion that “if your pictures are not good enough, you are not close enough”, a claim that has driven great war photographers to get closer to the action ever since. In confirmation, Don McCullin’s Leica has a hole in it where it took a bullet whilst hanging around his neck.
The Spanish Civil War attracted a host of writers, most famously, of course, Hemingway and George Orwell, and in Picasso’s Guernica produced one of the undisputed masterpieces of the 20th century. It has been referred to as the last Romantic war, a war fought for a cause that was dear to the hearts of the international young and committed as they flocked to fight the advance of Franco’s fascist troops. Amongst those who gathered in Paris in flight from the rise of Nazism were two Jewish refugees, Andre Friedmann and Gerda Pohorylle. Unable to sell their photographs for the money they wanted to make, at Gerda’s suggestion, they invented the name and character Robert Capa, a famous American photographer whose agents they claimed to be and who would be insulted to accept standard rates. The ruse worked – Friedmann and Pohorylle’s work on Leica and Rolleiflex respectively, sold to a number of French newspapers and magazines of a leftist persuasion.
But, more important than the business partnership, Waiting for Robert Capa is a love story of fire and intensity. It has all the right romantic ingredients – an exiled beginning in Paris, a circle of artists and writers, dangerous but exhilarating excursions into the war zones, a shared passion for photography and moral rectitude in the fight against fascism. If ever a novelist were gifted with the raw material for a blockbuster, this must be it. Susana Fortes resists the temptation to go overboard. Waiting for Robert Capa is almost restrained in its delivery of the tale of the war, and the relationship that shifts and changes throughout it. That is not to say that there are not moments of great feeling and intensity – there are – but they are carefully controlled. And there are moments when a stronger tug on the readers’ heartstrings might be in order.
The trigger for the book, Fortes suggests in an Author’s Note, was news of the 2008 discovery in Mexico of three boxes filled with 127 rolls of film and unedited photos of the Spanish Civil War; some 4,500 negatives, a treasure trove currently being studied at the International Center of Photography in New York. They cannot but move the reputation of Gerda Taro higher; for too many years, she was seen simply as an adjunct to Capa rather than as the pioneering and brave individual spirit that she really was. Whilst Capa went on to become an established name in photography and founder of the famous Magnum agency, Gerda was not so lucky, dying at 27 when the running board of a car transporting casualties, and on which she was travelling, was sideswiped by a tank.
Given the strength of its source material, it will be no surprise that Waiting For Robert Capa comes as a strongly recommended read. As a story of the Spanish Civil War, as a human love story in the face of adversity, as an account of two artists struggling to express and report on what they see, it is an enjoyable and serious book. My reservations are familiar ones with this kind of material. The closeness of the book to its sources frequently places it in the realms of “faction” – a blend of fact and fiction that seems an increasingly popular trend in modern novels but inevitably leaves the reader wondering which is which. And second, is my uncertainty over whether it is the original or the translation which is responsible for some infelicities of sentence structure, punctuation and expression.
That said, the book has some deeply poignant moments, not least the episode in which Capa reflects on the photographing of The Falling Soldier and wonders whether he himself is partly responsible for the death he has recorded. As Forbes, writes, “All photographers hate those images that follow them like phantoms for the rest of their lives...” For Capa, this was not only that of The Falling Soldier but those he had taken of the love of his life, Gerda, after whose death his own life, he said, “came to a kind of end”.