Debunking the Myths of Robert Capa on D-Day

I want to give you a brief overview of an investigation that began almost five years ago, led by me but involving the efforts of photojournalist J. Ross Baughman, photo historian Rob McElroy, and ex-infantryman and amateur military historian Charles Herrick.

Our project, in a nutshell, dismantles the 74-year-old myth of Robert Capa’s actions on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and the subsequent fate of his negatives. If you have even a passing familiarity with the history of photojournalism, or simply an awareness of twentieth-century cultural history on both sides of the Atlantic, you’ve surely heard the story; it’s been repeated hundreds, possibly thousands of times:

Robert Capa landed on Omaha Beach with the first wave of assault troops at 0630 on the morning of June 6, 1944 (D-Day), on freelance assignment from LIFE magazine.

He stayed there for 90 minutes, until he either inexplicably ran out of film or his camera jammed.

During that time he made somewhere between 72 and 144 35mm b&w exposures of the Allied invasion of Normandy on Kodak Super-XX film.

Upon landing back in England the next day, he sent all his film via courier to assistant picture editor John Morris at LIFE’s London office, instead of delivering it in person.

This shipment included pre-invasion reportage of the troops boarding and crossing the English Channel, the just-mentioned coverage of the battle on Omaha Beach, and images of medics tending to the wounded on the return trip.

When the film finally arrived, around 9 p.m., the head of LIFE’s London darkroom, one “Braddy” Bradshaw, inexplicably assigned the task of developing these crucial four rolls of 35mm Omaha Beach images to one of the least experienced members of his staff, 15-year-old “darkroom lad” Denis Banks.

After successfully processing the 35mm films, in his haste to help Morris meet the looming deadline Banks absentmindedly closed the doors of the darkroom’s film-drying cabinet, which inexplicably were “normally kept open.” Inexplicably, nobody noticed that Banks had closed them.

As a result, after “just a few minutes,” that enclosed space with a small electric heating coil on its floor inexplicably became so drastically overheated that it melted the emulsion of Capa’s 35mm negatives.

Notified of this by the horrified Banks, Morris rushed to the darkroom, discovering that eleven of Capa’s negatives had survived, which he “saved” or “salvaged,” and which proved just sufficient enough to fulfill this crucial assignment to the satisfaction of LIFE’s New York editors.

That darkroom catastrophe blurred slightly the remaining negatives, “ironically” adding to their expressiveness. Furthermore, as a result of the overheating, the emulsion on those eleven negatives inexplicably slid a few millimeters sideways on their acetate backing, resulting in a visible intrusion of the film’s sprocket holes into the image area.<