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.
That standard narrative constitutes photojournalism’s most potent and durable myth. From it springs the image of the intrepid photojournalist as heroic loner, risking all to bear witness for humanity, yet at the mercy of corporate forces that, by cynical choice or sheer ineptitude, can in an instant erase from the historical record the only traces of a crucial passage in world events.
Moreover, it represents, arguably, the most widely familiar bit of folklore in the history of the medium of photography — one that appears not only in histories of photography and photojournalism, in biographies of and other books about Capa, but in novels, graphic novels, the autobiographies of such famous people as actress Ingrid Bergman and Hollywood director Sam Fuller, assorted films, and even in videos of Steven Spielberg talking about his inspirations for the opening scenes of his film Saving Private Ryan, not to mention countless retellings in the mass media.
An early version of this story started to circulate immediately after D-Day, made its first half-formed appearance in print in the fall of 1944, and received its full formal authorization with the publication of Capa’s heavily fictionalized memoir, Slightly Out of Focus, in the fall of 1947. Since then it’s been reiterated endlessly, either by John Morris or by others quoting or paraphrasing Capa’s or Morris’s version of the tale. It gets retold in the mass media with special frequency on every major celebration of D-Day — the 50th anniversary, the 60th, most recently the 70th. In short, it has gradually achieved the status of legend. That this legend went unexamined for seven decades serves as a measure of its appeal not just to photojournalists, to others involved professionally with photography, and to the medium’s growing audience, but to the general public.
For 70 years, despite the many glaring holes in it, no one questioned this story — least of all those in charge at the International Center of Photography, which houses the Capa Archive. These figures have included the late Cornell Capa, Robert’s younger brother and founder of ICP; the late Richard Whelan, Robert’s authorized biographer and the first curator of that archive; and Whelan’s successor in that curatorial role, Cynthia Young.
Ironically, two celebrations of the 70th anniversary of Capa’s D-Day images provoked our investigation. The first came as a flattering profile of John Morris, written by Marie Brenner for Vanity Fair magazine. Morris served as assistant picture editor in LIFE’s London bureau for that magazine’s D-Day coverage, and in this Brenner piece he recounts his version of the Capa-LIFE D-Day myth once more. Shortly thereafter, on May 29, 2014, TIME Inc. — the corporation that had commissioned and published Capa’s D-Day images back in 1944 — posted a video at its website celebrating those photographs, which some refer to as “the magnificent eleven.”
A division of Magnum Photos, the picture agency Capa founded with his colleagues in 1947 (the same year he published his memoir), produced that video for TIME. The International Center of Photography licensed the use of Capa’s images for that purpose. And none other than John Morris, by then 97 years old and living in Paris, provided the voice-over, his boilerplate narrative of those events. In short, this video involved the combined energies of the individual and institutional forces involved in the creation and propagation of this myth — what I came to define as the Capa Consortium.
Assorted elements of those two virtually identical versions of the standard story, Brenner’s and Time Inc.’s, struck J. Ross Baughman as illogical and implausible. The youngest photojournalist ever to win a Pulitzer Prize (in 1978, at the age of 24), Baughman is an experienced combat photographer who has worked in war zones in the Middle East, El Salvador, Rhodesia, and elsewhere. As the founder of the picture agency Visions, which specialized in such work, he’s also an experienced picture editor. Ross contacted me to ask if I would publish his analysis at my blog, Photocritic International, as a Guest Post. I agreed.
In the editorial process of fact-checking and sourcing Baughman’s skeptical response to the standard narrative provided by Morris in that video, my own bulls**t detector began to sound the alarm. I realized that Baughman’s critique raised more questions than it answered, requiring much more research and writing than I could reasonably request from him. I decided to pursue those issues further myself.
This immersed me in the Capa literature for the first time. Speaking as a scholar, that came as a rude awakening. The most immediate shock hit as I read through a half-dozen print and web versions of Morris’s account of those events — in Brenner’s 2014 puff piece, in Morris’s 1998 memoir, and in various interviews, profiles, and articles — and watched at least as many online videos and films featuring Morris rehashing this tale. I realized that the only portion of this story that Morris claimed to have witnessed firsthand, the loss of Capa’s films in LIFE’s London darkroom, could not possibly have happened the way he said it did.
In retrospect, I cannot understand how so many people in the field, working photographers among them, accepted uncritically the unlikely, unprecedented story, concocted by Morris, of Capa’s 35mm Kodak Super-XX film emulsion melting in a film-drying cabinet on the night of June 7, 1944.
Anyone familiar with analog photographic materials and normal darkroom practice worldwide must consider this fabulation incredible on its face. Coil heaters in wooden film-drying cabinets circa 1944 did not ever produce high levels of heat; black & white film emulsions of that time did not melt even after brief exposure to high heat; and the doors of film-drying cabinets are normally kept closed, not open, since the primary function of such cabinets is to prevent dust from adhering to the sticky emulsion of wet film.
No one with darkroom experience could have come up with this notion; only someone entirely ignorant of photographic materials and processes — like Morris — could have imagined it. Embarrassingly, none of that set my own alarm bells ringing until I started to fact-check the article by Baughman that initiated this project, close to fifty years after I first read that fable in Capa’s memoir.
This is one of several big lies permeating the literature on Robert Capa. Certainly Capa knew it was untrue when he published it in his memoir; he had gotten his start in photography as a darkroom assistant in Simon Guttmann’s Dephot photo agency in Berlin. And Cornell Capa also knew that; he had cut his eyeteeth in the medium first by developing the films of his brother, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and David Seymour in Paris, then by working in the darkroom of the Pix photo agency in New York, then by moving on to fill the same role at LIFE magazine before becoming a photographer in his own right. My belated recognition of that fact led me to ask the obvious next question: If that didn’t happen to Capa’s 35mm D-Day films, what did? And if all these people were willing to lie about this, what were they covering up?
So, building on Baughman’s initial provocation, I began drafting my own extensions of what he’d initiated — and our investigation was launched.
In December of 2017 I published the 74th chapter of our research project. You’ll find all of it online at my blog; the easiest way to get to the Capa D-Day material is by using the url capadday.com. During these years I have become intimately familiar with a large chunk of what others have written and said about Capa and his D-Day coverage.
In my opinion, the bulk of the published writing and presentations in other formats (films, videos, exhibitions) devoted to the life and work of photojournalist Robert Capa qualifies as hagiography, not scholarship. Capa’s own account of his World War II experiences, Slightly Out of Focus, consistently proves itself inaccurate and unreliable, masking its sly self-aggrandizement with wry humor and self-deprecation. Morris’s memoir repeats Capa’s combat stories unquestioningly, adding to those his own dubious saga of the “ruined” negatives.
Richard Whelan’s books, widely considered the key reference works on Capa, simply quote or paraphrase Capa an