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Capa: The legacy

Cerro Muriano is a small unremarkable town in Andalucía a few miles to the north of Córdoba. It is home to a disused railway line and a now defunct Rio Tinto copper mine. However on the 5th of September 1936 it became famous throughout the world. It was the location for the most iconic image ever taken during the Spanish Civil War.

The Fallen soldier photograph or Death of a loyalist it has many names and many doubters, its authenticity has been in question since its initial publication. The photographer responsible was Robert Capa, a Hungarian and ardent antifascist who fled Horthy’s regime as a teenager. He ended up in pre-war Paris where he befriended Gerda Taro, a German socialist.

Together they went to Spain on assignment for Vu magazine. My own research located the couple in Cerro Muriano on the 5th of September, arriving with Franz Borkenau author of The Spanish Cockpit. They spent only a matter of hours in the village and never visited the Republican front line which was almost one and half kilometres away. When Valera’s Moors entered the pueblo from the north skirmishes broke out, prompting the trio to head towards Madrid at an accelerated rate. Photographs taken by Capa of Taro and Republican soldiers clearly show the mine structures, but the Fallen Soldier sequence shows none of these buildings. The militiamen in the photograph are not men under fire. Their body language is not that of men in fear of their lives. There was also the mystery of the missing negative strip showing the sequence of events. Apparently lost by Fotografia Italiana magazine after they printed the negatives from the strip. They showed the CNT militiamen purported to have fallen, alive and well in a later frame. Arguments then followed about the printing order of the negative sequence.

The controversy continued.


The Fallen Soldier image exposed as a fake by El Periódico in 2009
The Fallen Soldier image exposed as a fake by El Periódico in 2009

In July 2009 El Periódico blew the whole myth apart. Using the hill profile from the image they superimposed it over a hill profile from the town of Espejo. Espejo is some forty kilometres away from Cerro Muriano. I checked the profile and agree, although I will delay a definitive decision until after I have visited Espejo later this year. It is known that Capa was there on the 25th of September as were elements of the CNT militia. There were however no hostilities in the area at that time.

It is therefore very likely that Capa faked the picture. Alex Kershaw in his book Blood and Champagne stated that in a 1947 radio interview Capa made some oblique remarks about the Fallen Soldier image. He said it was born in the imagination of various editors minds, but no record of the broadcast appears to have survived.

If he did fake the picture, why?

Capa had struggled to make a living selling pictures under his real name of André Friedman. So he, in league with his girl friend Gerda Taro developed the persona of Robert Capa a successful but fictional American photographer. This subterfuge enabled them to sell his pictures at inflated prices and it worked, but not for long. Lucien Vogel the editor of Vu magazine caught Friedman resplendent in a dirty torn leather jacket, photographing a meeting of the League of Nations in Geneva. The pictures duly arrived on Vogel’s desk in his Paris office and carried Friedman’s alias, Capa. Vogel summoned Friedman, who had no option but to adopt fully the alias. Impressed by the vitality of Capa’s work the Vu editor was to commission Capa to cover the civil war in Spain.

Adoption of the Capa persona meant the re-invention of the man, his Bohemian appearance was at odds with the image. His faithful leather jacket gave way to a well cut suit while carefully cropped hair completed the veneer. Capa and Taro headed for Spain, relative novices to photojournalism and certainly under pressure to supply quality images. They had to live up to their own hype. Under these conditions it is not too difficult to imagine the staging of one or two shots. I am certain he didn’t expect the image to gain such notoriety. Developing a life of its own it inspired generation after generation and became an icon of the very war itself.

Purely for the sake of this argument we shall dismiss the Fallen Soldier image as a fake.

Where does this leave the remainder of his work?

How does it affect the Capa legend?

Gerda Taro is an integral part of the Capa legacy. Colleagues, partners and lovers. They both conspired to develop the Capa makeover and she acted as his agent. Taro learnt the art of photography and eventually supplied images under her own byline. Her images didn’t have the impact of Capa’s, but had their relationship matured her technique would undoubtedly have improved. Fatally injured during the Republican retreat from Brunete, her life tragically cut short. An out of control tank collided with the press car on the running-board of which Gerda was travelling. She died of her wounds the next day, the 26th of July. Capa was in Paris at the time setting up a darkroom. He never forgave himself for not being there. He never fully recovered from the trauma of her death, blaming himself for not being at Brunete. She died just days before her 26th birthday.

After Taro’s death, Capa continued his work in Spain documenting the conflict. He captured the feelings of the refugees as they fled the Nationalist advance. He captured the look of hope on the faces of the militia men and women manning the barricades in Barcelona. He captured all the emotions of a people at war.

During the winter of 1936 and 1937 he photographed Madrid, the crucified city, as it suffered the remorseless bombing from Germany’s Condor Legion. The scene of a devastated room with a rubble strewn floor. A pitiful photograph of a young couple full of hope and just married hanging forlornly from a cracked and wrecked wall.

In February, he photographed the refugees flooding into Almería from Málaga after the torturous march along the coastal road. Subjected not only to thirst and hunger but the cynical attacks from Nationalist forces. A grainy image of a young girl peering from the perceived safety of her mother’s apron. Her Mother sobs while hiding her face from the child reassuring her, though the situation appeared hopeless.

In May Capa was in the Basque town of Bilbao capturing images during an air raid. It was here that he took an iconic and evocative photograph. A Mother runs for the safety of an air-raid shelter, staring upwards towards the sinister silhouettes of danger. She clutches the hand of her young daughter. Her coat hastily buttoned, the buttons out of sequence with their respective buttonholes. Her eyes are following her Mother’s gaze. Confused; she doesn’t know why her Mother was acting so strangely. An unasked question on convoluted lips as they scurry towards Capa’s camera.

The picture which to me sums up Capa’s brilliance was taken at Montblanch near Barcelona on the 25th of October 1938. It was during a ceremony thanking the International Brigades for their intervention in the war before their withdrawal. The event was one of high emotion. Delores Ibárruri gave her now famous ‘You are legend’ speech, while Brigaders and republican soldiers looked on. The eyes of those present betrayed their feelings, gratitude, pride and resignation to their inevitable fate. A lone Republican soldier picked out from the crowd. Head involuntarily tilted as he makes the clench fist salute. The words of an anthem formed on his lips. Capa captured not only the emotion of that particular day but of the whole war.

Montblanch near Barcelona on the 25th of October 1938. The International Brigades are withdrawn
Montblanch near Barcelona on the 25th of October 1938. The International Brigades are withdrawn

The probable staging of the Fallen Soldier image does not infringe on the validity of his other work. This approaches genius and I hope that others are not dismissive over this one issue. His work still includes some of the finest examples of the photo-journalistic art. His technical ability and sympathy for the subject are all too clear

from the images he created. He has chronicled the Spanish Civil War not through the horrific images of death and mutilation. He had the ability to see war through the eyes of the ordinary people, the people who really matter.


A photo journey
through Spain


Written by:
John MacDonald
Patricia Díaz Pereda.

ISBN 978-1-909612-70-9
To order from Amazon.co.uk
Click here

by John MacDonald



Moving on a pavement artist. London. 2009



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