Trotsky in Copenhagen

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trotsky

In November 1932, Robert Capa was just a darkroom boy working at Dephot (a famous photoagency that the time). His mentor had sent to him Copenhagen to cover a speech being given there by the exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Capa remembered what was to be his first published story:

The newspapers carried a story that Trotsky would speak in Copenhagen. My bosses were excited — but, when they looked around, they saw they had sent all the photographers out to cover events that were happening in Germany. I was the only one there. They said, “Go!”

My departure was a comedy. I got an old passport and no visa. They bought me a first-class ticket and I traveled stylish like a minister. When the conductor came to inspect the passport and visa — I took out a menu card from a restaurant and gave it to him among many other important-looking papers — and he was baffled at first — but I talked faster and more than any first-class passenger he ever hand and he nodded finally and passed on. 

No one could take pictures because Trotsky never wanted to be photographed. There were photographers from all over the world with their big box cameras — none could get in. I had a little Leica in my pocket so no one thought I was even a photographer. When some workers came to carry long steel pipes into the chamber, I joined them — and my little Leica and I went to look for Trotsky. 

Here, we must pause to reflect. Capa was later to be a great self-promotor as well as a great photographer.  The first anecdote about his editors sending the humble darkroom boy was pure fabrication; while it was his first assignment, he was being mentored throughly at Dephot and Trotsky’s speaking arrangement in Copenhagen was well advertised ahead. The second anecdote Capa borrowed from his tall-tale-loving father. As for sneaking into the conference hall, he didn’t have to do this for he had a ticket for Trotsky’s lecture. Only in May 1936, he finagled his way into a meeting at which Leon Blum was speaking such.

This episode highlights the difficulty in trusting even photographers’ accounts about their famous photos.  They like any other human beings misremember, conceal and prevaricate. However he took those photos, Capa’s skills were clear: he positioned himself near the speaker and clandestinely snapped a series of photographs that captured the energy of the impassioned Russian orator and the drama of the moment. Berlin’s Der Welt Spiegel devoted a full page to Capa’s photographs.

Splotches and fissures in the above image (which is the most famous of Capa’s Trotsky images) was the result of a damage to the photographic negative. It was a broken image of a broken man, as Time magazine recalled.

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