The Men Behind ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson’ Curtain

Who Took This Photo of Imperial Eunuchs in Peking?

Sometime in 1934, just after Hitler had come to power, three great photographers met in a dimly lit Berlin apartment to create a fourth. Munkasci, Robert Capa, and Chim were all of Jewish origin, and now they found their best work refused by anti-Semitic publications all over Europe. Out of work and starving, the trio decided to create a fictional photographer, under whose non-Jewish name they could publish their work.

So the impeccably bourgeois pseudonym of ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson’ was born. For American publications, the name would be modified to ‘Hank Carter’. The story of this prank is masterfully recounted in Paolo Rilf’s book, “Cartier-Bresson: A Man, A Myth” (1993). Dr. Rilf was initially puzzled by the fact that there no photographs of Paris or France in the early life of this quintessentially French photographer.

Initially conceived to earn extra money, the pseudonym was to be laid to rest after the war in a ‘posthumous’ MOMA retrospective in 1947. But Capa wanted to poke fun at the pretentious New York museum; for eight hundred francs, he hired a Parisian wine-merchant to pose as camera-shy Cartier-Bresson.

Around this time, the photo-agency Magnum was founded to pool photographs of many a lensman for Cartier-Bresson’s debut book. In the coming years, using the byline ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson’ enabled many photographers to travel anonymously in troubled hotspots around the world; in 1948, he famously reported from India, China, and Indonesia. Dr. Rilf’s book, long out of print but going to be reissued later today (April 1st), is a masterful tale which doubles as a detective thriller.

L’Épuration | Robert Capa

Iconic Photos reports from a wonderful exhibition in Musée du Quai Branly


On Sunday, as rain gently swept across its windows, I strolled through the Quai Branly Museum’s new exhibition, Cheveux Chéris: Frivolités et Trophés (‘Beloved Hair: Trophies and Trifles’). A series of photographs made me pause and ponder: they showed l’épuration (purification or purge) where France rose up against Nazi ‘collaborators’. Taking a cue from the “purification” of Republican women in Spain in the 1930s, French women who slept with the Germans were marched on to public squares and shaved.

Capturing one such grisly humiliation was no other than Robert Capa. On 18th August 1944, just a week before the liberation of Paris, Capa was in Chartres, where a young women who bore a child to a German soldier was shaved bald by a mob, who paraded her through the town with her three-mouth old  child. Back in 1941, 19-year old Simone Touseau had fallen in love with Erich, a German soldier in charge of the local military bookstore. Erich was eventually transferred to the Eastern Front, and invalided back to his native Bavaria. On hearing the news, Simone had volunteered as a nurse in Munich, where she re-met her lover in September 1943. She was repatriated to France in late November 1943, pregnant. (Read more here in French).

In many other towns, scenes were uglier as women were stripped, their heads shaved and their faces painted with swastikas for what many villagers, men and women alike, considered as ‘collaboration horizontale’. This stigmatization of ‘The Shorns’ was, according to Patrick Buisson writing in Années Erotiques, a “reaffirmation of the country’s rights over the women’s bodies and the recovery of male control over women’s sexuality”.

Buisson describes how the Nazi Occupation left the French in a state of what he calls “erotic shock”. Under an atmosphere charged with emotions of triumph, humiliation and suppressed rage, the population found escape in debauchery, exploring “new territories of pleasure” – having sex in cinemas and Metro stations during air-raid alerts. Even Simone de Beauvoir joined in; “It was only in the course of those nights that I discovered the true meaning of the word ‘party’,” she later wrote.  In Germany, French prisoners bedded local girls to take revenge for the rape of the homeland; meanwhile in France, women made themselves available to the invaders, some even encouraged to infect German soldiers as sabotage; in 1942, despite the fact that two million Frenchmen were in prisoner-of-war camps, the French birth rate soared.

These dark years cast a long shadow over France. Its leading newspaper, Le Temps, which had continued its publication during the Occupation, was closed as pourrie (rotten), and was replaced by Le Monde. They also quietly put away their berets, which came to symbolize the Frenchman under a Nazi Empire where everybody had insignia and clothing identifying who they were. As Richard Cobb notes, “the beret had somehow lost its innocence. It had become politically contaminated… henceforth associated with organised killing.”

As for other collaborations, they took on many different shapes and hues. Coco Chanel had a torrid affair with a Nazi officer, with whom she lived at Paris Ritz throughout the Occupation. Jewish Gertrude Stein worked for the Vichy government, translating anti-Semitic speeches by Marshal Philippe Pétain, even comparing Pétain to George Washington. Maurice Chevalier and Édith Piaf sang before French and German audiences. Picasso, whose art was officially banned, continued to paint in his Left Bank apartment. More than two hundred new French films were made, including Marcel Carné’s classic, Les Enfants du paradis. Thousands of books were published by authors as different as the virulent anti-Semite Céline and the anti-Nazis Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. Publisher Gaston Gallimard let a German-selected editor run his prestigious Nouvelle Revue Française; in turn, he was able to publish books by authors unsympathetic to the Nazis.

So I spent the night reading And The Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris by Alan Riding. The book begins with a quote by Sir Anthony Eden, who saw both world wars: “If one hasn’t been through the horrors of an occupation by a foreign power, you have no right to pronounce upon what a country does which has been through all that.” He was talking about collaboration, but its messy aftermath perhaps sadly applied as well.

To Those We Lost

Fifty-seven years ago today died one of the first and brightest stars of photojournalism — Robert Capa, the Hungarian-born visionary who defined the word “war photographer”. In addition to covering the course of the Second World War in London, North Africa, Italy, Normandy Landings and the Liberation of Paris, he reported from four different wars: the Spanish Civil War, the Sino-Japanese War, Arab-Israeli War and the First Indochina War. The above photo was the last one he took before he stepped on a landmine in Indochina on May 25th 1954.

On the Huffington Post, David Schonauer, the former editor-in-chief of American Photo Magazine, wrote a tribute to all the war photographers we lost, from Capa to Hetherington and Hondros: (To that list, we must now add Anton Hammerl).

They join the likes of Ken Oosterbroek, a member of the so-called Bang Bang Club of photojournalists immortalized now in a new movie. Oosterbroek was killed in 1994 while covering the violence in South Africa during the final days of apartheid. They join Olivier Rebbot, killed in El Salvador in 1981 while on assignment for Newsweek. Rebbot was a model for the photographer played by Nick Nolte in the 1983 film Under Fire. They join Robert Capa, killed near Thai Binh, Vietnam in 1954, who was the model for all who would follow in his profession. If the war photographer has come to be seen as a romantic figure, we have the Hemingwayesque Capa to thank.

It was Capa, famed for covering the D-Day landing on Omaha Beach, who said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” and the photographers who followed him into Vietnam took his advice. Vietnam was a particular deadly place for photographers, who jumped aboard helicopters alongside soldiers to fly into firefights. The names of the dead — Larry Burrows, Gilles Caron, Henri Huet, Robert Ellison, Dickie Chapelle, Charles Eggleston, and Oliver Noonan among them — have become legend. The haunting 1997 book Requiem memorialized these journalists — 135 photographers from different nations known to have died in Vietnam.

Trotsky in Copenhagen



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.

Covering the D-Day


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It was not the biggest seaborne invasion in history. Nor was it the biggest maritime invasion of World War II. (That honor goes to the 1943 invasion of Sicily). However, it was the Last Hurrah of the conventional warfare, or as Time Magazine called it, the last Great Crusade. In the future, with the invention of the atomic weapons, no single invasion fleet or military force would be so concentrated.

The most famous images of that momentous day were made by Robert Capa. When a LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel) from the U.S. Coast Guard-manned USS Samuel Chase disembarked troops of the 16th Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division on the morning of June 6, 1944 (D-Day) at Omaha Beach, Capa, in the employ of LIFE magazine, was among them. He took four rolls of photos that day, but all but eleven of Capa’s negatives were spoiled by an overly eager darkroom worker in the London office of Time Inc. who turned up the heat in the drying cabinet too high in his rush to meet the deadline for the next issue of Life magazine.

When LIFE published the photographs, a caption disingenously explained that the ‘immense excitement of moment made photographer Capa move his camera and blur picture’. Thus it was with this irony that man must bear the movie Saving Private Ryan, where the director Steven Spielberg went to great lengths to reproduce the look of Capa blur in his D-Day landing sequence, even stripping the coating from his camera lenses to echo Capa’s notorious shots.


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The Death of A Loyalist Militiaman


This picture of the Loyalist Militiaman is a photo taken by Robert Capa for the French magazine Vu. Although it is taken during the height of the Spanish Civil War, the photo is not about the Civil War itself. The vacant spaces make up the majority of the picture. The main focus is on the man-one Federico Borreli Garcia-but his identity or those of his executioners matter a little in this deeply impersonal photo . He is fighting against the forces he neither control nor see-a war that is so removed from his everyday life, and one that is so removed for the viewers too.

The picture is not about the war’s destructiveness-the face of the falling soldier is almost relieved. Even the ravaged countryside of Spain is not showing in the picture. The picture is not about the physical warfare-amazingly absent from the picture are mortars, armies or other accessories of war. The picture is about the void it creates, the catharsis it provides from life and especially its mysterious presence (or lack thereof). War is vilified in the picture, not through visual blood or gore, but through its absence and the silent and subtle nob to man’s nature to fear the Great Unknown.

Vu published it in September 1936, but both the photo and its author became international celebrated when Life magazine reprinted it in July 1937. Background of the photo is not clear, and there were accusations that Capa staged the photo. Philip Knightley wrote, “When and exactly where did Capa take it? The terrain in the photograph tells us nothing; it could be anywhere. Who is the man? His face is blurred, but there appears to be no trace of a wound, certainly not the explosion of the skull that a bullet in the head would cause. In fact, he is still wearing his cap. How did Capa come to be alongside him, camera aimed at him, lens reasonably in focus, just as the man was shot dead?”

Cornell Capa, Capa’s brother, maintained nothing had been said by his brother about the photo. Capa’s colleague David Seymour believed that Capa was in a trench, timidly raised his camera above the trench, took the photo without looking and was ashamed to admit the fact. O. D. Gallagher, who reported for the London Daily Express remembered that the action was sparse around the time Capa ‘took’ the picture, and was sure that Capa posed it. While sharing a room, Capa apparently taught Gallagher how to fake a good action shot too. Further adding to the debate was that no negatives or contact sheets for the picture was ever discovered.

When the photo first appeared in Vu, it was accompanied by one other similar photo, of another soldier in the moment of death on a slope. How he managed to take those decisive moments is a mystery the great photojournalist took to his premature grave in 1954.