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The Tragic Romantic Couple Who Invented War Photography

A new biography introduces young readers to Jewish photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro

Marjorie Ingall
September 11, 2017
Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

The book begins thrillingly, in medias res: We’re on the beach at Normandy. “A metal ramp cranks open and lands with a splashing thud. Chilly dawn fog rushes into the craft…the floor sways, slick with vomit…the sea pools red.” We’re thrust into Robert Capa’s world, photographing the terrifying and confusing excitement of war. We see some of his pictures of soldiers on their bellies in the surf, men scrambling up onto the sand.

And just as quickly the action pulls back, and now we’re in a café in Paris a decade earlier. Robert Capa is still Andre Friedmann, a smoking hot black-haired Hungarian refugee in a battered leather jacket (photos show him looking like a young Gregory Peck crossed with a bit of Kumail Nanjiani), looking for a pretty model to photograph for an assignment. He finds a girl, but winds up smitten by her friend, another aspiring photographer—originally from Germany—named Gerta Pohorylle. She’s ravishing, with delicate high cheekbones, luminous eyes, a chic fake-red cropped haircut, eyebrows plucked Garbo-ishly into long, narrow arcs. Pohorylle and Friedmann are young, idealistic, bohemian Jews who’ve fled anti-Semitism and economic hardship in their home countries to live and take pictures in Paris. They’re horrified by the right-wing fascism that’s creeping through Europe, and they decide it’s their calling to document it.

The book is Eyes of the World: Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, and the Invention of Modern Photojournalism by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos. It’s an impressive, thought-provoking, romantic look at a passionate young couple and their work. Non-fiction for tweens and teens can be a tough sell, but this story is so gripping, so full of powerful photographs of conflicts and moments of tenderness and humanity in the middle of those conflicts, I think a lot of readers will be riveted. It doesn’t hurt that the photos the gorgeous photographers took of each other are so full of love and yearning, you can almost feel the emotion through the pages.

Both are talented, but Gerta is more ambitious. She makes Andre wear a blazer and tie to go-sees, helps him develop discipline, gets his life and film organized. She finds a job at a photo agency, and craftily gives herself and her boyfriend new names in an attempt to make more money. She becomes Gerda Taro (with its resonances of “Greta Garbo”), presenting herself as the agent of a wildly successful American photographer named Robert Capa, who of course needs to be paid commensurately with his fame. They start getting more work. They want to shoot the conflicts sweeping Europe. They go to Spain, documenting the rise of Francisco Franco, struggling to get their negatives and prints through war zones into editors’ hands (ah, those pre-digital times!), taking pictures of real people and real faces during wartime. They’re creating, in the authors’ words, “a photography of compassion.”

They work separately and together. (One page shows both Capa’s and Taro’s shots of a lounging, laughing couple in Barcelona—the man holding a rifle, the woman leaning in toward him. You can tell the photographer by the format, Aronson and Budhos point out: Capa’s Leica produces rectangular frames; Taro’s Reflex-Korelle frames are square. Their shots are similar, taken moments apart, but hers is better: The man is laughing harder; the woman’s smile is broader; the body language is more intimate, and the square framing with more trees in the background and no distracting feet in the shot is more attractive.)

Taro — the first female photojournalist in a war zone — stops dyeing her hair; she lets it grow into a tousled, sandy blonde chop that she frequently covers with a rakish beret. She wears trousers; she flirts in multiple languages to get access and rides to the front lines. Ernest Hemingway, who is in Spain at the same time, loathes her.

Capa, perpetually smitten, sees himself and Taro as a duo. He has a stamp made for the backs of their prints that says “Reportage Capa & Taro” and gives her a lighter, better camera. But it bothers her that his name is the one on everyone’s lips. She wants to be seen as a star in her own right. So she takes more solo assignments, and starts referring to Capa as her “copain,” a French slang term for close buddy. (The word can also could mean boyfriend, with a hint of non-exclusivity to it.) “Just as she and Capa reinvented themselves from refugees to photographers with brand-new names, they are also asserting a new kind of modern relationship, one where they depend on each other as equals but can also be free,” Aronson and Budhos write.

Gerda starts gaining more fame herself. But she agrees to go to China—a new frontier—with Capa, as soon as she finishes one more job on the front lines in Brunete, Spain. A sense of mania and dread starts infusing Eyes of the World’s writing. “Taro’s photographs are wholly different from any she has taken before: they are eerie, overexposed, shaky, blurred,” the authors write. “The artful young woman, who understands fashion and appearance, is gone. She has shed her sense of framing and care. She is all skin and bone, risk and intensity. She is inside the blur of action, shooting like a combatant. There’s a bareness to her work now. Click, click—a burning truck. Click—shells raining down on a trench. Pint the lens up: click—bombers in the sky.” Her near-death experiences start stacking up. We know what’s coming, and it does. Capa, getting ready to leave Paris for China with the love of his life, reads about Taro’s death in a newspaper the couple works for. At Taro’s funeral, her father—who has just gotten out of Germany via Yugoslavia, lost his wife, received a visa to Palestine and lost his daughter—hurls himself on her coffin, sobbing the Kaddish. She is buried on her 27th birthday.

Capa begins drinking too much. He talks about leaving photography. His friend, Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the few non-Jews with a major role in the book, says, “When she died, he drew a curtain on himself.”

But of course, life for the living goes on. Capa goes back to shooting wars. He grieves over the fate of refugees. As the Nazi noose closes around Europe, his own life becomes precarious; he is a Jew with no country, no papers. His friend Pablo Neruda helps get him a visa to the United States. He co-founds the photo agency Magnum, goes to Hollywood and dates starlets (including Ingrid Bergman), photographs the birth of the state of Israel. In 1954, he goes to the Red River delta to document the Vietminh, fighting against the colonial French in Indochina. Impulsive as ever, roaming ahead of the combat unit with which he’s embedded, he steps on a landmine. He becomes the first journalist killed in a long war that will wind up killing many more.

The book is rich in Jewish left-wing arty passion; in quotations from Hemingway and Orwell and Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson; in propaganda posters and postage stamps and telegrams and stark and gorgeous Alexander Liberman magazine covers. The afterword offers a timeline, a longer explanation of the Spanish Civil War, and discussion about the controversies surrounding some of the stories and images detailed in the book.

Eyes of the World is an education, but it’s also a love story…and a moral imperative: Don’t look away from injustice.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.