10 February 2014

Capa in Color

Photographer Robert Capa is renowned for his black and white images of war, which helped to define photojournalism. Yet few people know that starting in 1941 this master of black and white routinely shot in colour. Most of those photos were never published, being passed over for black and white images by the leading magazines of the day. Now for the first time “Capa in Color,” a new exhibit at the International Center of Photography (ICP), showcases some of these images in all their glorious colour.

In 1938 while on assignment in China to cover the Sino-Japanese war, Capa wrote to a friend at Pix, his New York Agency, requesting 12 rolls of the fairly new colour film, Kodachrome, and instructions because "I have an idea for Life." Only four of those images survived but Capa continued to experiment with colour film.

He pressed magazines to publish his colour images and encouraged other photographers to shoot in colour. In a letter to Magnum stockholders from 1952 (Capa founded the agency in 1947), he wrote that magazines needed colour images and counselled that, "We have to shoot far more color also far more color stories on any subject. This again should not be indiscriminate but on subjects which demand color."

Some fellow Magnum photographers followed suit (one member, Henri Cartier-Bresson, famously disliked shooting in colour) but black and white was cheaper and faster to process, and easier for publishers to edit. As the years passed, black and white film became associated with photojournalism, and Capa's colour work was ignored.

Walking into the ICP the other morning and seeing the walls covered with bright, colourful images was like rediscovering Capa all over again. The exhibit is broken up by subject starting with World War II and moving on to the USSR (which he visited with John Steinbeck), Hungary, Israel, the Alps, celebrity friends, the Jet Set (Deauville and Biarritz), Paris, Rome, Norway, Generation X, film locations, and Indochina.

Capa shot in colour at the beginning of World War II but pretty much abandoned it for black and white until after the war was over; the time constraints and conditions under which he worked made shooting in black and white easier. Yet the colour images from the war bring a different feel to the events; the airmen look so contemporary and "real" while certain details are much more vivid in colour like the chemical foam on a plane.

While Capa may have been the ultimate war photographer, he also had time away from the dangers of combat, photographing his celebrity friends, fashion shoots, and the wealthy at play at the top resorts in Europe.

In 1941, Capa spent time with Ernest Hemingway at his home in Sun Valley, Ohio. The images show Papa with two of his sons, Patrick and Gregory, and his wife at the time, Martha Gelhorn, hunting, having a picnic, spending time together. The shot of Hemingway with his youngest, Gregory, is even more touching in colour.

The 1948 images of Pablo Picasso with his family in the South of France are particularly charming as we see Picasso relaxed and having fun. One of the images from that shoot, of Picasso holding an umbrella over the head of his partner, Françoise Gilot, would become famous but in black and white; both Look and Illustrated were "disappointed" with the Picasso colour images, which seems crazy looking at them now.

Other celebrities are seen on film sets: Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre on the set of Beat the Devil (1953), Ingrid Bergman filming Viaggio in Italia (1953), and a beyond beautiful Ava Gardner applying her lipstick for The Barefoot Contessa (1954). While they are nice to look at, images of a Lapp family in Norway are just as interesting.

One section is devoted to photos from a Magnum project about post-World War II youth, for which Capa coined the term "Generation X." In 1953, Holiday published the three-part series that featured 24 young people from 14 countries on five continents who were photographed by various Magnum photographers and asked to answer a detailed questionnaire. The only colour images printed in the magazine were those shot by Capa including the French girl Colette Laurent of whom it was said, "Her life is superficial, artificial on the surface and holds none of the good things except the material ones." 

"Skiers and the Matterhorn, Zermatt, Switzerland" Robert Capa (1949-50)

Some of the best though are Capa’s images taken on the ski slopes of Europe. These brilliant shots pop off the walls, the women looking as fashionable as any woman today. There is a wonderful brightness and detail to the snow with none of the flatness that one so often finds. In a January, 1952 article in Holiday, Capa let readers in on his secret, advising them that when shooting snow to "shoot against the light." 

The final group of images in the exhibit I must admit, I avoided. Taken in Indochina (Vietnam), these were the last photographs taken by Capa while covering the French Indochina War as a late minute replacement for a Life photographer. It was there that he stepped on a landmine on May 25, 1954, and died shortly after. He was carrying two cameras with him at the time; one loaded with black and white film, the other with colour.

In addition to Capa's photos, there are images of the man himself: a case contains a few images of Capa including the only known colour image of him, skis over his shoulder, the familiar cigarette dangling from his mouth. There are also letters he wrote on display. In one to his brother, Cornell Capa, dated August 1, 1941, he complains about the colour being off in some of his prints and notes, "I am a great photographer!" In another letter written from London to his brother and mother dated June 4, 1942, he writes that he's glad to be back at work and comments that Scotch is "hard to get" and promises "I will not gamble too much." And in multiply letters to family and colleagues, he mentions money, often how much they should ask for his work. 

The ICP houses 4,200 Capa colour transparencies (35mm, 120, 3x4, and 4x5)  in their collection. Using digital technology, the museum was able to restore the faded Ektachrome images while the Kodachrome ones turned out to have retained almost all of their brilliant colour, needing little work save for the ones that had been incorrectly processed in England in 1941-42. The resulting beautiful prints look like they were shot yesterday.

"Capa in Color" is at the ICP through May 4, 2014. I plan on going many more times. For more information, visit here.

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