The d-day Series Robert Capa and His Iconic Images of War

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The D-Day Series

Robert Capa and His Iconic Images of War

Hillary Brown

April 23, 2013

Barnard College

Senior Thesis

Professor Hutchinson

Table of Contents



Chapter 1: The Language of Photography……………………………………………………...9

Chapter 2: LIFE magazine……………………………………………………………………..20

Chapter 3: Spielberg’s D-Day………………………………………………………………….31





This thesis project was a challenging eight-month experience and the finished product would not have been possible without the following people: my father, the World War II aficionado, who spent many long hours helping to read, reread, and edit dozens of drafts; and my mother and sister, who provided the crucial emotional support to stave off the ever-looming insanity. And a special thank you to my advisor, Professor Hutchinson, who helped me turn a mere fascination with Robert Capa and his photographs into this full-fledged scholarly thesis. I am forever grateful for your wisdom, guidance, and patience during this long and arduous journey.


From the outbreak of World War II, photographers, cameramen, and journalists flooded Europe in an effort to capture images of the ongoing battles. For many Americans, one particular battle has become an icon of the European theater: the invasion of D-Day. In the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, an armada of Ally ships made the turbulent journey across the English Channel to Normandy. Operation Overlord, as D-Day was formally called, was designed to open the western front and push the Germans out of France and back east. Due to the German machine guns strategically perched on the cliffs above, thousands of men died before they even made it onto the beaches. On one section of the coast, referred to as Omaha Beach, nothing seemed to go as planned. A LIFE magazine photographer named Robert Capa “managed to bring back from Omaha Beach the most frequently reproduced film of the D-Day landings.”1 His photographs are raw and expressive in their depiction of the extreme chaos of the invasion.

Despite the evolving times, Capa’s D-Day series remains relevant to this day. The images are iconic war photographs that are just as influential now as they were back in 1944. How can blurry monochromatic photographs of a war 70 years past still evoke an emotional response in modern viewers? Five American wars have followed the Second World War; wars that also produced dramatic photographs and footage. And yet, even in the 21st century, there is something so compelling and novel about Capa’s photographs- they are able to effectively bridge generational gaps and substantial technological advances. Most scholars who write about iconic American photographs choose Joe Rosenthal’s photograph of the flag raising on Iwo Jima as a representation of the Second World War [Figure 1]. While this image is clearly a moving scene of American triumph, Capa’s photographs are arguably more emotional and powerful because of how they depict the actual sacrifice and fighting [Figures 2-5]. It is always easier to show the triumph of America and the strength of its citizen soldiers than the horrific, lengthy battle they endured. Capa shows exactly what the soldiers faced, from the rainy, foggy weather and the churning water to their vulnerability to German guns. In other words, where Rosenthal displays a patriotic scene Capa captures the arduous and deadly process of combat.

Journalist Studs Terkel and author Mariana Torgovnick have referred to the Second World War as the “Good War,” and the D-Day invasion has been folded into this narrative as the celebrated battle of the war.2 Torgovnick explains that although the Nazi regime was already beginning to weaken in 1944, D-Day was significant because it provided the Allies with a strategic coastal base on the Continent.3 She states that “American cultural memory of World War II begins [with D-Day]…Britain has its Blitz; the French have the Resistance. The United States has Normandy and the D-Day beaches.”4 D-Day, therefore, has become an emblem of American victory—an invasion that solidified a future Ally triumph over the Nazis.

While one could say that all Americans have a fascination with D-Day and World War II, this would be a generalization. There is a clear portion of the population that does, indeed, focus on this war more than others and considers it to have been the necessary duty of the United States. These beliefs most likely began in the 1940s with the white, educated, middle and upper class Americans who read and subscribed to the illustrious LIFE magazine, and whom founder Henry Luce targeted for his newest publication. This demographic is presumably reflective of the contemporary historically aware audience of war movies like Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film Saving Private Ryan. The adults viewing such a film would most likely have grown up watching their parents or surrounding adults read the articles and photo-essays in LIFE. In addition, it is likely that these adult viewers would have had some kind of connection to the war, be it a father, an uncle, or grandfather who fought in combat. There is, therefore, a strong connection between the viewership of Capa’s photographs and Spielberg’s film—a link that helps these photographs gain a contemporary viewership.

Robert Capa’s role as the photographer is integral in understanding the iconicity and enduring influence of his D-Day series. His Eastern European roots and journey into the world of photography greatly contrasted that of his American photojournalist contemporaries. For Capa, photography was not just his livelihood but also a form of language and communication. His photographs are able to speak the unspeakable and draw the viewer into his complicated and layered scenes - scenes of what could easily be described as hell on earth. He was untaught and uneducated in photographic technique, but his imperfect and amateur work is so expressive that even the contemporary viewer is able to imagine the sights and sounds of a 1944 combat zone. The photographs provide a stark distinction to the endless sea of triumphant imagery and conventional documentary work.

It is undeniable that Capa’s photographs are part of American mass culture. They were neither for his own private purposes nor for an artistic reason. His photographs were taken with the intent of being published in the nationally circulated LIFE magazine. It is because of their placement in LIFE that the D-Day photographs were able to gain such notoriety, and prestige. While Luce did pay a great deal of attention to his magazine’s visual look and the quality of the photographs, he was also heavily focused on promoting his Pro-American political views in each issue. Ultimately, it is due to LIFE’s aesthetic appearance and emphasis on photography that provided Capa’s photographs with the necessary national and international platform. It is through their use in such a celebrated mass publication that the D-Day photographs are arguably just as iconic as Joe Rosenthal’s triumphant images. LIFE magazine effectively introduced Capa and his captivating photographs to the country.

The D-Day photographs still have a sense of immediacy decades after the actual invasion. They look to the past in a nostalgic fashion by evoking memories of a definitive victory and a clearly defined mission. Yet, these photographs are also brought into the modern era through their use as inspiration in the opening sequence of Steven Spielberg’s epic movie. War has not disappeared and the suffering, the horror, and the fear American soldiers faced on the Normandy beaches have carried on well into the 21st century. Saving Private Ryan is an example of the strong connection many modern Americans continue to have with World War II and D-Day.

Larger questions remain, however. Have Luce’s “end-justifies-the-means” agenda and the widely held notion of World War II as the “good war” changed the original meaning behind the photographs? Are Capa’s anti-war values buried when the photographs are placed within the context of LIFE among text and captions? How does the modern viewer interact with the photographs in relation to the highly dramatic and violent Saving Private Ryan? Ultimately, this thesis seeks to answer these questions by exploring Capa’s D-Day photographs and their journey to iconic status. Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites state that “an iconic photograph can continue to shape public understanding…long after the event has passed.”5 Capa’s photographs have played a role in influencing people’s knowledge and opinions of D-Day because of their continued relevance and significance in the national culture and identity of America.

Chapter 1: The Language of Photography
To know Robert Capa is to understand his distinct photographs. His D-Day series of June 6, 1944 has become quite influential in how people perceive the Second World War and D-Day. The invasion has found a place in history alongside other legendary American battles- Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, Battle of the Bulge, Iwo Jima. Even though photography had been around since 1839, photojournalism was just coming into its own during the 1940s. New and emerging technologies in both photography and printing helped to boost the burgeoning industry. Advances made in cameras, like the production of the miniature 35mm Leica, allowed photographers to capture pictures in a more impulsive and rapid fashion. Capa’s D-Day series has become an American symbol in recent decades - an icon of one of the great European battles of the Second World War. His blurred photograph of a non-descript American soldier swimming to shore in chest-high water has come to represent the horrors of that bloody summer day in a variety of media [Figure 3]. The series as a whole portrays the hellish conditions American soldiers endured in the battle against the German army. Is it surprising that an Eastern European Jew took one of the most well known American photographs from World War II? Does it change the meaning of the images or does Capa’s internationalism (and even Judaism) further enhance the very notion of America fighting for world (and religious) freedom from tyranny, as witnessed in the photographs? Capa’s notable photographic style is one of several important points in this larger discussion of how and why his D-Day series should be considered an icon of war photography.

The Photographer

The man who became the celebrated Robert Capa was born Endre Friedmann in 1913 in Pest, Hungary, to a bourgeois Jewish family.6 In 1931, Friedmann’s increased political fervor, participation in anti-government, leftist demonstrations, and his involvement in the Communist party led to his arrest and subsequent exile from Hungary. Friedmann then moved to Berlin with the idea of continuing his education and fulfilling his goal of becoming a journalist. When his parents were unable to support him anymore with a monthly stipend, he decided to take up photography as a way to earn money to survive. Later on in his life he said, “I decided to become a photographer, which was the nearest thing to journalism for anyone who found himself without a language.”7 For Friedmann, photography was a form of communication, a channel through which to express his thoughts, ideas, and words. Although he had taken German throughout much of his adolescent education back in Pest, his adeptness with languages was weak. In Berlin, he found himself in a foreign land with few friends, a language barrier, and increasing anti-Semitic rhetoric. Photography, therefore, became a kind of second language for him. He was a self-taught photographer and it is this lack of a formal education in the medium that most likely gave the future Robert Capa to have such a singular perspective of war. He was uninhibited by customary requirements that dictated the proper lighting, camera position, or framing. This resulted in photographs that appear natural and spontaneous, traits that the work of many of his contemporaries lacked.

Friedmann soon found himself working for Dephot, one of the premier photo agencies in Berlin.8 The mission of the renowned German agency seems to have had a strong influence on Friedmann for the rest of his career. Simon Guttman, the head of Dephot, was said to have been “trying to produce ‘lively pictures’ and sequences where single photos were inadequate…[while also in the process of] develop[ing] a new [practice]: the photographer taking risks, preferring failure to playing safe.”9 Friedmann was inducted into the world of photojournalism where risking one’s life in order to get the best possible photograph was lauded and, quite frankly, expected. In World War II alone, “37 print and photographic correspondents were killed, 112 were wounded, and 50 were interned in prisoner-of-war camps.”10 He never played it safe at any time in his short career, once stating that “[i]f your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”11 Friedmann traveled from war zone to war zone, capturing images of fighting and struggling soldiers. In the D-Day series one can see just how much combat photographers gambled in going after the perfect shot. Friedmann was just as involved in the invasion of Normandy as any of the soldiers he photographed, except that he was not firing a weapon at the enemy. Susan Sontag writes that, “[o]nly war photography combines voyeurism and danger. Combat photographers can’t avoid participating in the lethal activity they record.”12 It is important to note her use of the word “voyeurism” because through it she implies that war photographers receive some sort of satisfaction or adrenaline rush at witnessing war. And yet, as Sontag notes, the photographers are not only viewers but also participants because they are most often embedded with the soldiers whom they photograph. The photographer is removed from the fighting in that he photographs and records the violent events, but he is also part of the ambush, the raid, or the invasion in a way that a typical bystander or voyeur is not.

Friedmann’s time at Dephot was enormously instrumental in forming both his photographic style and method. His combat photographs, from the Spanish Civil War to D-Day to the French Indochina War, were published in LIFE magazine as part of the publication’s photo-essay articles. While many of his D-Day photographs are emotionally powerful and eloquent on their own [Figure 3], the LIFE photo-essay allows for a story to be told through a sequence of images. The scenes of the landings dramatically unfold in a cinematic format [Figures 2-5], and Capa’s skill in telling a story through pictures is what makes his work so captivating. His photographs have a language all their own - they describe the indescribable actions of combat through imagery. The photographic sequences allowed LIFE readers in 1944 to relive again and again the horrific struggle that occurred on the beaches of Normandy. While the images reflect the newsreels and films of World War II, the photographs are able to do something cinema cannot - forever capture one specific moment. Although each photo-essay showcases five to six images in a cinematic style, the reader is able to appreciate details of each scene in a way film does not allow.

Friedmann left the continent for London in 1934 due to an increase in anti-Semitism. It was with this Channel crossing that he abandoned his identity as Endre Friedmann and adopted the pseudonym Robert Capa. According to Richard Whelan, Friedmann created this new identity for several reasons, the most basic of which was to avoid confusion with another European photographer with the same last name.13 The more egotistical reason behind the name change is that he wanted to create an aura around Robert Capa, a fictional American photographer who never took personal meetings, but rather had his assistant Endre Friedmann take care of public matters. The name Robert Capa was inspired by a combination of film director Frank Capra and actor Robert Taylor. As Friedmann himself stated, the name was “easy to pronounce, easy to spell and easy to remember.”14 Friedmann’s inspiration reflected a keen interest in film, which played out in his photographs and their cinematic expression of movement.15 Although the pseudonym was quickly revealed, the name Robert Capa stuck and became a stage name for Friedmann during the remainder of his life and career.

Capa’s work at Dephot combined with his strong interest in cinema and amateur photography skills help explain the stylistic choices in his work, specifically with regards to the D-Day series. During his stays in Paris and Berlin, he often photographed trivial projects, like sports games, government meetings, and theater actors, as a way to practice and perfect his craft. It was through these assignments that Capa learned “not only to observe and record but also to devise ways to bring to dramatic life the events that he photographed.”16 He spent time learning how to heighten the drama of his subject matter through various techniques, whether slightly shaking the camera to create an effect of excitement or photographing a sequence of related shots.

The Photographs

Susan D. Moeller writes that Capa’s “style of photography was often more obviously romantic (although not naïve) than that of [his] American counterparts who had been weaned on the documentary tradition of the Farm Security Administration.”17 Romance, in this case, indicates a sense of expression and emotion in contrast to the formulaic, objective documentarian approach. Romance is in the photograph of the lone soldier swimming ashore [Figure 3], one human in the midst of an endless battle. Although the man’s face is not quite in focus, the viewer is still able to pick up on emotion through his body language and the frantic mood of the frame. The image expresses determination and strength, but also fear. There is no sign of the enemy—only the American soldier is in the frame. Unlike the other photographs in the series, there is a large amount of open space between the obstacles and other objects. The soldier is quite exposed, which adds a vulnerable and lonely mood to the photograph. Furthermore, because the soldier is the only object in view that is remotely in focus, the viewer is forced to interact with him and contemplate his fate. In contrast, the photograph of soldiers running through the surf is filled with frantic energy [Figure 2]. The viewer can imagine the fear, the adrenaline, and the hurried excitement of that moment, as the soldiers lug their equipment against the agitated water. Capa did not focus on the landing crafts, tanks, and guns, even though they remain an indistinct part of the background [Figures 2, 4, and 5]. Each of the series’ four central photographs shows the human element of the war, the men who essentially became cannon fodder on the beaches. According to Susan Moeller, what distinguishes Capa from the other photographers on the beaches that day was his “ability to communicat[e] the drama of war rather than [document] the simple facts of it.”18 It is this mastery at communicating emotion, expression and drama that gives Capa’s work a powerful edge in comparison to the work of other combat photographers. These photographs speak of the horrors, the violence, and the chaotic scramble ashore without uttering a single word. As he did in his early days in Berlin, Capa allowed photography to speak for him.

Peter J. Carroll and Bert Brandt were two other photographers who witnessed the beach landings.19 They photographed similar features in their work, such as the landing crafts and the soldiers, but the viewer is removed from the action and a quieter, less frantic mood dominates the scenes. In one of Carroll’s photographs [Figure 6], a landing craft momentarily stops to drop off the group of men who are wading into shore. While these soldiers still appear to be in danger of German gunfire, there is not the same sense of urgency or disorder as there is in Capa’s photographs [Figures 2 and 5]. Capa took his photographs from angles that seem to evoke feelings of nervousness and fear in the viewer. He was immersed in the action, and was, therefore, able to capture images from behind, in front of, and next to the soldiers. In Carroll’s image [Figure 6], the men are standing straight up as they move to the beach in contrast to the men in Capa’s photograph who are pinned down in the rising tide behind German obstacles [Figure 5]. In another one of Capa’s images [Figure 2], the viewer looks down onto the soaked soldiers and the churning, foaming water. There is a greater amount of detail due to the fact that Capa is right behind the men as they leave the landing craft. Based on the camera angle, it seems that Carroll was on another landing craft farther away from the action, rather than on the beach like Capa.

Brandt’s work is strikingly different to both Capa and Carroll. Although Carroll did not capture drama like Capa, he still photographed soldiers against the backdrop of thick, ominous smoke. Brandt’s photograph [Figure 7], on the other hand, is upbeat, positive, and celebratory. The soldiers smile as they leisurely wade ashore, rather than run or hunch or swim. There is no a sense of sacrifice in comparison to Capa’s images because Brandt took this photograph in the aftermath of the battle. The image is focused and clear allowing the viewer to fully see many of the faces detail. Capa’s blurred and out-of-focus photographs prevent the viewer from seeing faces in detail, a characteristic that only adds to the frenzied, chaotic mood. Do Capa’s photographs have more drama and emotion because they portray the sacrifice, the struggle, and the chaos t- the process as opposed to the aftermath? Is it what Capa captured or how he captured it?

Several of Capa’s photographs evoke a sense of randomness due to the actual chaos of combat and the blurred, unfocused appearance [Figures 2 and 3]. Capa somehow had to concentrate on photographing the ongoing invasion while bullets zipped by, bombs and grenades exploded, and bodies and shrapnel rained down from every direction. The blurriness and lack of clarity only accentuates and adds to the turmoil. The images seem impulsive and were, perhaps, simply a product of Capa being in the right spot at the right time. According to Whelan, however, he was actually quite calculated with the photographs. He writes that Capa’s “working process…demonstrates [that he] was adept at ferreting out a news story, distilling its principal issues in a few direct but telling pictures, and orchestrating those images to an intense human drama.”20 Although it is hard to deny that Capa was obviously meticulous and masterful in creating poignant images, one must remember that he was fighting for his own survival while simultaneously photographing soldiers trying to do the same.

In his autobiography, Capa describes a moment the Easy red section of Omaha beach when he is trying to avoid the hail of bullets while also capturing images of the scene around him:21

“Exhausted from the water and the fear, we lay flat on a small strip of wet sand between the sea and the barbed wire. The slant of the beach gave us some protection, so long as we lay flat, from the machine-gun and rifle bullets, but the tide pushed us against the barbed wire, where the guns were enjoying open season…I took out my second Contax camera and began to shoot without raising my head…From the air, “Easy Red” must have looked like an open tin of sardines.”22

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