Robert Capa

From Nov ’06 Spotlight: “Peace and War: Facing Human Conflict,” the theme of this year’s Chicago Humanities Festival,” could not be more timely. Running from Saturday October 28 through Sunday November 12, this year’s CHF will squeeze more than 150 programs into a two-week period, and topics of interest to Jewish audiences are simply too numerous to catalogue here.

Forced to choose from this plethora of great options, I called Richard Whelan’s Brooklyn office to learn more about his biography of photojournalist Robert Capa. The man we now think of as a towering American war correspondent was born in Budapest in 1913. His parents named him Endre Erno Friedmann, but according to Whelan “Capa seems to have understood that to get his work out he had to become something of a celebrity.” Constantly moving west as conditions in Europe deteriorated, Capa created a uniquely 20th century life on the fly and often under a hail of bullets. “Friedmann knew that it was very useful to become ‘Robert Capa,’ but he didn’t let it go to this head. He had a wonderful sense of humor and perspective on himself.”

“Like so many people and especially Jews in the 1930s, what was foremost in Capa’s mind was to see a world without fascism and all that fascism stood for. He was willing to take any risk to put an end to fascism, to make great photographs that would enlist the sympathies of an ever-larger part of the world’s public. At the end of World War II he talked about having business cards printed up that would say ‘Robert Capa, War Photographer Unemployed.’ Alas, it took a very short time to become disillusioned.”

Why, I asked, is there so little mention of the Holocaust in Whelan’s biography? “Capa knew for sure that many members of his extended family, many friends had to have died in the camps, but to cover the camps, to photograph them was simply more than he could bear. But in 1948 he was traveling with Theodore White, and they went to the Auschwitz–Birkenau complex, which had just been opened as a memorial. People were beginning to make pilgrimage, to see this terrible place and to remember. So that was the point, I now believe, of Capa’s coming to terms. Capa was by no means alone among Jewish photographers in finding himself unable to visit the camps. Most of the photographers who made the great images of the camps were not Jewish.”

Did the trip to Auschwitz occur after Capa left Israel? “Capa photographed the establishment of the state of Israel in May of 1948, and his trip to Eastern Europe was in the Fall. In fact, I’m just now beginning to work with an Israeli screenwriter who came to me with the idea of doing a theatrical film about Capa’s experiences in Israel. This new project is beginning to look very real.”

In addition to the film project, Whelan told me he was working on a revised edition of his book (to be released as a multimedia CD-ROM). It will be available next September in conjunction with a new exhibit at Manhattan’s International Center of Photography.

To read one of Richard Whelan’s most fascinating articles, visit the PBS website, and look for Robert Capa in the “American Masters” series.

Click HERE for more information about this year’s Chicago Humanities Festival.

TZIVI’S UPDATE (7/20/10): Richard Whelan never made it to CHF ’06.  His lecture was cancelled due to illness, and he died in May ’07.  Click HERE to read a remembrance by David Schonauer who calls Whelan “one of the great writers on photography in the 20th century.”  According to the ICP website, Whelan was able to curate the exhibition & complete the catalogue before his untimely death.  It ran from 9/26/07 thru 1/6/08.  According to Schonauer’s obituary, Whelan is now buried next to Capa in upstate New York.

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