When, on April 18th 1945, Raymond Bowman was shot to death by a sniper from the Axis forces on the balcony of an apartment building in the German town of Leipzig, the photographer on scene – who had just witnessed Bowman take stance behind his machine gun – jumped inside the flat from a window and clicked the fallen soldier, as his blood drenched the living room rug. By the time the photographs reached New York, the war was over and the Life magazine had published the photograph which became famous for erroneously recognizing Bowman as “the last man to die” during the war in Europe. Today, the apartment building still stands on the exact same spot – without any trace of blood or violence – but restored to its former glory thanks to the efforts of the Capa Haus initiative, which derives its name from the photographer in question – Robert Capa.
Robert Capa’s original name was Endre Friedmann – he was born in Hungary and in the 1930s was arrested for left-wing student activism, at which point he departed for Paris. In France, Friedmann moved in similar Bohemian circles being influenced by photographers, philosophers and artists. This was also the place where he met his future lover and professional partner Gerda Taro (or Gerta Pohorylle). In 1936, the couple decided to leave for Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War. In their attempt to gain proximity to the site of turmoil and violence, both Endre and Gerta revolutionized war photography. One of the more famous of Endre’s works – “Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death” – has been put under scrutiny again recently. Professor José Manuel Susperregui of the University of the Basque Country has, after seven years of research, declared the photo to be fraudulent in its depiction of a militiaman caught in the moment of his death. Until some time ago, the subject of the photo was considered Federico Borell, a republican fighter and the site of the photo, Cerro Muriano , about five miles north of Cordoba where Gerda and Robert stayed during September 1936. Research revealed that the photo might have been staged and clicked at an altogether different location.
Of course, this doesn’t take much away from the legacy of Endre’s work which remains one of the most influential portraitures of not just the Spanish Civil War, but the Second World War, the 1968 Arab-Israeli War and the First Indochina War. Endre once said that – “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Sure enough, Endre and Gerta went up close trying to capture sites of refugees being displaced, kneeling next to armed soldiers and militiamen to catch the floating shrapnel on their lens and constantly touring with this or that group of rebels and army barracks to get as close as they could to the reality of life in the field of battle. A philosophy that cost both of them their lives – as Gerta was killed in the frontline of the Spanish Civil War in 1937 itself and Endre, who went on to live till the age of 40, died when he stepped on a landmine in Indochina in 1954.
Hoffman, a political cabaret artist from Leipzig was one of the founding members behind the Capa Haus intiative. Fascinated with war time stories of his parents and grandparents, he went around with his friends to discover the building described by Capa as the site from where he clicked the famous “Last Man to Die” photograph. Hoffman discovered the photograph when he was 19 in a banned underground magazine. The photos told the story of the US army liberating the town from under the Nazis.
But for that very reason, the connection with the Americans and Capa was suppressed by the Red Army of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic that took over the town in July 1945. It was after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 that there was an attempt to rediscover these stories from the Second World War. Hoffman found the building, but only a fragment of what it used to be – with broken roofs and loose floorboards – the “nice bourgeoisie apartment” (as Capa had described it), broken down and deteriorating, with the erstwhile balcony long detached. The apartment and the rest of the building have now been restored after a fundraising project undertaken by the initiative. Speaking about the photo he almost didn’t click, Capa says in a rare radio interview, that he knew the war would be over by the time the photos reached the US:
So it made no sense whatsoever… but he (Bowman) looked so clean cut, like it was the first day of the war and he was very earnest. So I said ‘All right, this will be my last picture of the war.’ And I put my camera up and took a portrait shot of him, and while I shot my portrait of him he was killed by a sniper. It was a very clean and somehow a very beautiful death.
For both Endre and Gerta, covering the landscapes they did was not a question of objective journalist integrity – they wished to get into the grit and grime of the fighting rebels and soldiers as a means to recognize and empathize with the costs and causes of the wars they covered – especially the Spanish Civil War where they both went around with Republican militiamen fighting the counter-revolutionist fascist forces of the General Francisco Franco. The fight against fascism was their fight, considering their personal histories as refugees and exiles. During their time together in France, they would change their names to Robert and Gerda in order to dupe French agencies into buying photos from supposed “American” photographers and trying to fight the hostility against foreigners present in France at the time. The pseudonyms stuck with their works, even after the scam was discovered.