Robert Capa and The Falling Soldier

Robert Capa, Death of a Loyalist militiaman, Cerro Muriano, Spain, Sept. 5, 1936
In early September 1936, with the Spanish Civil War less than two months old, a 22 year-old Robert Capa took a photograph that was to become a symbol of the Republican struggle against General Franco’s fascist insurgents. The story of the iconic image that both made and, years later, challenged Capa’s reputation as a war photographer, is just one strand of his life explored in a timely new show at the Barbican in London.

The Spanish Civil War broke out on July 19 1936 and in early August, Robert Capa and his photographer companion (and lover) Gerda Taro arrived in Spain to cover the events. In September, Capa and Taroíarrived in the village of Cerro Muriano near Círdoba where Republican militiamen were mouting an offensive against the fascists. Here the pair produced a series of images showing a small band of militiamen posing on a hillside, holding their rifles up defiantly and running across ridges and gulleys.

As Capa was watching one of the soldiers (later identified as Federico Borrell García) a stray bullet struck and killed the militiaman right in front of his camera. Two weeks later, Capa’s striking image, alongside another shot taken on the same hillside, appeared in the French magazine, Vu, in an emotive photo-essay that aimed to bring the Republican’s struggle to a wider audience.

What Capa could not have guessed at the time, however, was how the authenticity of his image would later be questioned, largely because it had so little information attached to it. Was it staged in order to make a definitive image of the Republican struggle? Was the soldier actually killed? And why does he occupy an almost identical position to another soldier, felled seemingly moments later?

In This Is War! Robert Capa at Work, one of three shows at the Barbican dedicated to the representation of conflict, the curators have done a great job in sourcing the printed examples of where Capa’s famous image of “The Falling Soldier” was used.

Bizarrely, it seems that in Capa’s own use of the image for a cover for one of his books (see below), he may have inadvertantly implied that this powerful photograph wasn’t a true depiction of the day.

The first use of Death of a Loyalist militiaman was in Vu magazine, published 18 days after Capa took the photograph. The pages (above) are titled How They Fell (left) and How They Fled. The caption to the image that became commonly known as The Falling Soldier, reads: “With lively step, breasting the wind, clenching their rifles, they ran down the slope covered with thick stubble. Suddenly their soaring was interrupted, a bullet whistled – a fratricidal bullet – and their blood was drunk by their native soil.” The captions on the right-hand page, to the images of refugees fleeing the Nationalist bombing of Cerro Murian (where The Falling Soldier image was taken) are written in a similarly poetic language.

The day after the issue of Vu appeared, Regards magazine published five images (above) that are now known to have been made in Cerro Muriano around the time that Capa photographed The Falling Soldier (they are captioned as being from the Círdoba front).

Marking the first anniversary of the civil war in Spain, LIFE magazine again used The Falling Soldier in a series of images by Capa. This issue of LIFE is often mistakenly credited as being the first publication where the image appeared. The caption, too, is a little misleading. It reads: “Robert Capa’s camera catches a Spanish soldier the instant he is dropped by a bullet through the head in front of Círdoba”. The assertion that the militiaman had been shot through the head was likely supplied by a LIFE editor who mistook the tassel on the man’s cap for a piece of his skull.

The advert on the left, for Vitalis hair protector, also offers up an interesting (if perhaps ill-placed) juxtaposition.

This book cover (above) for Capa and Taro’s tribute to the sacrifices made by the Spanish while fighting for their freedom appeared the following year. Ironically, it may have contributed to the theories that Capa had staged the image, simply because it only appeared on the dust jacket and not inside the book itself.

Over the years, as copies of the book lost their jackets, it made it seem as if Capa’s most famous picture from the period hadn’t even made it into the edit for the book. Some critics suggested that this indicated Capa’s own distrust of using the image.

In a 2002 essay in Aperture magazine, however, the critic Richard Whelan recounted the detective work he undertook to prove the authenticity of Capa’s Falling Soldier; thatíBorrell Garcíaíwas indeed photographed at the moment of his death.

Before Whelen concluded his study by hypothesising what happened during that day iníCerro Muriano (the essay can be read in its entirety here) he made use of an enlightening study of the photograph by Captain Robert L Franks, chief homicide detective of the Memphis Police Department (who was also a keen photographer).

“The most decisive element in [Franks’] reading [of the image] is the soldierís left hand, seen below his horizontal left thigh,” Whelan writes. “Capt. Franks told me in conversation that the fact that the fingers are somewhat curled toward the palm clearly indicates that the manís muscles have gone limp and that he is already dead. Hardly anyone faking death would ever know that such a hand position was necessary in order to make the photograph realistic. It is nearly impossible for any conscious person to resist the reflex impulse to brace his fall by flexing his hand strongly backward at the wrist and extending his fingers out straight.”

The Barbican have cleverly brought Capa’s work to a larger audience at a time when contemporary coverage of conflict is ubiquitous. The internet, camera phones and “embedded” photographers have all contributed to a new understanding of war photography.

As in Capa’s time, however, the power of the image as a weapon is not to be underestimated.

This Is War! Robert Capa at Work; Gerda Taro: A Retrospective; and On the Subject of War (featuring works by Omer Fast, Geert van Kesteren, Paul Chaní and An-My Lí) run from October 17 until January 25 in the Barbican art gallery.