The Story Behind Robert Capa’s Pictures of D-Day
Today is the 69th anniversary of D-Day, the beginning of the massive Allied invasion of western Europe to confront Hitler’s forces during World War II. Robert Capa famously made some of the only surviving pictures of the invasion on Omaha beach, which was chaotic, in part due to wind and current. The beach rockets intended to stun the Germans arrived too early and the aerial bombs landed too far inland. Many infantrymen deemed it suicidal to attempt to cross the open beach, so the waterline was soon mobbed with crouching, pinned-down men without officers to lead them forward. Capa, who had crossed the Channel with the soldiers, remained photographing on the beach for about an hour and a half that morning until his film was used up. He then boarded a ship to take him off the beach, which subsequently was hit and sank, and then made it back on another boat, where medics were treating the wounded. He arrived back in Weymouth, England, on the morning on June 7, handed his film to the Army courier, and returned to France.
When his film arrived in the Life London office that evening, there were four rolls of 35mm film (one of them probably unexposed) and half a dozen rolls of 2 1/4 film. Capa included a note with his films saying that the action was all on the 35mm rolls. Picture editor John Morris told photographer Hans Wild and the young lab assistant, Dennis Banks, to rush the prints. When the film came out of the developing solution, Wild looked at it wet and told Morris that although the 35mm negatives were grainy, the pictures were fabulous. A few minutes later, Banks burst into Morris’s office, blurting out hysterically, “They’re ruined! Ruined! Capa’s films are all ruined!” Because of the necessary rush to get prints on the flight to New York for the next edition of Life, he had put the 35mm negatives in the drying cabinet with the heat on high and closed the door. With no air circulating, the film emulsion had melted. Although the first three rolls had nothing on the film, there were images on the fourth. The film Capa had shot with his Rollei before and after the actual landings had not been put into the drying cabinet and so survived intact.
Although ten of the 35mm negatives were usable, the emulsion on them had melted just enough so that it slid a bit over the surface of the film. Consequently, sprocket holes—which would normally punctuate the unexposed margin of the film—cut into the lower portion of the images themselves. Ironically, the blurring of the surviving images may actually have strengthened their dramatic impact, for it imbues them with an almost tangible sense of urgency and explosive reverberation.
Written by Cynthia Young, ICP Curator of the Capa Archives
The backstory to history is as interesting as the photos themselves.
Happened upon this great photo and back story while perusing Danya Bateman’s Flickr account:
I love this unremarkable image for a couple of reasons: The central figure is a ceiba tree, the world tree in Mayan cosmology, which stands in the center of the Four Directions and is believed to lift up the sky. Its celestial correlate is the Milky Way, the Mayan highway to the heavens.
The power pole next to it is pure happenstance, of course, but it’s in the shape of the cross – a symbol that the ancient Mayan long used to represent the world tree (decorating it, as they still do in Chamula, with the flowering blossoms of the ceiba and the needles of the pine) – long before the Spanish arrived and introduced their cross, carrying the crucified Christ. They use it still today, in Catholic churches, where ancient Mayan belief and colonial religion come together in a fascinating amalgam.
While we were traveling in Guatemala we had the good fortune to see a ceiba flowering in Mixtec Viejo, a remarkable highland site about two hours outside Guatemala City. I didn’t realize how remarkable the flowering was until I went digging for some background material on the ceiba as World Tree, and found this afterword by Linda Schele in Maya Cosmos, the book she co-authored with David Friedel and Joy Parker:
“‘It’s a ceiba,’ I chirped and began looking for a branch low enough to see one of the blossoms up close.…”What I saw stunned me, for in her hand [where she held a ceiba blossom] lay a perfect replica of the earflares worn by the Classic Maya kings. Suddenly I understood the full symbolism of so many of the things I had been studying for years. The kings dressed themselves as the Wakah-Chan Tree, although at the time I didn’t know it was also the Milky Way. The tzuk head on the trunk of the tree covered their loins, the branches with their white flowers bent down along their thighs, the double-headed elliptic snake rested in their arms, and the great bird Itzam-Yeh stood on their head.
"I already knew as I stood under that young tree in Tikal that the kings were the human embodiment of the ceiba as the central axis of the world. As I stood there gazing at the flowers in Joyce’s hand, I also learned that the kings embodied the ceiba at the moment it flowers to yield the sak-nik-nal, the “white flowers,” that are the soul of human beings. As the tree flowers to reproduce itself, so the kings flowered to reproduce their world.
"When I returned to Austin, I went to the Plant Resources Center of the University of Texas Herbarium and spoke to Dr. Carol Todzia about what I had seen. She helped me find out about the life cycle and natural history of the ceiba and exactly how unusual the little encounter was. Not only are ceibas so high that you usually can’t see the blossoms, I learned that they do not necessarily bloom every year. In fact, it can be as much as ten years between such flowerings. … The ceiba flowers in January through the first week or so of February. … The tree blossoms in the month just before Creation day on February 5, so that it was in flower when First Father raised it into the sky."
One more reason I love this image: the faint impression of the volcano Atitlan in the far distance. Shortly after I took this shot we would hike up a hill to the pilgrimage site of the Dios Mundo, where new year offerings lay smoldering, and the ancient stone head to which they were presented stood in alignment with the mountain and the ceiba in the distance.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Shinichi Maruyama‘s previous photographic works captured the momentary stances of water, using a high speed camera to freeze images of fluid in motion. For his new series, NUDE, Maruyama teamed up with choreographer Jessica Lang to create photos that encapsulate every granular moment of a nude dancer’s motion. Each image is composed of 10,000 photos of a brief instance.
Gorgeous in its dervish-ness.
Huge loss for photography today with the death of Shomei Tomatsu. His quiet, personal approach to national devastation inspired an entire generation of photographers, filmmakers, and writers.
All photos by Shomei Tomatsu:
House 9, Amakusa Shimoshima Island, Kumamoto Prefecture, 1959
From: The Skin of the Nation
“Time Stopped at 11:02, 1945, Nagasaki,” 1961, and “Bottle Melted and Deformed by Atomic Bomb Heat, Radiation, and Fire, Nagasaki,” 1961
A huge loss. Magnificent artist.
Now isn’t this fascinating! We’re all well acquainted with the only photo of Emily Dickinson known to exist, the daguerreotype of her as a 16-year-old girl taken in 1847 (right).
Now, it appears a second daguerreotype of the reclusive poet has made its way to Amherst College by way of a dedicated collector. But this one, taken in 1859, shows her in a different light as a young woman in her mid-20s sitting with a friend, Kate Scott Turner:
“If the daguerreotype is eventually accepted as Dickinson, it will change our idea of her, providing a view of the poet as a mature woman showing striking presence, strength, and serenity. She (whoever she is) seems to be the one in charge here, the one who decided that on a certain day in a certain year, she and her friend would have their likenesses preserved. In fact, even if this photograph is not of Dickinson and Turner, it has still been of use in forcing us to imagine Dickinson as an adult, past the age of the ethereal-looking 16-year-old we have known for so many years.”
The Guardian reports on the extent to which the daguerreotype has been analyzed, right down to the “corneal curvature” and the “hair cowlick.” Don’t you just love a mystery? Here’s your chance to be the verifying link.