SEOUL — A hundred years after his birth and just 60 since his death on the field, wartime photojournalist and Magnum Photos founding member Robert Capa is remembered in a South Korean retrospective that opened on August 2 at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts.
Though not the first exhibition here dedicated to the Hungarian-born photographer, it serves as the largest-scale show yet, and is curated from a selection of 160 original prints on loan from the International Center for Photography (ICP) — founded by Capa’s younger brother, Cornell, in 1974.
“The exhibition highlights the entirety of Capa’s life, from his time in Paris to his death after World War II,” said Cho Dae Yeon, the show’s director and a professor of photography at Gwangju University.
Though best known for two images — the 1936 “Falling Soldier,” taken at the moment the man was fatally shot, and American allied forces storming Omaha Beach, Normandy — Capa’s expansive oeuvre is represented in the show, with images from nearly every year of his two-decade career.
“His photographs, more than other images, show human impact, constant upheaval,” said ICP curator Christopher Phillips, noting that the photographer’s life from 1913 to 1954 was marred by wars. “I think looking back from the present day, these photographs help us understand how people lived through these events…they help us understand the world of our grandparents and the world we live in today.”
Though Capa’s images of refugees, wounded soldiers, and protests emit that tension of battle, it was his focus on each person’s expression as they looked up into the sky at an air raid, their poignant body language, their suffering that earned him fame as one of the world’s top photojournalist. Throughout his life, he would cover fighting in Spain, Italy, China, and France.
Crowds running for shelter when the air-raid alarm sounded, Bilbao, Spain (May 1937)
The exhibition includes a replica of the “Mexican Suitcase,” a collection of some 4,000 negatives retrieved by Cornell in 2007 and thought to have been long lost in the 1930s. The show ends with Capa’s final work before his death: a shot of soldiers sweeping grass fields in Vietnam for enemy fighters. It was soon after the images were taken that the photographer stepped on a landmine. Although his two cameras survived, he died of blood loss en route to a hospital.
Capa’s work helped establish photojournalism as we know it today, although his career was not without controversy. The authenticity of the famous “Falling Soldier” has been in dispute since its publication in the French Vu and LIFE.
“What’s fascinating to me is that after so many years of debating…it’s still impossible to say what exactly was going on in that photo. I think it’s possible in 100 years, people will still be debating about what that image shows,” said Phillips. “So in the end, the image of the falling soldier is a perfect mystery.”