Robert Capa’s ‘Falling Soldier’

19 October 2008

The photograph is one of the classics, and not just of war photography; the apparent death of an unknown and unnamed Republican soldier during the Spanish civil war. Geoff Dyer, probably Britain’s finest cultural essayist, returns to the picture in a longer essay prompted by several simultaneous exhibitions on war photography in London:

Robert Capa’s 1936 photograph The Falling Soldier shows the moment of a republican soldier’s death in the Spanish civil war. Or so it was claimed and widely believed. Then doubts began to circulate. Perhaps the picture was posed, fake. Capa’s biographer, Richard Whelan, has gnawed away at this issue for decades. The explanation put forward by him in the catalogue accompanying an exhibition at the Barbican is that, during an informal truce, a group of soldiers simulated a bit of a battle charge for the benefit of the camera. Fearing a genuine attack was being mounted, enemy troops opened fire. The trigger was pulled, the camera clicked simultaneously – and a man died. Make-believe became tragically real.

Whelan’s explanation is unlikely to be improved on, but it is worth considering something that David Simon, in his book Homicide, learned from ballistics experts: that “no bullet short of an artillery shell is capable of knocking a human being off his feet”. This is not to say that people don’t fall down when shot. They do, but only as “a learned response. People who have been shot believe they are supposed to fall immediately to the ground, so they do.”

This adds an unexpected twist to the moment of simulation, but there is a larger irony too: the more one learns about the circumstances in which Capa made his famous photograph, the less those circumstances matter. Even if it is now established that this is what happened, it is too late. Over the years, the photograph has come adrift from those circumstances, floated clear of what it depicts. One of the standard ideas about photography is that it is strong as evidence, weak in meaning. The Falling Soldier shows this formulation in reverse: it has become more and more questionable as evidence, but its meaning has continued to deepen. Somehow the image is able to accommodate all the different accounts of its making, accounts that have themselves assumed the quality of after-the-fact interpretation. Ultimately, the only proof it offers is of something that has long been accepted – that photographs can be as mysterious as works of art.

[Update: There’s a long post at Ethical Martini on the Falling Soldier photograph and its history and controversies.]

Elsewhere Dyer reminds us that the ‘shake’ on Capa’s famous D-Day pictures wasn’t camera shake but a mistake in the lab, but this only enhanced Capa’s reputation. [Update 2: More on this at PICTURAPixel]. But then, Capa said he preferred “a strong image that is technically bad than vice versa”.

The copy of the picture above is taken from the Dasein, Red Elephant blog, which has a post exploring the photo’s provenance.

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