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SUNDAY SERIES® | (1936) Robert Capa’s “Falling Soldier”


Robert Capa (October 22, 1913 – May 25, 1954), born Endre Ernő Friedmann, was a 20th century combat photographer and photojournalist who covered five different wars. His action photographs portray the violence of war with unique impact.

From 1936 to 1939, he was in Spain, photographing the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. He became known across the globe for a photo (known as the “Falling Soldier” photo) presumably taken in Cerro Muriano on the Cordoba Front of a Loyalist Militiaman who allegedly had just been shot and was in the act of falling to his death.

There has been a long controversy about the authenticity of this photograph with a long string of critics claiming that the photo, taken of a soldier seemingly at the moment of death, was faked.

A Spanish historian identified the dead soldier as Federico Borrell García, from Alcoi (Alicante).

This identification has been disputed; in fact there is a second photograph showing another soldier falling exactly on the same spot. According to the Spanish newspaper El Periodico, the photo was taken near the town of Espejo, at 10 kilometres from Cerro Muriano, proving that the photo was staged.

In 2009, a Spanish professor published a book in which he alleged that the photograph could not have been taken where, when or how Capa and his backers have alleged.

In “Shadows of Photography,” José Manuel Susperregui, a communications professor at the Universidad del País Vasco, concludes that Capa’s picture was taken not at Cerro Muriano, just north of Córdoba, but near another town, about 35 miles away. Since that location was far from the battle lines when Capa was there, Mr. Susperregui said, it means that “the ‘Falling Soldier’ photo is staged, as are all the others in the series taken on that front.”

Many of Capa’s photographs of the Spanish Civil War were, for many decades, presumed lost, but surfaced in Mexico City in the late 1990s. While fleeing Europe in 1939, Capa had lost the collection, which over time came to be dubbed the “Mexican suitcase”.

Ownership of the collection was transferred to the Capa Estate, and in December, 2007, moved to the International Center of Photography in Manhattan, a museum founded by Capa’s younger brother Cornell.

Experts in Manhattan, said they found some aspects of Mr. Susperregui’s investigation intriguing or even convincing. But they continue to believe that the image seen in “Falling Soldier” is genuine, and caution against jumping to conclusions.

“Part of what is difficult about this is that people are saying, ‘Well if it’s not here, but there, then, good God, it’s fabricated,’ ” Willis E. Hartshorn, the center’s director, said in an interview. “That’s a leap that I think needs a lot more research and a lot more study.”

Cynthia Young, curator at the I.C.P., said the new evidence suggesting that “Falling Soldier” was photographed in Espejo was “compelling, even persuasive.”

The confusion over the site may have arisen, she added, because Capa “captioned so few of his pictures” during the trip, his first as a war photographer, and “very possibly didn’t remember” where he took the picture, probably leaving his agents and editors back in Paris to make a guess when they developed his film.

No negative of “Falling Soldier” is known to exist.

Spanish historians say that though there was intense combat in Espejo in late September, no fighting occurred there early in the month, when Capa, then 22 years old, and Gerda Taro, his colleague and companion, would have passed through. Until “the end of September, there wasn’t a single shot fired here, just some aerial bombardments,” Francisco Castro, a villager who was 9 years old at the time, told El Periódico. “The militiamen promenaded through the streets and ate the best hams in town.”

An alternative explanation of the creation of “Falling Soldier,” one which the photography center finds plausible, is that Capa’s photograph, was taken “not during the heat of battle,” as Mr. Hartshorn put it, but during maneuvers, perhaps being done for Capa’s benefit, “and that there was a moment in which the exercise became real, and this is the result of that moment.” He added: “ “The supposition has always been that there was a sniper” who picked off the militiaman from a distance.

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