Robert Capa’s controversial war photo subject of new exhibition


A pop-up exhibition at Antwerp’s M HKA museum attempts to bring closure to one of the most iconic war photos of all time

The falling soldier

Calling a single photograph an exhibition might seem to be stretching a point, but Controversy – the latest pop-up show at Antwerp’s contemporary arts museum M KHA – still provides plenty of food for thought.

It’s the work of rising Flemish photographer Max Pinckers, whose theatrically constructed images question accepted methods of documentary photography, and like-minded Dutch photographer and artist Sam Weerdmeester.

Their starting point is one of the most famous – or notorious – images in the history of photography. In 1937 Life magazine published a story about the Spanish civil war, illustrated with a picture of a running soldier, taken at the moment he was hit by an enemy bullet.

The photographer, Robert Capa, later claimed that he simply held his camera above his head and released the shutter, only discovering what he had photographed when he saw the developed film.

The picture became famous as an image of war, and a compelling example of photography’s ability to capture a moment of truth, even unintentionally. But then doubts began to arise: had the man been shot or is he simply falling? And was this really in combat, or simply an exercise, perhaps even an exercise staged for Capa’s camera?

To the grave

Capa was tight-lipped on the matter. One circulated story suggested this was because the death was real, even if the situation was a set-up: the militiaman had been shot by a sniper during a reconstruction, and Capa felt responsible.

When the photographer died in 1954, after stepping on a landmine in Vietnam, he took the secret with him.

Questions continued to be asked, and in 2009 Spanish academic José Manuel Susperregui published research into the landscape behind the falling soldier that allowed him to identify the location. It was not where Capa claimed it was, and not the site of fighting at that point in the war.

The trees are sharp, however far back in the landscape you look, as is the grass and the horizon. Reality is heightened, but falsified

Which brings us back to the image “Controversy” (pictured), which occupies one wall of M KHA’s Inbox exhibition space. It shows an orchard of olive trees on a Spanish hillside, under a pale blue sky. This is where the research says Capa took the photograph, as it appears today.

But again, this is not all that it seems. The “photograph” is a composite of 46 images of the scene, produced in a way that gives the maximum depth of field. The trees are sharp, however far back in the landscape you look, as is the grass and the horizon.

Reality is heightened, but falsified. And rather than capturing a moment in time, this picture is made up of many moments.

Yet the effect is not to reignite the controversy, but to bring closure. From the image of an apparent death we move to an apparently innocent landscape.

I say apparently innocent, because this scene will be familiar to anyone who has followed the campaign in Spain to find the bodies of people who disappeared during the civil war. Places such as this sometimes hold darker secrets than Capa’s flirtation with photographic propaganda.

Until 28 August, M KHA, Leuvenstraat 32, Antwerp

Photo: Max Pinckers & Sam Weerdmeester/M KHA