Cornell Capa Obituary, Süddeutsche Zeitung


One cannot breathe the name of Cornell Capa without evoking the name and legacy of his more famous older brother Robert. Robert Capa, who, along with photographers David “Chim” Seymour, George Rodger, and Henri Cartier-Bresson, formed the ground breaking photo agency/collective called Magnum, and invented the commonly held image of the photographer as mythic hero, a sophisticate humanitarian, agent provocateur 007—the photographer as an itinerate, macho, sexualized, lefty super-hero. After the death of his brother, Cornell spent the second half of his life etching that image into an institutional edifice, The International Center of Photography in New York City, an institution devoted to perpetuating and understanding the legacy of that most endangered creature: the photojournalist.

Photojournalism, in its most mythic and heroic dimension, was, in a real sense, invented by this gang. It flourished in a period when mass communication was epitomized by the picture magazine. This kind of photojournalism, born during the Great Depression and coming into its own during WWII, fed a world hungry for images. This, when photographic images did not pervade every corner of consciousness, when humanity contemplated and was shocked by its own violent nature newly enabled by powerful technologies. The still image was the perfect tool to examine the ineffable contradictions of the institutionalized violence of the second World War and the early nuclear age as it turned into the Cold War—for no form of communication is as specific and yet open to interpretation as a photograph. Cornell fully understood what photography, and photojournalism in particular, could do. He knew the image affected us intimately and individually as it challenged our perceptions of self by pitting internal mental images against externalized photographic images, thus, showing the contradictions of our individual and collective values. Cornell knew the power of the still image and watched as its grip eventually faded from popular consciousness. He coined the term “the concerned photographer” during the reign of MAD, that abstracted appellation that supposedly sane men used when discussing international relations: Mutually Assured Destruction. The kind of photojournalism, in the mode willfully created by the family Capa (a family name, that was itself an invention), can be

/ return to reviews.

seen through two images,two images which bookmark and epitomize the golden age of the still documentary image, and are, one can argue, the most iconic images made by each of the brothers: one which marks the beginning of that era, that of a Spanish soldier at the point of death (“Death of a Republican,” 1936), taken by Robert during the Spanish Civil War, the other, the image that I most associate with Cornell, marking the end of that golden age: an image of dancers from the Bolshoi Ballet, taken in 1958, practicing in a dance studio in Moscow. These two images, taken just 22 years apart, straddle both an era and the divided legacy of humanity; one violent, one contemplative; both about a moment, a stillness, a kind poetry located in the human form, both purely photographic.

After Robert died in Indochina, in 1954, Cornell wondered about legacy, not only of the images his brother made, but also of photojournalism itself. Television, quickly becoming the medium of the masses cut into the territory that was once solely dominated by the still image. Looking to concretize the form, Cornell turned towards books and foundations and museums to cement the legacy of the photojournalist and give a forum for their work.

In his own words “No day passes without someone questioning the power of photographs to cause change. As a photographer, I have my own positive opinion. However, in response, simply consider the role of the written word, which has had a longer track record. Has it managed to cause change? Images at their passionate and truthful best are as powerful as words ever can be. If they alone cannot bring change, they can, at least, provide an undistorted mirror of man’s actions, thereby sharpening human awareness and awakening conscience.

There remains no doubt that we are living in a visual world and far less doubt about the orientation of the future. The individuality and integrity of the photographer, as well as the quality and credibility of his images, are vital to the creation of a visual history of our time—the first century to be documented with the visual commentary of all those who have discovered that the camera can express their most deeply felt convictions.”

I met Cornell a few times before his retirement at the International Center of Photography and I have watched that institution solidify and shift form over the years as it sought firmer institutional funding. Today the school is truly international in its make-up and reputation, and the museum is a forward thinking platform for the best of photography as well as a showcase for its most revered practitioners.

But the professional practices, standards and intellectual rights fought for and won by Magnum and enjoyed by two generations of photographers, have all but vanished. And while the need for photojournalism and photojournalists is, arguably, as great as it has ever been, and is practiced today in ever widening forms by more and more people, the profession Cornell and his clan legitimized and mythologized has all but disappeared in its more vital form` as media outlets increasingly have their markets diluted and fragmented in the face of the world wide web. As we move from a society interested in ideas towards a society bent on entertainment, we risk losing the humanity that Cornell spent most his life seeking.

Photojournalism, like the smoke after a fire, is taking on huge territories and dissipating into thin air.

On Friday May 23rd, 2008 Cornell Capa died at the age of 90. Cornell was the founder of the International Fund for Concerned Photography and the founder of the International Center of Photography in 1974.

Ken Schles occasionally teaches “Critical Thinking for Documentary Photographers” at The International Center of Photography and recently published his third book “A New History of Photography: The World Outside and the Pictures in Our Heads,” by the White Press, an imprint of (Köln).

Link to original (German)