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Photographing War; Art and War

Aired October 24, 2008 - 20:30:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, HOST: Hello, I'm Fionnuala Sweeney. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, this coming to you from the Barbican Art Gallery in London.
This week, iconic images of war and the leading war photographer of a generation who consistently risked his life to get the shot. Then often regarded as the first female, both working and being killed in the heat of battle, we look at the work of Gerda Taro.

And on the subject of war, an exhibit that looks at art in the context of the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On D-Day, Robert Capa went in with a first wave of U.S. troops on Omaha Beach, taking the most famous photographs of the invasion. Capa said if your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough.

His career, while prolific, was short lived. In 1954 on assignment covering the French Indochina War, he stepped on an anti personnel mine and was dead age 40. Kate Bush is our guide through the exhibit.

KATE BUSH, BARBICAN ART GALLERY: This is all Robert Capa at work and an exhibition we opened last week at Barbican Art Gallery. And it's one of three interrelated exhibitions which do something quite unusual in terms of looking at the `30s. And Robert Capa was for many people, the most important war photographer of the 20th century. We're looking at how war was represented in the `30s, primarily during the Spanish Civil War. And I'm contrasting it with what artists and photographers are making now in relation to the current conflict, both in Iraq and Afghanistan.

SWEENEY: This was really the first war that was seen as the romantic kind of war, that it was the first documented war in modern photography as we know it?

BUSH: Yes, and Katherine, his companion Gerda Taro, who's one of the revelations of this exhibition which we'll talk about a little bit later, in many ways the Spanish Civil War was the first media war, first modern media war. And really, the reason for that was just a simple advance in technology. Capa pioneered the use of the Lika (ph) camera, which was a camera that had been invented by mountaineers. So it enabled him to be incredibly mobile. It's small, lightweight. So it enabled him to get closer to really the heat and the heart of the battle than anyone had ever done before.

Because if you think about it, the images that we know say from the earlier century, in the 19th century, Roger Fenton and the Crimea or Tim Sullivan working in the American Civil War, these photographers were working with the most enormous cameras and large placed cameras. So they're incredibly unwieldy. So they were really compromised by what they could document.

And they tended really to photograph the aftermath of the battle. And then in the first World War, imagery was very censored by the British government and the French government in fact. So again, you know, the images that Capa and Taro made in the Spanish Civil War looked very different to previous images of war that we'd experienced. So yes, it was a modern war and a very romantic war because they were so idealistic. And the causes, you know, the right and the wrong were very clear in people's minds, particularly.

SWEENEY: And of course, it crossed us-it crossed boundaries. It was a sort of stateless war because it was such an idealistic philosophical political war.

BUSH: Yes. And I think in both exhibitions, you do get, particularly with Gerda Taro, you get the sense of you know, so many writers and intellectuals, filmmakers, and musicians. You know, everybody racing to Spain to support the anti fascist cause. And of course, Capa and Taro sort of hung out with that crowd, included people like Ernest Hemingway.

And to me, what's so incredible is, you know, they were incredibly young. She was 25 when she went. And Capa was a similar age. So they were really, really brave, but of course, they'd also experienced they both - Capa was Hungarian. And Gerda Taro was Polish German. June, both had suffered persecution by the sort of emerging Nazi forces in Middle Europe and had escaped and gone to Paris, where they met.

So you know, it's hard to sort of imagine now that kind of level of commitment and sort of political engagement because it was, you know, as I say, it was a moment in which sort of politics and ethics were very clearly polarized in Europe.

SWEENEY: It was a time as well if we have a look.

BUSH: Yes.

SWEENEY: .where some of the photographs were staged. And it was quite normal or not a natural for photographs to be staged.

BUSH: Well, that's quite a strong statement. And in a way, part of the reason for sort of highlighting Robert Capa's work at the moment is to put that debate out into the open. And you know, I'm hoping the people will draw from the sort of myth that has dogged Capa and think about what that means in the present, the photographs that we're seeing now from Iraq, the war in Iraq.

So you know, did he stage his photographs? It's a very, very long and complicated story. This is one of - this is generally seen to be one of the greatest war photographs ever made. So this is sort of Capa's icon. This picture, and then also the D-Day pictures.

SWEENEY: But this is one as well. There has been criticism that it might have been staged.

BUSH: There's been accusations that the photograph was fabricated. And you know, the curator of this show, the scholar rich Waylon, who's unfortunately died before the show opened, had spent years kind of on the trail of all these, this sort of rumor mill about whether Capa had or hasn't staged it.

And you know, it's a complicated story. And it's still unfolding. But I think it's very clear that there's no possibility that this image is not a picture of a man at the moment of death. And Rich Wieland's (ph) argument is that when you look at his hand under his thigh, which is very hard to see in such small print, this is the original vintage print.


BUSH: Yes, they sort of analyzed the position of the fingers in that palm, and have sort of proved incontrovertibly that the hand can't have that pose unless the body is technically dead.

SWEENEY: And of course, Capa was very, very close to this man as he was being shot.

BUSH: Yes.

SWEENEY: And this also gave credence to the argument, but it also gives credence the quote we just seen here.

BUSH: Yes.

SWEENEY: If your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough.

BUSH: Yes.

SWEENEY: Said the man who died standing on a landmine.

BUSH: We have another quote in the exhibition which on the lines of you know, you have to have - you have to love or hate one side, otherwise you can't stand what goes on. So whereas I think in the more modern era, you know, many photographers probably have to, you know, really try and take a much more objective position in relation to what's going on. And I think, you know, both positions are valid, but I think it's partly what makes Capa's photographs quite compelling, because he is kind of passionate about the cause. And feel for his photographs are really going to be shaping opinion and changing opinion in relation to the political situation.

This is a very important room in the Robert Capa exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery. The D-Day landings, which probably are Capa's most famous sequence of photographs. And again, you know, he - what was exceptional was the fact that he was part of the battle. He was - he traveled from Weymouth with all the American troops, crossing the channel in all these tiny boats.

SWEENEY: You can see he's right in there, right up there with the soldiers as they're getting off the boats.

BUSH: Yes, he's on the boats with them crossing the channel. And then, you know, you get this real palpable sense of him jumping out of the boat with the troops, going on to this, you know, incredibly treacherous beach. Right behind them, photographing as he's going. So what's incredibly about these pictures, which of course were the key influence on Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan."


BUSH: .and the visuality of the pictures was influenced the beginning of that film.

What's sort of amazing about them is that that color sea, which as you can see is, you know, quite blurry, quite pixilated, again, these are the original vintage prints that were made at the time.

This blurry kind of energetic, kind of energized, you know, action type shot was really the result of an accident because what happened was that the storms went to "Life's" offices in London. And of course, they knew to really make the story as quickly as possible so that the public would know about it the next day.

And the films were given to a dark room technician, who made a mistake. And the emulsion on the films dried too quickly in the drying cabinet. And he thought that he destroyed all of them. So there was a sort of terrible moment when they had the story, but they thought the films were wrecked.

But in fact, what happened was they managed to salvage 11 of the negatives. So this is what we have left now.

In a way, you know, all photography is something of a fiction, because it's always about selecting one image to summarize the thing, you know, the event.

SWEENEY: The moment.

BUSH: The moment, exactly. And you know, Capa was a master at sort of choosing that dramatic moment.


SWEENEY: She was in her mid 20s when she turned her lens on the front lines of the Spanish Civil War. And she was killed soon after.

Gerda Taro's career may have been short lived, but she left her mark. And just now is the world beginning to see the full scope of her work.


SWEENEY: Hers was a life cut short, killed when she found herself in the midst of a retreat during the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s. Gerda Taro was a war time photographer in her own right, but one who was often overshadowed.

Ms. Taro was born as a Jew in Poland in 1910. After her arrest in 1933 for anti Nazi protests, she fled to Paris, where she met Andre Friedman, better known as Robert Capa, a founder of Magnum Photography. This week on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, we're looking at the lives and works of two journalists who captured the devastation of war and made history doing it.

Kate Bush, head of the galleries at the Barbican Art Gallery in London, speaking to us now about their lives and the mark they left on history.


BUSH: This is the Gerda Taro exhibition, which in many ways is a companion exhibition to Robert Capa's show. And indeed, they were companions. They were lovers as well as collaborators in their early career. And to me, this is one of the revelations that these, the sequence of exhibitions at the Barbican, because Gerda Taro was the first woman to photograph in the heat of battle. And again, Richard Wieland (ph), the man that's done so much research at one point even thought that Gerda may have taken some of the pictures that Capa has been credited for subsequently.

What we do know is they did everything together in Spain. And Gerda, I think, is an exceptional photographer. And she's in some ways much more artistic than Capa because she's looking very closely at what we call new vision photography, that sort of modernist Germanic photography style. She was, you know, she originally came from Germany. And it's all about using dramatic angles like this and sort of creating a kind of sense of movement in the pictures through the angularity of them.

So she was composing as well as being very close to what was happening in Spain. She was the first woman to photograph, as I say, in the heat of battle. And she was also the first woman photographer to die in battle.

And I think sadly, this is the reason why she's been almost completely forgotten. At the time that she died, which is in 1937, she had this incredible sort of hero's funeral in Paris. S he was taken back to Paris. And tens of thousands of people came out to pay tribute to her, because she'd become this real icon of the anti fascist struggle.

And then, you know, what happens to history, I don't know. For some reason, in the intervening years, we've completely forgotten about her. And this is sea (INAUDIBLE) photograph, I think, so kind of poignant and touching. This is a Republican militia man with boy, with a group of boys.

And interestingly, this photograph, this is the falling soldier. This is Fredericko Bonal (ph) Garcia. So Gerda, which proves that Gerda Taro was with Robert Capa on the day that they were photographed in the falling soldier.

SWEENEY: Is this soldier as he's fallen?

BUSH: No, this is him alive. This is just before he died.


BUSH: So again, this also supports the theory that, you know, this wasn't a battle. They were - there was a lull in fighting. They were on a front, but there wasn't anything happening. And Taro and Capa were there together.

SWEENEY: Incredibly fearless or foolish. I mean, to be up so close.

BUSH: Yes, exactly. And we always know which are her pictures because at that moment, she was working on a Roloflex camera. So the pictures are square. And Capa's pictures are rectangular on a Lika (ph).

SWEENEY: Why do you think that she came lost in a way to the annals of history?

BUSH: I think that the memories and the history of photography is very short. And it's sort of interesting to me that so many women get forgotten and so many men get remembered. And if you think about it, if you say war photography, who do you think about? You think probably about Lee Miller or Margaret Bork White, who made fantastic and very memorable pictures, but kind of after the action. They were photographed after the, you know, after the war. And why she's so forgotten, I don't know. I think partly because it was such a short career.


BUSH: And in this exhibition, we've probably got every significant picture that she made.

SWEENEY: She had just before she died separated at least formally in her collaboration with Capa.

BUSH: Yes, I mean, I think what happened was that Gerda Taro was utterly committed to the anti fascist cause in Spain, and was going from strength to strength really. And she wanted to stay in Spain. Capa was very ambitious. He, at one point, left Spain and went to China, which was, you know, the sort of the Eastern most front of the anti fascist cause with the Japanese invading China. So he took quite a lot of time out in Spain and was covering other conflicts. Gerda stayed in Spain.

And their relationship probably cooled at that point. But then, you know, very sadly, she went to cover a seminal battle, the battle of Brunet (ph), and was traveling on the side of a sort of transport vehicle, and got knocked off by a passing tank. And she died. So you know, I suppose it was very talented life cut quite short.


SWEENEY: From past to present, understanding conflict through the current proliferation of images.

Next, we reflect on war and the experience of hostilities with contemporary journalists.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. Photography and war have changed since the 1930s, when Robert Capa and Gerda Taro pioneered the way. But the ability of photography to shape politics, policies, and lives remains the same.

This week, we're at the Barbican Art Gallery in London with curator Kate Bush.


BUSH: So this is the work of Ann Mylai (ph). And she's one of four artists in contemporary project that we are also presenting alongside Robert Capa. The exhibition is called "On the Subject of War." And really, the complete of the show is that it talks about war, but tries to look at it through the perspective of the people that are really directly affected by conflict.

And to me, Ann Mylai (ph) is A, an extraordinary photography. And B, has a very interesting position in relation to the photography of war. She's a young Vietnamese artist. And she works with this very old fashioned technology, these really large format cameras, large plate cameras, which means that she creates images that have an incredible amount of detail in them.

She's also been in a very unique position in the sense that she's worked very closely with the U.S. military. So not embedded as such, but she's had a lot of access to their maneuvers and the preparations for war. And to me, this works really, really subtle, and but also very powerful, because really what she makes you aware of in placing sort of military activity in places all over the globe, this is a series called "Events Ashore," where we're sort of really seeing military activity in relation to kind of the seas.


BUSH: The seas that connect all our continents. And so she makes you very obliquely aware that this is about a kind of quite a futile war when you see, you know, sort of military activity made very small in relation to the expanse of nations. And I think she's also telling us quite subtly that it's really a war about natural resources. So we move - she moves with the American army from - this is a peace in Japan. And you just see all, you know, this wonderful kind of almost toy like presence of the army. You move from Japan to Antarctica over here. And again, the sense that, you know, the activity that's happening is so small when you look at humans in relation to the scale of nature. This is an ice breaker that's calmed in the Antarctic.

And then, finally, we get to Iraq. So this is on border, a ship in the waters off Iraq. And this - very poetic sense that something, you know, waiting for something to happen. And it's this unknown thing. And there's another wonderful image over there with the female soldier, you know, again, just scanning the horizon, waiting for this unknown threat.

So to me, she's a bit like Gerda Taro. She's really, really unusual because there's not so many women working in this - working with this subject matter. And she has, you know, had this incredible access. So in a sense, she's like an art photographer, but working almost like a military photographer.

OK, so this is a major piece of work by the Dutch photojournalist Hirt Van Hesteren (ph). And it's a work that he's made recently. And it's called "Baghdad Calling." And what you see on the wall is quite an unusual piece of photojournalism because none of these images have been made by Hirt (ph). What he's done is to gather mobile phone images, images that are circulating on blogs, on the Internet, phone images from people that he has met in Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and around the Middle East, around Iraq. And this piece is really trying to tell the story of the refugee crisis that has obviously resulted from the tragic conflict in Iraq.

And it's a refugee crisis on an incredible scale. Four million people have been displaced by the war. And what I think Hirt realized, having been in Iraq very close to the fighting in 2004, he realized that he wanted to make a piece of photography that spoke in a different way, that wasn't straight photojournalism, but tried to reach closer to the experience of the people that had really sort of suffered as a result of the invasion.

So what you see is a collection of images, an amazing quality considering they've been taken from mobile phones. It's a collection of images in which, you know, you see this real struggle for kind of normal life. Lots of people who are just simply communicating with exiled friends and family and loved ones abroad, sending pictures to reassure them that, you know, everything's OK. And then of course, you have them juxtaposed with images that are real chilling, chilling kind of.

SWEENEY: In car, just driving by.

BUSH: Just driving by and that's what you see or hear. This is one of the most chilling images, I think. This would have been someone who would have been kidnapped by one of the militias. And then the militias leave the body on the side of the road as a warning to other people, but also with a strict, you know, there's a strict understanding that you cannot move the body. And if you do, then you will be kidnapped.


SWEENEY: So the body's left to rot?

BUSH: The body is just left to rot. You know, the birds eat the decomposing flesh. But chilling that this has been sent to somebody. So you know, you don't know whether it was the relative of this person that sent it on their mobile phone to somebody abroad.

SWEENEY: How did he collect these photos?

BUSH: Well, through a sort of network of contacts. He had a group of people working in Holland, sort of, you know, trolling the Internet. But as I say, he's also traveled for a couple of years now in Syria and Jordan, meeting people who have been displaced, meeting refugees. And because it's been such an invisible refugee crisis, you know, people aren't living in camps. They're kind of living where they can, but in very difficult circumstances because they're not working. And they haven't got anywhere to live.

So he has been interviewing a lot of people and sort of getting stories. And that was the point at which he realized that photography was playing a very different role in Iraq because, you know, on the one hand, it's very censored. The official photographs are very, very censored. On the other hand, there's never been so much photography, because even if you're really poor in Iraq, you know, people have to have mobile phones because it's a way of surviving.


SWEENEY: Don't forget, we're online all the time. Log on to to see the show again. You can also view our archive, take part in the quick vote, and read the weekly blog. The address

That's all for this edition of the program. Tune in again next time to find out how the media are handling the big issues.

I'm Fionnuala Sweeney at the Barbican Art Gallery in London. Thanks for joining us.