Analysis of Robert Capa’s “The Falling Soldier”

Capa, Robert, The Falling Soldier, 1936, Gelatin silver print, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Much of visual art is predicated upon depicting the past, present, and future. Typically, the past and future are presented in moments of emotion and drama, such as Michelangelo’s “Pieta” and Rembrandt’s “The Beheading of John the Baptist”. Only moments captured in the present contain the element of surprise, such as Caravaggio’s “Judith Beheading Holofernes” and Robert Capa’s “The Falling Soldier”.

Left to right: Rembrandt, The Beheading of John the Baptist, 1640, Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1598–99, and Michelangelo, Pietà, 1498–99

The medium of photography is unique in its capacity to capture a moment with speed and accuracy, provided the photographer uses the camera with skill and luck. Caravaggio’s “Judith Beheading Holofernes” depicts a bloody spray of arteries bleeding out life of a human by the horrid technology of a rigid blade, parallel with a palette knife puttied with the mixture of crimson red on Caravaggio’s palette knife. Paralleled with such skill is the bang of a gunshot echoed by the click of Capa’s shutter, capturing the moment a bullet penetrates without a drop of blood leaked, yet life lifted from momentum, leaving the body of a soldier floating against the gulf of a dusty landscape. The starkness of death captured without a gory red or velvet fabric, but a crisp white shirt against the negative’s grain providing a tactile reality of light-sensitive emulsion on glass, exposed for a fraction of a second to daylight and violence.

Photography is epitomized in Capa’s photo; proving the capacity of capturing a moment between life and death. The composition of the scratched negative and blurred background atop glistening grass conveying ambiguity of place, echoed in the most mysterious concept of all: death. We see the gun loosely separating from the body, becoming a soul representing force and will. A symbol of the soldier himself, aimed at the sky. The swiftness of Capa and his camera are a testament to skill and technology, maximizing the artist’s and art’s potential to present a story to the viewer.

iconic:
1. of, relating to, or having the character of an icon.
2. symbolic, emblematic, or representative.
3. having a conventional formulaic style.

An icon inspires with authenticity and a call to action. Capa’s photo becomes this, a witness to nations at war and an individual fighting it, abreast with their beliefs. Photographers in such a place are in gravest danger among such conflict, yet the heroism of Capa’s bravery survives, evidenced not only by his survival on the battlefield, but the development of an artifact in a darkroom to prove it. The photograph becomes a symbol of of an artist’s courage not just to tell the stories of famous martyrs like Holofernes, John the Baptist, and Jesus, but to tell a new story of the unnamed, killed by the same spit of violence with new lessons to be learned.

Notes:

  1. Capa, Robert, The Falling Soldier, 1936, Gelatin silver print, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
  2. Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1598–99, oil on canvas, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini, Rome.
  3. Michelangelo, Pietà, 1498–99, marble, St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City.
  4. Rembrandt, The Beheading of John the Baptist, 1640, etching and drypoint, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
  5. The Free Dictionary by Farlex, iconic, accessed June 14th, 2018, https://www.thefreedictionary.com/iconic.

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About the Author

Joshua Hoering is a writer, designer, educator, artist, and speaker based in Chicago, Illinois. He’s currently working on an MFA in Graphic Design & Visual Experience at the Savannah College of Art & Design.

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