Alternate History: Robert Capa on D-Day

A. D. Coleman
Feb 12 · 26 min read

Robert Capa, D-Day images from Omaha Beach, contact sheet, screenshot from TIME video (May 29, 2014), annotated.

Jean-David Morvan and Séverine Tréfouël, “Omaha Beach on D-Day” (2015), cover
Charles Christian Wertenbaker, “Invasion!” (1944), cover

For 70 years, despite the many glaring holes in it, no one questioned this story — least of all those in charge at the International Center of Photography, which houses the Capa Archive. These figures have included the late Cornell Capa, Robert’s younger brother and founder of ICP; the late Richard Whelan, Robert’s authorized biographer and the first curator of that archive; and Whelan’s successor in that curatorial role, Cynthia Young.

The Capa Consortium, Keynote slide, © 2015 by A. D. Coleman

In retrospect, I cannot understand how so many people in the field, working photographers among them, accepted uncritically the unlikely, unprecedented story, concocted by Morris, of Capa’s 35mm Kodak Super-XX film emulsion melting in a film-drying cabinet on the night of June 7, 1944.

Anyone familiar with analog photographic materials and normal darkroom practice worldwide must consider this fabulation incredible on its face. Coil heaters in wooden film-drying cabinets circa 1944 did not ever produce high levels of heat; black & white film emulsions of that time did not melt even after brief exposure to high heat; and the doors of film-drying cabinets are normally kept closed, not open, since the primary function of such cabinets is to prevent dust from adhering to the sticky emulsion of wet film.

No one with darkroom experience could have come up with this notion; only someone entirely ignorant of photographic materials and processes — like Morris — could have imagined it. Embarrassingly, none of that set my own alarm bells ringing until I started to fact-check the article by Baughman that initiated this project, close to fifty years after I first read that fable in Capa’s memoir.

This is one of several big lies permeating the literature on Robert Capa. Certainly Capa knew it was untrue when he published it in his memoir; he had gotten his start in photography as a darkroom assistant in Simon Guttmann’s Dephot photo agency in Berlin. And Cornell Capa also knew that; he had cut his eyeteeth in the medium first by developing the films of his brother, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and David Seymour in Paris, then by working in the darkroom of the Pix photo agency in New York, then by moving on to fill the same role at LIFE magazine before becoming a photographer in his own right. My belated recognition of that fact led me to ask the obvious next question:

If that didn’t happen to Capa’s 35mm D-Day films, what did? And if all these people were willing to lie about this, what were they covering up?

So, building on Baughman’s initial provocation, I began drafting my own extensions of what he’d initiated — and our investigation was launched.

Richard Whelan, “This Is War! Robert Capa at Work” (2007), cover
Cornell Capa, interview with Barbaralee Diamonstein, 1980, screenshot

Robert Capa, CS frame 4, neg. 32, detail, annotated
Robert Capa, “Untitled (Medics at Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944).” Annotated screenshot from Victor Haboush indicated by red arrow.
Robert Capa, “The Face in the Surf” (l); David Ruley, frame from D-Day film (r)
Robert Capa, center rear, aboard LCVP from USS Samuel Chase, with camera during transfer of casualty, D-Day, frame from film by David T. Ruley
Robert Capa holding cinematographer’s slate aboard LCI(L)-94, D-Day, frame from film by David T. Ruley
Cinematographer David T. Ruley, illustrations for first-person account of D-Day experiences, Movie Makers magazine, 6/1/45

“Beachheads of Normandy,” LIFE magazine feature on D-Day with Robert Capa photos, June 19, 1944, p. 25 (detail)
Robert Capa, D-Day negative 35, detail, annotated
Robert Capa, “ruined” frames from D-Day, June 6, 1944. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Richard Whelan, “Robert Capa: In Love and War” (2003), screenshot
Cynthia Young, “The Story Behind Robert Capa’s Pictures of D-Day,” June 6, 2013, screenshot from ICP website 2014–06–12 at 11.38.23 AM
Top: Contax camera loaded with shorter Kodak cassette showing sprocket holes being exposed. Bottom: Capa negative shown with proper orientation as it would have appeared in the camera. Note exposed sprocket holes. Top photo © 2015 by Rob McElroy.

Given the official position that first Whelan and now Young have occupied at ICP, they are de facto the world’s foremost authorities on Robert Capa. As such they represent, with regrettable accuracy, the deplorable condition of Capa scholarship in our time.

Cynthia Young, “Morning Joe,” MSNBC, 6–13–14, screenshot

Former Picture Editor John G. Morris tells Christiane Amanpour that Robert Capa’s “lost” images may never have been shot. Source: CNN
Cynthia Young, “Les deux icônes de Capa,” Le Monde Hors-Série, 50 images qui ont marquél’histoire, October 2018, pp. 78–79
Vincent Lavoie, L’Affaire Capa. Le procès d’une icône, 2017

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A. D. Coleman

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A. D. Coleman has published 8 books and more than 2500 essays on photography and related subjects, translated into 21 languages and published in 31 countries.

exposure magazine

society for photographic education | understanding how photography matters in the world