Anyone who’s seen the opening battle scene of Saving Private Ryan knows it’s a miracle that we have any pictures of the D-Day invasion at all, because a beach full of trained soldiers getting straight-up blown away is not a safe place for unarmed photographers. But against all conceivable odds (and in direct opposition to the innate human will to survive), we do in fact have photos from right in the thick of that battle – 11 of them, to be precise. And it’s all thanks to preeminent wartime photographer Robert Capa, whose personal mantra was “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”
Also, we’d have way more than 11 D-Day photographs if it weren’t for a single, bumbling intern.
Capa was among the second wave of troops to hit Omaha Beach. And he was in just as much danger as any of them, because German defenders didn’t give a single loose Sauerbraten shit whether the thing you were pointing at them was a rifle or a telephoto lens. Covered in blood and bits of tattered troops, holding his cameras above water with shaking hands, and protecting his film canisters as if they were his life’s blood, Capa managed to capture 106 insanely close-up images of the invasion. And unlike most of his colleagues, Capa’s actually managed to ensure his film survived the day, because he carried it off the beach his goddamned self.
Problem was, this was long before the Instagram era, when we can watch our images disseminate to the entire world with the flick of a finger. On his return to London, Capa handed his precious rolls of film over to staff members at Life magazine for developing. Said staff members then shrugged and handed the duty off to 15-year-old lab assistant Dennis Banks, who, in the time-honored tradition of 15-year-olds throughout history, fucked everything up instantly.
Seventy years ago, the great war photographer joined the first slaughterhouse wave of D-day, recording W.W. II’s pivotal battle in 11 historic images of blur and grit. But that is only a fraction compared with what he shot—and lost.
The orders came to Life war photographer Robert Capa in London from the United States Army in the last days of May of 1944:You are not to leave your flat for more than an hour at a time. Your equipment must be packed.
Capa was one of four photographers chosen to cover the first days of the United States Army’s massive assault on Hitler’s Europe; he had just enough time to hurry from his apartment on Belgrave Square to buy a new Burberry coat and a Dunhill silver flask. The need forbella figurahad been at his core since his childhood in Budapest, where appearances and charm were means to survive.
Who didn’t trade stories about the mysterious Hungarian Jewish refugee with the mass of dark gleaming hair and velvet eyes? Child-like and beguiling, he was short and moved quickly, as if in flight, a cigarette invariably dangling from his mouth. His disguise was nonchalance. State-less, he glided through battle zones with a confection of papers. He was 30 years old and had already taken some of the most remarkable images of the century: the haggard faces of the Spanish Civil War, the plump air wardens serving tea in the London Underground during the Blitz, Italian children lost in the rubble of Naples.