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Alternate History: Robert Capa on D-Day (1)

A. D. Coleman, September 2013. Photo by Anna Lung.As I edited and sourced and fact-checked J. Ross Baughman’s bold and thoughtful analysis of Robert Capa’s brief D-Day experience on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944 and the resulting images for publication here, two radically different narratives began running simultaneously in my mind’s eye.

The first, inevitably, reprised the legend: Heroic Robert Capa, cool under fire, making four rolls’ worth of 35mm exposures during the landing and the battle — unwittingly ruining one with saltwater damage in the process, leaving some 106 latent images — and shipping them via courier to London. There a harried, inexperienced teenage lab assistant ruins all but 11 of the remaining pictures by closing the door of a drying cabinet after they’re developed, so the film strips overheat and the emulsions melt. LIFE‘s London picture editor John Morris and Capa magnanimously forgive the well-intentioned “darkroom lad” for his awful mistake, and the surviving images becoming iconic as the “Magnificent Eleven.”

Robert Capa holding his 35mm Contax on a Japanese tank captured at the Battle of Taierzhuang, Xuzhou Front, China, April 1938. Photographer unknown.

Robert Capa holding his 35mm Contax on a Japanese tank captured at the Battle of Taierzhuang, Xuzhou Front, China, April 1938. Photographer unknown.

The second account not only has more nuances but constitutes, in fact, an almost entirely different story. Its main protagonist, Capa, already an international star in the world of photojournalism, has an untypical panic attack during the landing, mishandles his equipment in such a way that he overexposes most of his film, and runs away from the battleground after 30 minutes or less.

When the film gets processed in London, Morris discovers, to his horror, that LIFE‘s star photojournalist (and Morris’s close friend) blew his assignment, arguably the biggest story of the war to date. A major embarrassment for Capa, for Morris, for LIFE, for Time-Life, and for the profession for which Capa has become the poster boy — touted at that moment as “the greatest war photographer in the world.” So Morris concocts a tale of botched processing by a kid, covering the asses of all concerned, and turning Capa’s 11 correct exposures into splinters from the true cross instead of the paltry results of a terrified bumbler.

The Making of A Myth

Robert Capa, "Slightly Out of Focus" (1947), cover.

Robert Capa, “Slightly Out of Focus” (1947), cover.

There’s no denying that Capa experienced a failure of nerve at Omaha Beach and hightailed it out of there as fast as he could. He says as much himself, in his 1947 memoir of World War II, Slightly Out of Focus. And the timeline of his trip to and from the front, as indicated by assorted documents, bears this out.

As someone who’s never gone to war, I can’t imagine what it feels like to set foot on ground where bullets and cannon and mortar shells fly, and people die in horrible ways. Omaha Beach that day was a meatgrinder: the official estimate of casualties hovers at 2000. So I don’t fault Capa for running away in that “red badge of courage” moment. It pertains only because his reputation for daring, on which he traded both personally and professionally, would have suffered hugely if that image of him as less than brave had circulated widely. To his credit, he confessed it discreetly in various ways thereafter.

Since it involves what we would have to call a conspiracy, the tale of the negatives’ subsequent processing and supposed destruction proves more perplexing.

In multiple accounts, Morris tells us the following:

Robert Capa, spoiled frames from D-Day, June 6, 1944. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

* Robert Capa, spoiled frames from D-Day, June 6, 1944. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

  1. It took Capa’s films an inexplicable 12 hours to travel the mere 140 miles from Weymouth to London via courier.
  2. Immediately upon their arrival at Time-Life’s offices in London’s Soho district, Capa’s films got sent to the darkroom for developing. Presumably all four rolls of 35mm b&w film would have gotten processed with the same pre-mixed batches of developer, stop bath, and fix, to save time.
  3. As indicated on the surviving frames, the 35mm rolls were Kodak Super-X Panchromatic Safety film, introduced as a movie film in March 1935, rated at ASA 50 and preferred for its relatively soft, low-grain, low-contrast look. In April 1945 Popular Photography described it as “A film which can be used in all types of outdoor light and indoors under favorable conditions.”
  4. Dennis Banks, a 15-year-old lab assistant, youngest of the five darkroom staffers, did the developing and fixing, then transported the developed film strips from the lab to the drying cabinet.
  5. So Banks would have seen the film strips, and presumably would have noticed if three of them, and most of the fourth, were blank.
  6. Another LIFE photographer, Hans Wild, surely adept at reading negatives, looked at them while still wet — just after development — and pronounced them “Fabulous!”
  7. The makeshift drying cabinet actually consisted of an unventilated wooden clothes locker with a “heating coil” on its bottom, whose doors they normally kept open.
  8. Having been instructed by Morris to hurry the drying of the films so that prints could get made (“We need contacts — rush, rush, rush!”), Banks closed the doors of the wooden locker, with the result that, after “only a few minutes,” the cabinet had become so heated that the emulsions on all but a third of one strip had melted into “pea soup.” A tragic loss, especially after Capa had risked so much to make those other, now forever vanished exposures.
  9. Fortunately, 11 exposures remained intact, and those got printed and published, becoming iconic overnight.
  10. In the haste and preoccupation of the moment Morris discarded the ruined film strips, later regretting not keeping them because they too would have functioned “iconically.”
John Morris, "Get the Picture" (1998), cover.

John Morris, “Get the Picture” (1998), cover.

For a sampling of Morris’s multiple variations on this tale, see this extract from his 1998 memoir Get the Picture: A Personal History of Photojournalism; a June 5, 2004 recap for the New York Times; the brief 2010 documentary film “Eleven Frames,” directed by Douglas Sloan; an interview with François Picard for France24 TV on June 6, 2011; this video interview from July 2, 2012; this May 31, 2013 interview/profile from the Financial Times; “The Story Behind Robert Capa’s Pictures of D-Day” by Cynthia Young, ICP Curator of the Capa Archives, from June 6, 2013; Get the Picture, a feature-length film on Morris from 2013, directed by Cathy Pearson; “Behind the Photo: Robert Capa’s D-Day,” a brief TIME video from May 29, 2014; and “Robert Capa’s Longest Day,” by Marie Brenner for Vanity Fair, June 2014.

In all its versions, what a dramatic tale. By this time Morris knows it by heart.

My problem: I bought this story when I first heard it, in the late 1960s, and have accepted it as true ever since. But I no longer believe it.

The Dog Ate Capa’s Homework

To begin with, why would LIFE magazine — famous for its lavish budgets and spare-no-expense relation to equipment and supplies — rely on a makeshift film-drying cabinet with no air circulation, cobbled together from a wooden clothes locker and an electric “heating coil”? Surely, if a standard state-of-the-art drying cabinet proved unavailable for some reason, they could have afforded a custom-built one for the photo-processing area of their long-established and otherwise well-appointed offices at 2-4 Dean Street, in the film district of London’s Soho district.

Robert Capa, D-Day frames from 6 June 1944. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Robert Capa, D-Day frames from 6 June 1944. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Next, I find it implausible that Morris would receive those precious, anxiously awaited, historic, irreplaceable four rolls of film by Capa (arguably the world’s highest-profile war photographer at that juncture, and one of just two LIFE contract photographers going in with the first wave of infantry) only to turn them over to a 15-year-old lab assistant for developing, when, according to Morris, “The darkroom staff — all five of them — had been standing by idly” for a day and a half.

Finally, are we to believe that, having just seen to the successful development of three full rolls of what he knows everyone considers the most important negatives of the battle, with John Morris howling for contact prints, Dennis Banks hangs them in the drying cabinet, closes the doors thereof to speed the drying — but, instead of hovering over them and checking on them minute by minute, does … what, exactly? Steps out for a smoke? Calls his girlfriend? Answers a prolonged call of nature? And the four other “idle” members of the darkroom staff have better things to do than keeping their eyes on these films?

God Said to Abraham, Kill Me a Son

Richard Whelan, "Robert Capa: A Biography" (1994), cover.

Richard Whelan, “Robert Capa: A Biography” (1994), cover.

Worth noting that Dennis Banks conveniently disappears after D-Day. He’s not mentioned by name in any early account of the loss of Capa’s films, and a brief unsourced quote from Capa magnanimously forgiving him appears apocryphal: “I would never have worked for LIFE again if they had fired Dennis Banks for ruining my negatives.” (Intriguingly, Richard Whelan’s authorized biography of Capa from 1994 gives his name as Dennis Sanders, but I don’t find that repeated anywhere else.)

Indeed, scuttlebutt for years put the blame for the loss of Capa’s negatives on photojournalist Larry Burrows. Burrows, then 18, was indeed there that day; but most accounts, including Morris’s, have him as a “tea-boy” or gofer, without any involvement with darkroom activities. (In the 2010 “Eleven Frames” film Morris exonerates Burrows explicitly, though his June 6, 2011 France24 interview puts Burrows on the darkroom staff.) I’ll hazard a guess that Burrows’s age and presence in or around the lab led to the rumor of his involvement with the Capa fiasco during the years when the story in circulation didn’t mention Banks by name, but only an unnamed teenager.

"Behind the Photo: Robert Capa's D-Day" (2014), screenshot

* “Behind the Photo: Robert Capa’s D-Day” (2014), screenshot

The first mention I find of Banks as the culprit comes in Morris’s memoir Get the Picture: A Personal History of Photojournalism (New York: Random House, 1998). By the time that got published Banks had long since vanished from all radar screens; Burrows, shot down over Laos, had died in 1971; and Hans Wild, the only other person who could corroborate Morris’s claim that three of Capa’s four rolls contained a full complement of normal exposures, had died in 1969.

In short, no one alive can corroborate Morris’s account — or contradict it with direct eyewitness testimony. We have only that narrative, and the remaining fragments of physical evidence, and some verifiable facts to go on in confirming or disproving it. On that basis, let’s proceed.

(For an index of links to all posts in this series, click here.)

[Note: Subsequent research by Rob McElroy revealed that all supposed examples of Capa's "damaged" D-Day negatives published in the May 29, 2014 TIME video, such as the ones above (*), were forgeries produced by Magnum in collusion with the International Center of Photography. While this renders irrelevant the above analysis of those frames, it does not undermine my broader challenge to the "melted emulsion" narrative. — A. D. C.]

John Morris will participate in a conversation with Robert Pledge, founder and director of Contact Press Images, at the International Center of Photography on June 24, 2014. They’ll stream it, so you can watch it live online at www.icp.org/live. Clicking on that link will enable you to submit a question in advance.

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8 comments to Alternate History: Robert Capa on D-Day (1)

  • Lewis Lorton

    “As I edited and sourced and fact-checked J. Ross Baughman’s bold and thoughtful analysis of Robert Capa’s brief D-Day experience on Omaha Beach”

    This is a remarkably paternalistic and condescending way to phrase this. He was your guest and, if you felt that you had to do anything, you should have kept it to yourself rather than implying that you mistrusted your guest’s abilities and thus found it necessary to oversee his column.

  • Normally, I’ve always taken the punches of criticism that follow one of my stories without further rebuttal, but Lewis Lorton doesn’t seem to understand the relationship between editor and writer, and confuses that process with good manners and hospitality.

    While a guest’s tastes and opinions ought to be honored, the best traditions of journalism require that facts be verifiable. Mr. Coleman’s lively, spirited and voluminous give-and-take during the last week of editing could only be described as fraternal, never paternalistic.

    I’m pleased that our process inspired Mr. Coleman to continue the investigation, and perhaps others will help set this historic case in its proper light.

    • A. D. Coleman

      Standard journalistic practice includes fact-checking articles by stringers and op-ed pieces by invited guests just as carefully as those by staffers. You could look it up (which would constitute fact-checking): Here’s New York Times op-ed page editor David Shipley on the subject.

      Because Ross Baughman makes very serious charges in his posts (a 70-year deception that involves scapegoating and conspiracy), and because his inquiry led me to elaborate and substantiate them, I thought it advisable to ensure that we both had our facts straight as we proceeded. That this surprises you surprises me. That you take offense at it, or think Baughman should, I consider merely silly.

  • Allan,

    I’ve been following your Capa piece with interest. One additional possible reading of the over-exposed frames could suggest that the shutter on Capa’s Contax had jammed or dragged. Had the over-exposure been massively greater there would have been a kind of halation or bleeding of light around the edges of the frame and around the sprocket holes.

    I recall Super xx being rated at 100 ASA. One could check out the dates and ASA’s of the Super x and thus determine what might have been the degree of over-exposure. Also the lens probably had a maximum aperture of f/3.5 or f/4.0…..nothing special by today’s standards. The beach was early morning foggy overcast and his film and lens were not all that fast.

    I cannot begin to consider the “melting emulsion” idea because from my experience the intensity of heat great enough to melt emulsion would surely be close to the flammable level. It might be interesting to determine the substrate or base of the film that supported the emulsion. I recall cellulose came in as a “safety base” as a result of nitrate movie film combusting during projection as well as storage. So…….

    I don’t buy the melting theory……..

    Based on the 11 existing frames and the burnt-out over-exposed frames as well as the absence of the other rolls I vote for a mis-firing shutter which could have been the case what with all the salt water spray and chaos……….maybe a grain of sand…. those 35mm cameras of yore lacked the precision we take for granted today. It is true that technical mis-functions were much more common during the 40s and even the 50s when I began my relationship to the medium.

    If you think this is a mystery you should try digital………..

    Yours to the last drop,

    RALPHotographer

    • A. D. Coleman

      Thanks for the input.

      Capa’s Super-X had an ASA 50 rating. Not a fast film, likely pushed in developing. I mention this in an upcoming post. The backing wasn’t nitrate, but cellulose/acetate.

      Re some shutter malfunction: Baughman gave this thought, as have I. But, within hours of turning his exposed Omaha Beach films over to a courier in Weymouth, Capa returned to Normandy — with the same 2 Contax II 35mm cameras, which he carried through France for the next month, sending back lots more exposed film without any technical flaws.

      Both cameras would have had to suffer the same mechanical problem simultaneously. And cameras don’t self-repair. So we’ve discounted that possibility.

  • i am at a loss as to how Capa reloaded his Contax in those conditions.
    you have to remove the back put the film on a removable take up spool.
    and then replace the back and lock 2 locks.
    the screw mt leicas were only a little easier to load.

    • A. D. Coleman

      If my reading of the hard evidence (Capa’s caption notes for the rolls of 35mm film he sent to London, and the “magnificent eleven” themselves) is correct, Capa never had to change film on Omaha Beach. He exposed only those 11 frames on that one roll, never even using the second Contax he carried.

      Not only would the Contaxes have proved troublesome to reload under those conditions, they’d have been impossible to use in the way Capa describes himself as working: “I didn’t dare to take my eyes off the finder of my Contax and frantically shot frame after frame.” Because the Contax lacks an advance lever, you have to turn a knurled advance knob several times to get to the next frame. It’s impossible to do that without taking your eyes off the viewfinder, which in turn makes it impossible to “frantically shoot frame after frame.”

      That this self-mythologizing, in tandem with the mythologizing of him by others invested in his legend, has survived largely unchallenged for 70 years boggles the mind.

  • Ed Grazda

    the “melted” sprocket holes look more like over agitation when the film was developed – more developer rushes past the holes and over develops that area.

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