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Alternate History: Robert Capa on D-Day (17)

A. D. Coleman, September 2013. Photo by Anna Lung.“History is a set of lies agreed upon.” — Napoleon

John Morris opened his 1998 memoir Get the Picture: A Personal History of Photojournalism with yet another boilerplate retelling of the June 7, 1944 darkroom catastrophe that he claimed had destroyed all but eleven of Robert Capa’s D-Day negatives. He led with that card for good reason: Readers would anticipate it, as it’s the only story in his repertoire both familiar and resonant beyond the narrow confines of photojournalism’s history. No less important, it marks the point where Morris’s own legend begins.

That fiction has been very, very good to John Morris. Safe to say that no one would have interviewed him on D-Day anniversary after D-Day anniversary, or asked him to tell his story thereof over and over again, if it consisted of nothing more than that Capa had sent him a mere eleven exposures of the landing, which he’d had printed and shipped to LIFE. That hardly constitutes a tale you could dine out on for decades.

John Morris, "Get the Picture" (1998), cover.

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

Were it not for the myth of the melted emulsions (and its potency as a visual image), Morris would be even more obscure as a relevant cultural reference point today than his boss at LIFE, Wilson Hicks, then the chief picture editor at that magazine, or Tom Hopkinson, editor of the British magazine Picture Post — names you rarely hear today outside of courses in the history of photojournalism. As it stands (or has stood until now), the dramatic emulsion-melt fable functions as the key moment in Morris’s professional life.

Not that I view that unpredictable consequence as the motive for Morris’s confabulation. In my opinion, he created this story not to initiate a legend but to protect one — the already widespread legend of Capa as “the world’s greatest war photographer” — as well as to protect Capa’s reputation, his own, and that of LIFE magazine, all three intertwined at that critical moment.

Certainly that myth has loomed large in Capa’s legend. He would surely have survived the professional and personal embarrassment of having succumbed to an untypical panic attack on Omaha Beach. But would we have adoring videos, films, and novels, a Robert Capa D-Day action figure and a Capa D-Day graphic novel, if the world had known from D-Day on that he’d made just eleven exposures and fled the field after 30 minutes?

John Morris Hangs Tough

I offered John Morris  the opportunity to respond, in a Guest Post, to the most recent disclosures I’d made, derived from my research in the International Center of Photography’s Capa Archive. On October 24, after reading the first two posts in that series, “In the Capa Archives,” he sent me the following email:

Dear A. D.:

I stand by my account of what happened in the London office of Life magazine on June 7, 1944 as first published in my book Get the Picture, A Personal History of Photojournalism (Random House 1998; University of Chicago Press 2002).

Further details of what happened that evening are also available in the interview with me by Mark Edward Harris that has just been published in issue 106 of Black & White magazine, dated December 2014.

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

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

I appreciate the research by J. Ross Baughman, indicating that there may never have been any images on three of the four rolls of 35 mm film from the beach landing that were developed by Dennis Banks in the Life London darkroom. Thus Dennis may have blamed himself unnecessarily. Until recently I accepted his explanation as true, and so did Robert Capa, in his book Slightly Out of Focus.

It is no surprise to me that ICP has the negatives and contact prints of the films which Robert Capa shot on the [U.S.S. Samuel] Chase en route to France on June 4 and 5, with his handwritten captions, and on his June 7 return trip to Normandy. The Life London darkroom printed off these negatives at the time, in the normal way.

That’s all I have to say now.


B&W magazine, issue 106 (December2014), cover

B&W magazine, issue 106 (December2014), cover

In point of fact, when one reads that recently published interview, “Rearview Mirror: John G. Morris: Normandy, 1944,” it becomes clear that Morris no longer “stand[s] by [his] account of what happened in the London office of Life magazine on June 7, 1944 as first published in [his] book Get the Picture.” Despite the fact that Harris spends the interview lobbing softballs at Morris, and Morris mostly trots out his pat answers, the research and evidence presented at this blog over the past six months have forced Morris to make significant revisions to and recantations of his narrative of the past 70 years re Capa’s D-Day pictures and their fate.

For all its succinctness, therefore, the above email from Morris contains a goodly amount of obfuscation. To wit:

• In the interview, Morris acknowledges that the films Capa shipped to him on June 7, 1944 most likely contained only 11 exposures total from the Normandy landing — quite a change from his previous claim that those exposures represented what he “saved from Robert Capa’s four rolls of film on the landing on Omaha Beach.” (See this June 7, 2011 interview for France24 TV, at timestamp 3:10.)

• Morris also acknowledges that he never saw any actual evidence of emulsion melt resulting from an overheated film-drying cabinet. Of course, he’s still claiming that he “saved” those pictures. But if no emulsion melt took place, and Capa made only those eleven images on Omaha Beach, then no images got “lost” — and no images got “saved.” The film Capa exposed on D-Day and sent to Morris simply got processed and printed as usual in LIFE‘s London lab.

John Morris interview, B&W magazine, issue 106 (December 2014)

John Morris interview, B&W magazine, issue 106 (December 2014)

• Morris doubles down on the assertion that the rest of the 35mm film he received from Capa was “blank” — a strategic mistake, since the evidence suggests that, at most, the only blank film he got from Capa was the first two-thirds of the Omaha Beach roll.

• Morris reaffirms that he threw away all the remaining 3-2/3 rolls of supposedly “blank” film — another strategic error, since Capa’s four rolls of pre-invasion 35mm film survive intact.

• Morris acknowledges familiarity with the four rolls of pre-invasion 35mm film, at the same time providing no indication that he’d received a prior shipment of pre-invasion films from Capa.

• Morris asserts that “darkroom lad” Dennis Banks really existed and continued working for LIFE for some years, a story still unverified in any particular. Originally offered up as sacrificial lamb, the individual responsible for “ruining” Capa’s films in the overheated drying cabinet, Banks now gets converted conveniently into the person who convinced Morris of the erroneous notion that this actually happened.

Fascinating revisionism here, with Morris doing what in science they call “saving the appearances”: trying feverishly to patch the holes in a paradigm or narrative that’s starting to leak like a sieve.

"This Is War! Robert Capa at Work" (2007), cover

“This Is War! Robert Capa at Work” (2007), cover

Mark Edward Harris, Morris’s interviewer, informs me that at the time he conducted this exchange with Morris, in the summer of 2014, he himself hadn’t read any of the posts in this investigative series. Nor had he done any preparatory research, such as reading Richard Whelan’s text in the 2007 catalogue This Is War! Robert Capa at Work, with its newly minted, unsupported, and apparently baseless claim that on June 5 Capa sent Morris the pre-invasion films, which he had processed and printed, put through the censorship system, and shipped to LIFE on June 6.

Thus Harris asked no questions to provoke any updating of the standard, rehearsed narrative from Morris, whose answers in the interview nonetheless seem unilaterally calculated to neutralize some of the charges we brought against him earlier this year.

On November 1,  I responded to the above email from Morris as follows:

Dear John:

John Morris, "Get the Picture" (2013), screenshot

John Morris, “Get the Picture” (2013), screenshot

Thanks for your recent email, with its information about the interview in B&W magazine. I’ve read it, and found the new details you included extremely helpful in clarifying what happened on the night of June 7th in London.

I’ve passed it along to Ross Baughman, so he could see your acknowledgment of his analysis of the films.

But I’m confused by the last paragraph in your email, which says, “It is no surprise to me that ICP has the negatives and contact prints of the films which Robert Capa shot on the Chase en route to France on June 4 and 5, with his handwritten captions, and on his June 7 return trip to Normandy. The Life London darkroom printed off these negatives at the time, in the normal way.” You don’t mention this in the B&W interview. I’m trying to establish a timeline, and I don’t know how to fit that in. Perhaps you can help.

Here’s what I think the available evidence verifies:

1. Capa boarded the U.S.S. Samuel Chase sometime between June 2 (when boarding began) and June 4. He was surely aboard on June 4, when the flotilla set off for Normandy, only to turn back due to bad weather. Obviously he was also aboard when they set off the next day, June 5.

Robert Capa, D-Day image captions, Contax 35mm Roll 4, annotated.

Robert Capa, D-Day image captions, Contax 35mm Roll 4, annotated.

2. Somewhere in there, most likely June 4-5, he made the pre-invasion images represented on those partial four rolls of 35mm film held in the ICP’s Capa Archive, along with the pre-invasion 120-film images and the 4x5s.

3. On the morning of June 6, he made the eleven exposures on Omaha Beach.

4. On the morning of June 7, he landed back in England and shipped all those films to you by courier, along with 4 sheets of handwritten caption notes, plus the note you’ve often cited to the effect that all the action was in the 35mm rolls. (Is that note among your papers? The ICP doesn’t have it.)

5. In all of your many accounts to date, you’ve indicated that you’d heard nothing from Capa from the time he boarded the Chase till you got word on the 7th that these films were en route to you. So the 5-person darkroom staff was standing around waiting for them (though I gather David Scherman’s films came in sometime on the 6th and got processed). And you were in a state of high anxiety, as you had to get the complete D-Day coverage out to the NY office in the mailbag on the morning of the 8th. Hence the understandable rush and confusion in the darkroom when Capa’s films finally arrived, on the night of the 7th.

LIFE magazine, June 19, 1944 issue, with Robert Capa's D-Day images and official U. S. Army Photo of Gen. Eisenhower on cover.

LIFE magazine, June 19, 1944 issue, with Robert Capa’s D-Day images and official U. S. Army Photo of Gen. Eisenhower on cover.

6. That deadline was absolute, in that the June 19th issue of LIFE would actually hit the newsstands and go into the mail to subscribers on June 12 — so, once the films got to NY, the D-Day images had to get laid out, the captions and story written, the layouts to the printers, the issue printed and shipped, etc., in just a few days. [N.B. The LIFE issue dated June 19 actually closed, editorially, on June 10, with the layouts rushed to the printers so that copies could get distributed the next week, days before the dateline.]

7. In the B&W interview and our Q&A as published at my blog, you’ve agreed (in part due to Baughman’s analysis) that Capa most likely made only eleven exposures on Omaha Beach. If you received four (or more) rolls of 35mm film from him on the night of June 7, therefore, all the 35mm rolls aside from the one containing those eleven exposures had to contain images made before the landing.

Do I have all that right? If not, would you correct my errors?

The problem I have here involves fitting those 4 rolls of pre-invasion film into the timeline. Capa certainly wouldn’t have held them back and sent them to you on June 8th or thereafter, once he’d returned to Normandy; by then they’d be old news. He couldn’t have sent them to you before he left the Chase and headed to Omaha Beach, because you’d certainly have mentioned receiving a preliminary shipment from him in your various accounts.

So the evidence — including your own narrative — seems to indicate that his pre-invasion films arrived along with his eleven Omaha Beach exposures, plus his 120-film negatives made on the way back from Omaha Beach and Normandy (the medics caring for the wounded and dead, etc.). Again, do I have all that right? If not, would you correct my errors?

Robert Capa, forged "ruined" D-Day negative on right, original on left (1)

Robert Capa, forged “ruined” D-Day negative on right, original on left (1)

Unfortunately, I don’t have scans of the reconstructed contact sheets the ICP created of those four rolls of pre-invasion 35mm film that I can provide to you. But I can tell you that all of the nine remaining Omaha Beach negatives they have show a picture editor’s edge notches — most of them double notches — indicating instruction to the darkroom staff to “print this.” I assume you made one set of those notches, with the second made at the NY end. But none of the pre-invasion negatives show any edge-notching, suggesting that they never got printed.

This is why I’m bewildered by your statement that “The Life London darkroom printed off these negatives at the time, in the normal way.” When did they arrive? When did they get printed? Why are they not edge-notched? If they got shipped to LIFE, when did they get shipped? Why did LIFE run none of them?

"Beachheads of Normandy," LIFE magazine feature on D-Day with Robert Capa photos, June 19, 1944.

“Beachheads of Normandy,” LIFE magazine feature on D-Day with Robert Capa photos, June 19, 1944.

Whatever happened with Capa on Omaha Beach on the morning of June 6 does not in any way diminish my respect for him as a person and as a photographer. He achieved what he achieved in his life and work; it will stand the test of time. And whatever decisions you made under terrible pressure on the night of June 7 and the morning of June 8 — on his behalf, on LIFE‘s behalf, and on your own — could not radically revise our field’s assessment of what you accomplished during your long and distinguished career. Certainly they could not now affect the esteem in which Capa and LIFE are held.

My intuition  and the evidence  suggest that there’s another version of this story waiting to be told — a more nuanced and complex one. Excepting you, everyone involved has passed away. In the end, I believe, our loyalty has to be to the truth, let the chips fall where they may.

Best, Allan

Morris has yet to reply to that email, and I won’t hold my breath. But that doesn’t mean it went unheeded, as subsequent events — which I’ll explore in my next post — have shown.

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

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2 comments to Alternate History: Robert Capa on D-Day (17)

  • Incredible work A. D. — I’ve read all of these CAPA posts with great interest, and I am flabbergasted at your research excellence, and unrelenting search for the truth. Thank you for your good work on behalf of everyone interested in documentary photography.

    I hope you’re well.


    P.S. Click this link to see my latest documentary, I think you might like it 🙂

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