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Alternate History: Robert Capa on D-Day (27)

A. D. Coleman, January 2015. Photo by Anna Lung.With Both Barrels

Clearly (and correctly) unconvinced that Yasmine Youssi’s silly tirade in Télérama had finished us off, the French media conglomerate La Vie-Le Monde Group that owns Télérama delivered another shotgun blast to our project via its major publication, Le Monde. Gabriel Coutagne’s “Les photos du Débarquement de Robert Capa au cœur d’une polémique,” appeared therein on August 10, 2015, exactly one week later. (Click here for a Google Translate version in English.) Coutagne serves as Photo Editor of this French daily paper’s website.

Le Monde, a French daily evening newspaper published in Paris since December 19, 1944 (my first birthday!), is one of two French newspapers of record — along with Le Figaro (see below) — and the main publication of La Vie-Le Monde Group. Its per-issue circulation averaged 323,039 copies in 2009.
Le Monde logoFor this attempt they adopted a different strategy. Youssi’s rant forthrightly declared its disregard for facts and evidence, relying mostly on attitude — indignation and incredulity — for effect. Coutagne’s more detailed diatribe pretends to engage with the evidence, but misrepresents and/or misunderstands almost all of it. His elementary mistakes suggest that he either (a) didn’t read large chunks of our research, or Patrick Peccatte’s excellent summary thereof, or (b) read it too hastily and misconstrued it, or (c) has difficulty understanding written English. Some examples:

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

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

• Capa himself acknowledged in his book Slightly Out of Focus (1947) that he experienced a panic attack on Omaha Beach that morning, which he described in detail as causing him to flee the scene: “I paused for a moment, and then I had it bad. The empty camera trembled in my hands. It was a new kind of fear, shaking my body from toe to hair, and twisting my face. … An LCI [landing craft, infantry] braved the fire … I did not think and I didn’t decide it. I just stood up and ran toward the boat. … I held my cameras high above my head, and suddenly I knew I was running away.” He wrote that he berated himself all the way back to England for being a “coward.” He also indicated in this memoir that it was only when he joined the 9th Infantry Division for its attack on Cherbourg that “My nerve came back and I took a lot of pictures of close fighting.” The attack on Cherbourg began on June 17, ten days after his return to Normandy. So I have hardly invented this failure of nerve, as Coutagne intimates; I have merely taken Capa at his word.

• Capa’s ten surviving images were not “the only images made on Omaha Beach” that morning. They were the only images made there by a press photographer. U.S. Coast Guard Robert F. Sargent, among others, also made photographs of the landing.

Zeiss Ikon cassette on left, Kodak Super-XX cassette on right. Note height difference. Photo © 2015 by Rob McElroy.

Zeiss Ikon cassette on left, Kodak Super-XX cassette on right. Note height difference. Photo © 2015 by Rob McElroy.

• Rob McElroy did not suggest that Zeiss Ikon manufactured “many defective devices” in its line of Contax II cameras. Instead, he demonstrated clearly that there was a design conflict between the Contax II and the 35mm film cassette that Kodak introduced in 1934, which was shorter by 2mm than the proprietary cassettes that Zeiss Ikon manufactured for its Contax line of cameras. As my examination of Capa’s contact sheets from the months before and after D-Day verified, the same overlap of the image area onto the sprocket holes occurs consistently, proving that it had nothing to do with darkroom processing. McElroy’s post illustrates that photographers using other cameras, including the Leica, consistently produced negatives showing the same effect — clearly a mechanical issue.

• Any rolls of 35mm film that Capa used could register a minimum of 36 exposures — depending on how one loads the film, a standard roll that length allows for one or two more frames. This certainly is not “a few more than 20” (“un peu plus d’une vingtaine de vues”), as Coutagne proposes. I have never heard of a combat photographer using 20-exposure rolls.

• According to the story Morris told for decades, Denis (not Dennis) Banks did not turn up the heat in the film-drying cabinet, he simply closed its doors. There was no “brutal heat and humidity” involved, as Coutagne exaggerates.

“Behind the Photo: Robert Capa’s D-Day” (2014), screenshot from corrected version.

“Behind the Photo: Robert Capa’s D-Day” (2014), screenshot from corrected version.

• Both Ross Baughman and I did base our early analyses of the supposed darkroom disaster that “ruined” Capa’s films on what we later learned were fake digital versions of those negatives published in a May 29, 2014 video by TIME on which Magnum, ICP, and Morris collaborated. We did so based on what we recognize, in retrospect, as a mistaken trust in the ethicality of TIME and the other parties involved.

• Rob McElroy deserves full credit for uncovering TIME’s forgery of those purported negatives. His analysis, posted at this website, forced TIME to annotate those digital fakes as “photo illustrations.” Whereupon we immediately acknowledged the errors in our own posts that resulted from TIME’s deceptive practice.

• However, the argument that no emulsion melt occurred does not rely on the authenticity of the digitally altered negatives shown in that video, but on the fact that film emulsion simply doesn’t liquefy as a result of a few minutes’ exposure to even high heat.

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

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

• John Morris has never asserted that heat damage to the emulsion caused it to shift position on the acetate backing. That story is a recent invention by the late Richard Whelan, Capa’s authorized biographer, who first asserted it in 2007 in the ICP catalogue This is War! It has since been repeated by Cynthia Young, Whelan’s successor as curator of the Capa Archive at the International Center of Photography in New York.

• It is true that no non-invasive forensic examination of the D-Day negatives in the ICP Capa Archive — via simple viewing under a microscope — has taken place (or, if it has, ICP has not made the results public). I have no authority to require such an examination, of course, though I have called for it; and ICP has steadfastly refused to commission it. Coutagne’s insinuation that this somehow casts doubt on the credibility of our inquiry, rather than on the motives and integrity of ICP, speaks for itself.

LIFE did not publish “all” of Capa’s ten Omaha Beach exposures in its June 19, 1944 issue, only five of them.

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

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

• Coutagne’s assertion that “John Morris, for his part, does not directly challenge the assertion that Capa could not have made a hundred images” is, to say the least, disingenuous. Morris is on record, on dozens if not hundreds of occasions over the past seven decades, claiming to have received four 35mm 36-exposure rolls of Omaha Beach negatives from Capa. That well-established claim has long since gone viral; it stands as a de facto challenge to our research, and vice versa.

Quite a load of slipshod journalism to pack into one article — and to somehow get past a major newspaper’s fact-checkers and editors. So it seems relevant to point out that, politically, Le Monde leans left. With his liberal-humanist political positions John Morris would be one of Le Monde‘s darlings, methinks, which may explain this double-barrelled blast.

M: le magazine du Monde logoClaire Guillot’s August 8, 2011 profile, “John Morris se souvient de Capa et de la guerre d’Espagne”; her equally adoring August 31, 2013 profile of Morris, “Les à-côtés du Débarquement”; her September 6, 2013 coverage of a panel in which Morris participated at a photojournalism festival in Perpignan, “Les papis de la photo de guerre font de la résistance à Visa pour l’image”; and “L’été 1944 jour après jour”, her brief endorsement in M: le magazine du Monde ( the paper’s Sunday magazine) of Morris’s book of Normandy photos  — to mention just four examples from the past four years — would seem to bear out that supposition.

Finally, as if to verify and emphasize the editorial and institutional connection between Youssi’s article and his own, Coutagne concludes his attack exactly as Youssi ended hers — with the same quote from Capa that presumably justifies any elisions and exaggerations in his own narrative and the tales told about him by others:

“Writing the truth being obviously so difficult, I have in the interests of it allowed myself to go sometimes slightly beyond and slightly this side of it. All events and persons in this book are accidental and have something to do with the truth.”— Robert Capa, front jacket flap, Slightly Out of Focus, first edition (1947)

So I’ll repeat what I wrote about Youssi’s use of that slyly evasive posture: Having worked at it for over half a century, I can say from personal experience that writing the truth has proved difficult only when I’ve had something to hide.

Here’s a more germane quote from Capa:

[H]aving the freedom to choose his spot and being allowed to be a coward and not be executed for it is [the war correspondent’s] torture.

On the Other Hand

Happily, the vitriolic but uninformed reaction to our project from Yasmine Youssi and Gabriel Coutagne represents only one side of the coin of French response to this research project.

Konbini logoThe most thoughtful and best-researched French commentary to date is “Robert Capa: comment la légende des photos du débarquement s’est effondrée,” published at Konbini on July 17, 2015, wherein Théo Chapuis engages in some detail with Normandy researcher Patrick Peccatte’s response to our research, as well as with that research itself. Chapuis also quotes extensively from my responses to a set of questions he emailed to me. (Konbini describes itself thus: “Created in 2008 by David Creuzot and Lucie Beudet in Paris, Konbini is a new generation of media that already receives 11 million visits per month from over 30 countries.” Click here for a Google Translate version in English of the Chapuis article.)

Liberation logoRunning a close second in the considered and cogent category we have Laure Andrillon’s “La polémique Robert Capa, ou le mythe écorché du photojournaliste en temps de guerre,” published in Libération on August 12. (Google English here.) Andrillon actually read much of what we’ve published, emailed me for answers to a set of questions, solicited responses to our investigation from various figures pro and con — you know, journalism. (Jean-Paul Sartre and Serge July founded this Paris-based daily newspaper — referred to colloquially as Libé — in Paris in 1973. Decidedly leftist at the outset, it’s now center-left.)

Le Figaro logoTo his surprise as well as mine, Peccatte’s single post at his highly specialized blog has had more resonance in France than all of ours have had elsewhere. On August 4, 2015 Le Figaro, the daily newspaper founded in 1826 and published in Paris — the second-largest national newspaper in France — published “Robert Capa aurait menti à propos de ses photos du Débarquement,” by Mathilde Doiezie. (The title translates as “Robert Capa lied about his D-Day photos.” Click here for an English version from Google Translate.) The author summarizes and supports the findings of the Capa D-Day project. (Politically, Le Figaro takes a center-right position.)

Other August 4 coverage:

La Libre logoThe website of the historic Belgian newspaper La Libre published “L’encombrante légende de Robert Capa” by Jean-Marc Bodson, addressing not just the information regarding the making of Capa’s images and the emulsion-melt story but also the mythologizing thereof by the Capa Consortium. (The title translates as “The burdensome legend of Robert Capa.” Click here for an English version from Google Translate.)

Exponaute logoExponaute, an online art magazine cum gallery and museum guide, published Marie-Charlotte Burat’s thoughtful discussion of this project’s research and conclusions, “Capa accusé de mensonge. Et alors?” (The title translates as “Capa accused of lying. So?” Click here for an English version from Google Translate. The article treats the issue less cavalierly than its title suggests.)

Actuphoto: Actualités photographique, launched in 1998 and self-described as “the foremost online photo magazine,” published Louise Horvath’s “Histoire des photos d’Omaha Beach, Capa aurait-il menti?” — a short summary of the Capa D-Day project’s findings, with which she agrees. (The title translates as “The story of the Omaha Beach photos: Did Capa lie?” Click here for an English version from Google Translate.)

On July 18 the French website Gyomson, which aggregates stories about the press, synopsized Peccatte’s commentary and our research less than precisely: “Another scandal in the field of photojournalism: the pictures of the landing at Omaha Beach by Robert Capa were based on a sham.” (Not really; the “sham” came later. See “Polémique sur les photos du Débarquement de Robert Cappa [sic]” for this short synopsis.)

On July 27, Damien Roué picked it up in his Phototrend blog: “Robert Capa et les photos du Débarquement: la légende qui s’effondre.” (The title translates as “Robert Capa and the landing photographs: the legend collapses.” Click here for an English version from Google Translate.)

Belgian Military Vehicle Trust logoAnd on August 5, the website for the Belgian Military Vehicle Trust (!) — an organization of those who collect WWII military vehicles — reprinted, in full, Jean-Marc Bodson’s article from La Libre (see above), retitling it “Le grand mensonge ! Une légende s’écroule …” (“The big lie! A legend collapses …”)

Prompted by all this, FranceTVinfo — the website of the state-owned FranceTV, the country’s public national television broadcaster — posted on August 8 an unsigned synopsis of the growing controversy, “Pourquoi les photos du Débarquement de Robert Capa font polémique.” (Google English here.)

Finally, as I put this post to bed, the website of the French photo magazine Fisheye uploaded an unsigned synopsis of the synopsis, “Robert Capa démystifié,” datelined August 11.

We’re Still Standing

Les Vacances de M. Hulot (Mr. Hulot's Holiday), 1953, title screen

Les Vacances de M. Hulot (Mr. Hulot’s Holiday), 1953, title screen

So our project has become the provocation for a shooting war involving the French media at the highest levels, as well as further down the ranks. Fascinating to watch.

Much of western Europe, including France, goes on vacation from mid-July through August. So all of this brouhaha has erupted during a slow news cycle, in a period when people there — here too, for that matter — don’t always keep themselves au courant. At the same time, I sense a certain momentum building, even something approaching critical mass; I have queries in hand from websites and print periodicals hoping to publish something about this come September. Because this is now rumbling around controversially in (mostly) Paris-based publications, it may shake the tree further. Who knows what might drop to the ground?


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

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3 comments to Alternate History: Robert Capa on D-Day (27)

  • Allan,

    Congratulations on breaking into frontline French media. Hopefully word will spread from there to mainstream media in other countries, perhaps even the U.S. In these Donald Trump times it’s especially gratifying when truth and reason manage to win out over myth and self-serving exaggeration. Amnesty International’s stunning support for decriminalization of all forms of sex work is another recent case in point. It’s been a good week for sense and sensibility.

    Cheers to you!


  • Colleen Thornton

    Question: Why is this so important and upsetting to the French while the British seem to have no response? The supposed darkroom incident occurred in London after all. Just wondering.

    Cheers, Colleen

    • A. D. Coleman

      From what I can tell, the French think of both Capa and Morris as honorary Frenchmen. Not without reason. Capa became a a classic Parisian ex-pat, as did Morris much later. The entire Parisian left turned out for Gerda Taro’s funeral, and she’s buried there. Capa rode into Paris with the American troops to photograph the liberation of the city from the Nazis.

      So the French generally, and the Parisians in particular, are much more invested in the Capa legend than either the Brits (after all, he was only based there for a few years, and never expressed much love for the place) or the Americans (for whom he remained a furriner).

      So, basically, I’m the interloper beating up on local heroes. The fact that I’m bilingual Francophone as a result of spending two years of my childhood (1951-53) in a grammar school in Golfe-Juan in southern France doesn’t mitigate that very much, I fear.

      With that said, the strongest support our project has had before some of this French response started has come from London-based Peter Marshall at his blog >Re: PHOTO, where he’s dedicated no fewer than 7 posts to thoughtful response to the project. So I have hope that the Brits, and others, will join the goings on.

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