Updated: Sep 16
Cover the action - freeze the key moment... Forever.
War photographer Robert Capa had nerves of steel. Throughout the Spanish Civil War and World War Two he threw himself into the action - with that legendary line: 'If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough!'
Capa's war was invariably played out on the desperate edge of now - and I have always been intrigued that, despite the danger, he jumped into action time and again not just with his 35mm kit but also with what was, effectively a rather hefty medium format Rolleiflex.
I think the Rolleiflex had become a vital part of his story-telling with a camera. After the rush of covering a scene with his 35mm Contax cameras, the medium format, almost three-dimensional fine-grained images of the Rolleiflex were his way of honouring his subjects.
...And Capa's need for the Rolleiflex is seen nowhere more persuasively than in the images he shot on the frontline of the war in Leipzig, Germany on April 18th 1945.
Robert Capa arrived at an apartment in the city to find it full of American GIs. He lifted his 35mm Contax to his eye and rapidly shot a series of images of a young American machine gun crew, firing from an apartment veranda high above the city.
Gunfire and explosions rattled in the streets below. Capa had to move fast to capture the fleeting expressions of fear he saw on the young soldier's faces but he noticed that the soldier feeding the bullet belt into the gun had the initials 'RB' pinned on his field jacket.
It was the final days of the war in Europe - but these kids could just as easily be on the front line in Ukraine today; their faces are the faces of every young soldier in any war at any time.
Suddenly, 'RB' was hit in the forehead by a German sniper's bullet. More bullets flew and everyone ducked for cover. Capa saw 'RB' slump back dead on the floor. his life over. Another soldier rushed to man the gun. Capa kept on covering the scene with his Contax cameras as the room exploded with all the chaos and noise of war.
...And then silence as the battle subsided.
The apartment cleared of soldiers as the war moved on.
Capa found himself alone with 'RB'. He must have been deeply affected by the sight of the dead soldier.
The next image Capa took would be with his Rolleiflex - and it would become what he would call his defining image of World War Two.
All photographs copyright Robert Capa ICP Foundation
In the USA, LIFE magazine used the image with the headline - 'The last man to die'. It was not an entirely accurate line but one that embodied the desire for some kind of full stop to the horror of war.
The image is a strange and deeply tragic one. The trees glimpsed through the window seem as devoid of life as the young soldier. The image feels almost like a still life.
Capa's career as a photographer is marked by these instances when he swung his Rolleiflex into action to memorialise those moments that he felt were transcendent.
How did he want us to interpret this pristine, almost three-dimensional image?
War is long. Life is short.
In the only known recording of Capa's voice - a radio interview that he gave in 1947 - Capa talks about Leipzig and the death of 'RB' - “...It was a very clean, somehow very beautiful death and I think that’s what I remember most from the war...”
You can listen to the recording here (go to 20:15 on the timeline for his words about Leipzig) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYe4ynXnqug
This example of Capa's work with a Rolleiflex is maybe a little morbid for some but I really do believe that there is something very special about the Rolleiflex and, by connection, the use of any twin lens reflex. In war and peace, the camera has excelled.
Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, David Bailey, Bill Brandt and so very many other photographers - both past and present - have discovered the magic of using a twin lens reflex.
Avedon's photograph of Marilyn Monroe - caught at the end of an intense session of photographing the legend has become famous as the finest image of the real woman behind the ultimately tragic artifice of 'Marilyn Monroe'.
Avedon had finished work for the day with 'Marilyn' and now he turned to find Norma Jean Mortenson (Marilyn's birth name) standing lost in thought before him. The image has an air - at least for the modern viewer - of impending tragedy; a kind of profound and fragile beauty... Perfectly captured by that distinctive square format and fine grain of the TLR camera.
This image is as much a 'still life' as Capa's image of 'RB' in Leipzig... A moment in the troubled and all-too short life of Norma Jean; frozen forever by that strange sense of a heightened reality that a medium format camera brings...
photo copyright The Richard Avedon Foundation
I would urge any of you who have never ventured beyond 35mm - or digital - to pick up a TLR and try it. I think you will be beguiled.
Irving Penn used the Rolleiflex intensively throughout his long and illustrious career as a fashion and art photographer. The quiet shutter and smooth operation of the Rolleiflex perfectly suited his intense, almost monastic approach. With Penn, his ambition was to bring a mythic quality to every image he so painstakingly produced.
photo copyright Irving Penn foundation
...And this is the key thing about TLRs, by the nature of their design, they become something of a 'magic box'. You flip up the viewfinder shade and stare down on an intense image of the world, floating in blackness. The camera demands precision in focus and careful composition. One must think hard before releasing the shutter.
With care, the results are usually wonderful. These cameras remind me of that phrase, 'Strong words softly spoken'; with the TLR powerful images are produced with the absolute concentration of the photographer and that discreet 'snick' of the shutter... Strong images softly taken.
photo copyright Conde Nast publications
Penn remembers - 'Louis Jouvet came to pose in my New York studio. I worked with a close-up lens on the Rolleiflex. We both became hypnotised with the experience, speaking in whispers for perhaps an hour, aware that something serious was being recorded. Jouvet returned to Paris and sadly was soon dead'
Cover the action - freeze the key moment... Forever.
'...If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough!' must be one of the most widely misinterpreted quotes in the history of photography. Capa's words of advice are read by many as literally an instruction to get physically as close to the action as you can. But I really don't think that this was what he meant - his instruction was that the concerned photographer must get emotionally close to the subject; otherwise the image will lack power - and certainly emotion.
Time and again, Capa threw himself into the dark and desperate moments of war. He was as emotionally invested as any photographer could possibly be - and the power of his images speak for themselves.
When Capa's Leipzig images were published in LIFE magazine in May 1945, the faces of both soldiers were blurred by the wartime censor but the identity of 'RB' was revealed by Lehman Briggs - the soldier seen manning the gun with RB in Capa's photos: 'RB' - was Raymond Bowman, aged just 21 when he died. Lehman Briggs had survived the war but the memory of his friend would never fade.
At the invitation of historian, Alex Kershaw, Briggs revisited the apartment in Leipzig in 2016 -
"...The event had so disturbed my mind because of the loss of my buddy, I had tried to block it, and hadn’t talked about it for years. But returning to the scene unlocked all the memories… I was 3ft from him when it happened. I could have reached out and touched him, but I knew he was dead. I had to carry on in his place, as I’d been trained to do... I had just been firing the gun, and I just stepped back off the gun and he had taken over… I happened to look up and see the bullet pierce his nose. The bullet that hit him killed him, ricocheted around the room, and it’s a miracle that it didn’t hit me. As soon as he got hit, somebody had to take the gun. I had to jump over him and start firing the gun.”
LIFE magazine closed the story with Capa's recollection -
“other members of the platoon then decided to find where the fatal shot had come from. Stealthily they single-filed on to the cobblestone street and surrounded Germans barricaded in several abandoned streetcars. They fired a few warning shots. Presently two Germans came out with their hands up shouting, "Kamerad!" The Americans, feeling no elation, took them away.”
We will be talking in some real detail about the use of the Rolleiflex and the other great camera systems on our upcoming photo course 'The Expressive Camera'. You can look forward to some very interesting and illuminating discussion about the history, theory and practice of the great photographers and the cameras they used to such powerful effect... And you will build up a much clearer picture of the kind of photographer you want to be - and the ideal equipment for you.
...Right now we have two very special Rolleiflex TLRs in stock.
On the left is a 75-year anniversary issue and on the right a nicely customised 2.8 GX - re-skinned in blue leatherette. Both represent a great investment and an ideal opportunity to enter the magic world of TLR photography.
Blog copyright Matthew Whiteman 2023
Camera images copyright The Latent Image 2023
Historic images copyright various