The Construction Of Robert Capa

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Ben Hunt of Epsilon Theory


The Construction of Robert Capa


I went to the Democratic Convention as a journalist, and returned as a cold-blooded revolutionary.

      – Hunter S. Thompson


Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.

     – Hunter S. Thompson


It is said that God is always on the side of the big battalions.

     – Voltaire


There ain’t nothin’ more powerful than the odor of mendacity … You can smell it. It smells like death.

      – Tennessee Williams, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”


Capa: He was a good friend and a great and very brave photographer. It is bad luck for everybody that the percentages caught up with him. It is especially bad for Capa. He was so much alive that it is a long hard hard long day to think of him as dead.

      – Ernest Hemingway, hand-written note after learning of Capa’s death, May 1954


Unless you’re an avid photography buff, you’ve probably never heard of Robert Capa. That’s his most famous photograph at the top of this note, taken – as the story goes – in 1938 during the Spanish Civil War when Capa, embedded with a company of Republican volunteers, snapped a shot of a comrade right at the moment he took a Nationalist bullet in the brain. Capa landed with the Allied troops on the Normandy beaches at D-Day, rode with Patton’s tank column into Paris, spent 1948 and 1949 photographing the immigrants who built Israel, and died in 1954 while documenting the French retreat from a fort in Northern Vietnam. He was a personal friend of Picasso, Steinbeck, and Hemingway. He was Ingrid Bergman’s lover. Quite a life!

But in truth there was no Robert Capa. Or rather, “Robert Capa” was the invented persona of Andre Friedmann and his fiancée, Gerda Pohorylle. Friedmann was born in Budapest in 1913. He was smart, Jewish, and idealistic – three qualities that made him persona non grata with the Hungarian authorities. They assumed he was a Communist (although the local Communist Party wanted nothing to do with Friedmann, as his father was a tailor and thus he was too bourgeois for their taste), and after a particularly nasty beating at the hands of the political police he left Hungary for Berlin in 1931 at the age of 18. This, of course, was jumping from the frying pan into the fire for a young Jewish intellectual, but at least he was able to develop his talents for photography over the next 2 years before fleeing the rise of Nazism and relocating to Paris with Pohorylle.

Friedmann had a beautiful Leica camera (which he kept in hock at the pawn shop most of the time) and started taking photographs of the political events roiling France and Belgium. Fascism was by no means exclusively a German political development, and the streets of Paris and Brussels and Strasbourg were home to rallies and demonstrations by the Right and the Left alike. He had a phenomenal eye, and Gerda (who had changed her last name to Taro) had found a position in a photography agency where she could sell his work, so the future looked bright. But no one wanted to buy anything by this Friedmann fellow, and just changing his name to something non-Jewish wasn’t going to help. No, Friedmann and Taro decided, what they needed was a story.

Friedmann became the darkroom employee and Taro became the exclusive representative of “Robert Capa” – a rich, famous American photographer visiting Paris and bringing his unique American eye to the European scene. Moreover, because Capa was independently wealthy and didn’t really care about money, he would only sell his photographs for three times the going rate … a bargain at twice the price for a lowly Parisian newspaper seeking to print the work of this acclaimed artist. Of course, the plan worked. The photographs of Robert Capa became the toast of Paris, and money started rolling in for the young couple. In fact, a few months later Taro wrote to an American photography agency, claiming to be the exclusive representative of the world-famous French photographer Robert Capa, a ruse that worked just as well as the original.

At one point it seemed that the gig might be up when the publisher of Capa’s main Parisian outlet caught onto the act, but fortunately the publisher recognized the power of the Common Knowledge game … he was delighted that Friedmann and Taro had created the persona of Capa, because by then this by-line helped him sell more magazines. In fact, the publisher hired the plane that took Friedmann and Taro down to Spain to take pictures of the Civil War, and with the publication of “The Falling Soldier” in newspapers all over the world Andre Friedmann became Robert Capa once and for all.

Unfortunately, there’s not a Hollywood ending here. Gerda Taro (who probably was the actual photographer of “The Falling Soldier”, not Capa) was crushed by a tank in Spain a year after the photo was published, and afterwards it seems to me that Friedmann lost himself in the Capa persona. The post-Capa conversion photographs are all well and good, but it’s the pre-Capa conversion photos of life and politics in pre-WWII France and Belgium that really move me. I get the feeling that the constructed nature of Capa’s identity must have plagued him for the rest of his too-short life, that it became a very heavy weight, something to live up to rather than to live with. I mean … look at the movie star affairs, the suicidal professional risks, the Famous Artist “friends”. Are there any two human beings more self-consciously constructed or self-absorbed than Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway? Look at Hemingway’s note on Capa’s death, where Papa makes a joke about Capa’s luck and can’t help himself but to scratch out a few words to make the prose more writerly. A great author, certainly, but a great friend? Not so much.

Still, I think there’s more to the Robert Capa story than a real-life example of the Emperor’s New Clothes and the Common Knowledge game, or a cautionary tale about losing oneself in a tangled web of identity invention. Three points …

First, Capa made no pretense that he and Taro were engaged in some sort of “objective” reporting of the conflicts they covered. They chose sides. Capa was with the Spanish Republicans, not Franco’s Nationalists. He was with the Allies, not the Germans. He was with the Chinese in 1938, not the Japanese. He was with Israel. He was with France. Moreover, he was an advocate for his chosen sides. There is a message in “The Falling Soldier”, and it’s intentional. The Capa persona might have been a pretense, but there is an honesty to the Capa work. It’s the same thing I admire about Hunter S. Thompson (also a pretty thoroughly constructed identity) … the guy may have been a dysfunctional nut job in most respects, but he sure could turn a phrase and you knew exactly where he was coming from.

Both Capa and Thompson were opposed to the anti-liberal, statist forces of their day and time. For Capa it was the Fascists of Spain, Germany, and Japan. For Thompson it was the Nixon Administration. For me it’s the theocracy of modern economic science, where our small-l liberal institutions have either been captured or are under assault by a particular brand of intellectual orthodoxy that cements its soft authoritarian control by a psychological persuasion of our social animal brains. It’s that last bit that bugs me the most … the way in which the value judgments that underpin monetary and fiscal policy are sold to us as an objectively or scientifically correct expression of our self-interest. It’s the sheer mendacity of the enterprise that galls me. As Tennessee Williams wrote, “There ain’t nothin’ more powerful than the odor of mendacity … You can smell it. It smells like death.”

Second, Andre Friedmann had to re-invent himself as Robert Capa in order to get his photos published. Talent wasn’t nearly enough to overcome a pervasive global environment of anti-Semitism, classist and nationalist prejudices, etc. etc. Today Friedmann could put up a website using Bluehost and Wordpress for about the cost of one inflation-adjusted jar of developing fluid, come up with some semi-clever name like “F-stop Theory”, add a few artsy quotes, and bingo … global distribution to hundreds of thousands of viewers. Trust me on this. It can be done.

It’s all well and good to say that the more things change the more things stay the same, and for questions of human nature I’m in total agreement with that sentiment. But the fact is also that the tools invented by the human animal can create permanent and structural change in human society. The Internet is one such tool – maybe not on a par with the taming of fire but certainly on the top 10 list – as it has transformed every aspect of communication. Why is this important? For social animals like ants, termites, and humans communication is everything. For better and worse, we are biologically and culturally evolved to respond to signals from other humans, and a tool that  makes it possible for any one of us to signal every one of us is … breathtaking in its power. This is the singular thing that gives me any hope at all that the bloodless coup we have suffered in the form of NSA Omniscience and Central Bank Omnipotence can be reversed. There are independent and honest voices out there today, and there will be more voices tomorrow. Is there a lot of dreck floating around, a thousand comment cesspools for every David Rosenberg? Sure. But my faith as a small-l liberal is that so long as the voices can be heard, the competition of ideas and opinions will push the most useful of those voices to a place where everyone can hear them. And that’s how the pernicious dynamic of the Emperor’s New Clothes is broken … by an honest voice that’s heard above the crowd. The Internet makes that possible.

Third, and this has nothing to do with Capa himself, there’s an important market lesson to be drawn from the photograph and the war that made him famous. The story behind “The Falling Soldier,” at least as Capa told it, was of a brave but disjointed and unorganized assault on an entrenched Nationalist machine gun. Capa’s company of volunteers would send a couple of men over the trench and they’d get mowed down. Then the rest of the company would fire at the machine gun with their rifles, receive no fire in return, and so assume that one of their crack marksmen had knocked the machine gun out. At that point another cadre of Republicans would leap out from cover to charge the machine gun, probably shouting “Viva la republica!” or something like that, only to get mowed down as well. Wash, rinse, repeat. In many ways the entire history of the Republican defeat in the Spanish Civil War, particularly the history of the International Brigades, is encapsulated by this doomed assault on a professionally manned machine gun. The International Brigades and other Republican volunteers were a motley crew, under-equipped and under-officered, mostly ardent believers in some Leftist –ism like Trade Unionism or Communism or some such, willing to give their lives to prevent the spread of Fascism. If you’ve never read George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, you should. But what they lacked in training and materiel they made up for in conviction … and they got smoked. By 1939 Franco had wiped out all effective resistance, and 500,000 Republicans fled to France where they spent the next several years in internment camps.

The notion that individual conviction and bravery is a #MassiveFail when compared to a machine gun nest seems obvious and trite to us today. Strangely enough, though, when it comes to prevalent notions of market behavior it feels like we’re still in 1936. What I mean is that there is still a dominant belief in individual decision-making as the most effective route to successful investing, that if we could just learn a little bit more about Company X or Sector Y we will win the day. Is your individual knowledge and conviction level in Company X important for investing success? Absolutely, in exactly the same way that physical and psychological bravery is important for war-fighting success. Still more important, though, is the strength and cohesion of the groups that share your investment philosophy. Not your specific investment opinions, any more than one soldier has the same amount and type of instantiated bravery as another soldier in his unit, but the coherence of investment goals and operational practices across your fellow market participants in a particular market segment. This is the core insight of Adaptive Investing – that investment success requires a rigorous analysis of both individual AND group dynamics, and that modern evolutionary theory is a better place to find the tools for that analysis than modern economic theory. Ragtag crews, no matter how brave or informed, tend not to do very well in war or markets. If I’m going into battle or taking a market exposure … yes, I want to have personal conviction and information. But even more so I want to know if I have the intra-group and inter-group dynamics on my side. God is always on the side of the big battalions, said Voltaire, and that sounds like pretty good investment advice, too.

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VD's picture

case in point how antisemitism necessitates brilliance. and yes the point about investing and group-think is quite valid too. market crash 2014.

LetThemEatRand's picture

I roomed with a Jewish kid in college.  Dumb as a stump.  Don't generalize based on ethnicity.  It will make you look like a bigot.

VD's picture

 how many Jewish kids did you room with in total??? it is a generalization, get it?

LetThemEatRand's picture

Just the one.  And I don't get it.  

VD's picture

allow me: there are more instances of hate being mother of necessity for survival and success than a single rooming experience. ..  . hence the germane generalization...

LetThemEatRand's picture

I don't get your point.   Who has threatened Jews in the last 40 years or so simply for being Jewish?

VD's picture

hahahaaa! well there was one....that chump f_s ...  hahahaa! but he is no longer... 


there has been much antisemitism and racism over last 40 years! LOL!!!



LetThemEatRand's picture

Are you suggesting that the only racism in the world is directed at Jews?  

VD's picture

i'm quite aware of most of the full gamut of racism across the globe, not limited to a sole religion. that confirmation bias aint working out for ya all too well...

LetThemEatRand's picture

I'm having a difficult time following your point.

VD's picture

that is rather self-evident. and too bad. no worries. have a good evening.

SunRise's picture

[VD] - Sir(or Madam),  I am a proud graduate of the 6th Grade.  If you  won't or can't clearly, make your point understandable to a 6th Grader, then in my estimation you should concentrate more on substance than appearance.

Kinskian's picture

It's always anti-semitism that holds them back, never their obnoxious personalities.

W74's picture

Or thievery, but who's counting nickels?

gallistic's picture

@LetThemEatRand- Holy moly! I am not advocating VD's point, but if you cannot understand the point he made in the second post, you need to take a hard look in the mirror and meditate...

LetThemEatRand's picture

It is said that God is always on the side of the biggest banks.

     – Lloyd Squidstein.

hedgeless_horseman's picture



Look at Hemingway’s note on Capa’s death, where Papa makes a joke about Capa’s luck and can’t help himself but to scratch out a few words to make the prose more writerly. A great author, certainly, but a great friend? Not so much.

I wish I could count more friends such as Hemingway.

Apostate2's picture

I recommend the Russian Journal (1948) by Steinbeck with photos by Capa. A very interesting read sixty+ years on.

dick cheneys ghost's picture

''Friday being a slow news day, stories going around today purport to identity one of Zero Hedge's contributors. Ironically, each piece seems to reference another media outlet as a source in an interlocking circle of recursive reference that boggles the mind.

This, by our very rough count, is the fourth widespread rumor floating around purporting to identify a Zero Hedge contributor or staff member. As a matter of policy, Zero Hedge does not comment on the identity of the nearly 40 contributors of staff members that constitute our little family.''

whoknoz's picture

always heard that famous photo was simply I know the real story of "Capa" there is no doubt...sorry, but bull shit is bull shit whether it is a battalon, or a single sorry SOB..

truth is. gold vs. bitcoin

A Lunatic's picture

This smells like more of the 'individual is powerless' in the face of adversity bullshit.......

gallistic's picture

It is worse than that in my humble estimation; let me summarize-


I, W. Ben Hunt PHD (in government), am the "chief risk officer" of this firm, and I work for money managers of the temple. We want your money, so we can make money for oursel... er, for you of course.

I like history, so let me weave a backdrop of historical analogies to impress you and convince you. I also talk a good game and interlace obscure subjects such as "econometrics" and "game theory" to give it an erudite, academic veneer.

We invest in trends, because we understand history and the "historical narrative du jour" better than anybody. I make money (for you of course) off the greater fools who succumb to my superior insight and knowledge. We are the smartest guys in the room- now give us your money so we can start "managing" it for you.


BTW, his military analogies are fucking atrocious and twisted beyond recognition to conform to the farcical wisdom he wishes to impart. A guy like this only impresses amateurs who don't know any better.


lewietheparrot's picture


Please, all the hero stuff is great, but you neglected to mention that the Republican side was the victim of the Hitler/Mussolini/Franco terrorism experiment. As you know, Picasso is more famous because of his etching of Guerneca than anything else he produced----there is a reason for that: the joint bombing of Guerneca. The Republicans lost because every other nation was facist----all of Europe, all of the Anglo group----there was no help after the USSR reneged on the gold trade----they got the gold but the Republicans never received the arms.

Acts of 'state terrorism' are the same tactics that the US uses so successfully today all over this planet, but the point is that your idea of individual worth, though admireable, is an invitation to death.

Who are the terrorists today---same as always the states and their hirees.

Thanks for the piece Capa was special.

YC2's picture

So... dont fight the fed?

Pseudo Anonym's picture

ok, i dont get it. why do we need to know that he was a jew?  what is the significance?  was he special because he was a jew? he was good at what he did. period.  good for him.  let's move on.

BandGap's picture

I think it has particular significance given the time frame for the photography. Think of the forces at work socially and how photography played a very important role in delivering the desired message.

Anti-semetism now? Hell, lines are being drawn everywhere, across the globe. I don't have time for one particular brand of bullshit.

tony wilson's picture

W. Eugene Smith now he was a real photo man

modest 2

a jew who nose so much hidden deceit so much saturnic code.

but w eugene smith he was a man and a human with a beautiful photographic eye.

Manipuflation's picture

Wow!  I am nearly speechless at this post.  Nearly.  Because something is well written does not mean it is worth reading.  To foul-hook a fish who finds Hunter S. Thompson an interesting writer and then go into a diatribe of something about Jewishness being a factor in what was written is not only mendacious but downright annoying as well.  The last three paragraphs are simply inexcusable.

We notice things like that as well as the small-l references.  Take your religion and shove it up your ass.  I could give a fuck less about your special snowflake "god" and I am not the only one here who thinks so.  I would not want to live anywhere near the writer of this article however I think he may be my neighbor.   

gallistic's picture

"Because something is well written does not mean it is worth reading."

That is a simple elegant truth that fits like a snug glove on this article; I concur completely.

It is no more than very well-written garbage.

ebworthen's picture

"Give me Liberty or give me Death."

Fuck the rest.

BandGap's picture


Hopefully tha masses are awakening, from my corner of the world it is becoming apparent. After that there will be a toehold in reality, a digging in of the heels. Then comes the stopping and a reversal of the momentum. Energetically a very difficult process.

I see a lot of suffering ahead.

williambanzai7's picture

"The Internet makes that possible."

Until they decide to pull the plug...

Ranger_Will's picture

Longtime get the drill.

This article smacks too much to me of exactly what TPTB would want to face in battle: an organized, centralized enemy.  While there is some truth to what he says about a divided force being most easily conquered (obviously a Sun Tzu fan) he is not taking into account the advantages of an enemy that is not preceivable.  Hit and run is the way to win the long slog, not frontal assault after frontal assault. I remember another "Republican Army" for whom this tactic worked quite well...

Ranger_Will's picture

Because wartime photographs are NEVER staged for political ends...right?

BandGap's picture

Pictures are the biggest tool in the propaganda toolkit. The interpretation is in the hands of the writer.

gallistic's picture

Hey now, that Iwo Jima photograph was not re-done for dramatic effect...that was the real deal!

Wasn't it?

foodisgood's picture

Someone tell me a story about the entire Brittish armada attacking Baltimore and men using their dying bodies just to keep a flag pole up and ill help sing a song a lawyer wrote.

You guys are consumed with being consumers of the PR propaganda Bernays has indoctrinated self realization and 51 flavors of spagetti sauce in the grocery that you are so special for.

Jesus raised a fist for a common cause and a Constitution was written so that interest was something that could be forgiven.

You frikin got damned nagger slaves of indoctrination. Your focus is your energy. Your energy does not have to be a terrible waste - cause your energy can do ANYTHING.



22winmag's picture

Never heard of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu referred to as the French retreat from a fort in North Vietnam... but whatever.

theprofromdover's picture

Plus 10

People in armchairs don't read history anymore. 140-character attention span, max.

Dane Bramage's picture

Interesting read, if a bit incoherent and not very motivational (lol).  A good counter-article would draw on the sucess of 4th-generational warfare scenarios and tie that in with a financial strategy.  I'm keen on gold & ammo (& the like, productive farmland, etc.,.). 

Gold & ammo; the 4th generational warfare of finance. :)

I think the future is on our side, the ultimate minority: the individiual.  It isn't necessary to overthrow the government.  We'll just outgrow it.

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”R Buckminster Fuller



Manipuflation's picture

Francis Sawyer?  I knew this was going to happen after my MW experiences.  It IS why Boating Accident News exists as a rally point in the first place.  If Francis wants to write again I can see that happening.  We can do anything we want to do.

Icewater Enema's picture

I get the "big powerful foot wins against the disorganized hill of ants" argument. But a virus will kill you just as surely as a bullet albeit more slowly, and its not organized. Its simplicity makes it hard to kill. As powerful systems become more complex, they become more vulnerable as weak points multiply. September 11 came about because of exploited shortcomings in US security brought on by American carelessness. Look at IT - white hat hackers are hopefully finding system weaknesses before the black hat types find them but never completely (just ask Target). The immensity of trying to control everything usually has a price tag that is unsustainable.

gallistic's picture

Icewater Enema (that sounds umm...stimulating, I guess) said-

"I get the "big powerful foot wins against the disorganized hill of ants" argument."

Well, I certainly don't. You underestimate the human spirit, and like the imbecile author of this article, you really have no clue.

Anybody with half a brain and a cursory knowledge of history knows the the local David has frequently stalemated or defeated, the "big foot" militarily or politically.

Let us single out an appropriate, illustrating example that people here are familiar with- our very own "powerful" American Goliath.

Ragtag Iraqi "insurgents", bloodied but unbowed, fought to a stalemate against Goliath's overwhelming firepower and gee-whiz death technology.

The even more ragtag Afghan "mujaheddin ants" have endured a massive onslaught and are still standing and fighting after more than a decade of combat with Goliath. They are also on the verge of winning the political fight.

The Vietcong's pathetic "infantry" in Indochina handed Goliath his ass along with the  "despicable terrorists" (Hezbollah) in Lebanon, and "puny warlords" in Somalia.


"The notion that individual conviction and bravery is a #MassiveFail when compared to a machine gun nest seems obvious and trite to us today."

It only seems obvious and trite to a know-nothing chicken hawk ass-clown who has never chewed the ground and seen the elephant.

The ghost of Clausewitz benevolently smiles upon the "fighting ants" and laughs at the deluded pseudo-historian, money grubbing (excuse me- "money managing"), chicken hawk ass-clown W. Ben Hunt, (Ph.D) while farting Elan in his general direction...