What Spain Sees in Robert Capa's Civil War Photo

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Robert Capa / Magnum Photos

Robert Capa's iconic photograph of the Republican militiaman, Federico Borrell Garcia, at the moment of death. (The Falling Soldier) Cerro Muriano, Cordoba front, Spain. September 5th, 1936

"If your pictures aren't good enough," Robert Capa once remarked, "then you're not close enough." For more than 35 years, Capa's 1936 photograph "Death of a Militiaman" — arguably the most enduring image of the Spanish Civil War — commanded worldwide acclaim and helped establish Capa as the archetypal modern war photographer.

But beginning in the 1970s, researchers and historians began to challenge the picture's veracity and raise questions about Capa's reputation: Did the famous photograph capture the militiaman at the moment of his death, or was it staged? Now comes a claim that new and "indisputable" evidence determines once and for all that the photograph is a fake. "We tried to reconstruct the events exactly as they would have to have occurred for Capa's photo to have been taken during a military conflict," says Ernest Alos, the reporter for Cataluna's daily El Periodico who has led the latest inquiry. "And we discovered that the picture does not correspond to any actual event."

Yet the findings, published by El Periodico on July 17, are about more than that one shot — or the Capa mythology it fuelled. The latest investigation may settle any questions about the actual location of Capa's image, but despite its focus on historical accuracy, it is unlikely to end all debate about the photograph's authenticity. What the study does reveal is Spain's growing interest in the role that visual documents might play in understanding the country's complex — and still unresolved — relationship with its civil war.

With the arrival of the exhibition "This is War! Robert Capa at Work" currently on display in Barcelona's Museu d'Art de Catalunya, Alos notes that local experts were able to observe several additional photographs Capa took of the Spanish Civil War that had never before been exhibited in Spain. "This is important because these photos are part of our history, and here we know our country's geography and history better than those in New York or London," he says.

Alos and his colleagues came to the conclusion that Capa's photo had been staged by following the lead of Jose Manuel Susperregu, photography professor at the University of the Basque Country. Having closely examined the previously unseen photographs, Susperregu sent two of them to the governing councils of towns near Andalusia's Cerro Muriano, where Capa's photo purportedly was taken, and received confirmation that the landscape seen in the picture is actually located roughly 30 miles (50 km) away, near Espejo, a Cordoban town isolated from the war's battle zone. The El Periodico reporters spoke with the people of Espejo and with historians of the Civil War, and learned that no military conflicts had taken place in the area during the days when Capa took the photograph.

While the new findings clearly establish where the famous shot was taken, not everyone believes they suggest it was a fraud. "The evidence certainly changes the photograph's location from Cerro Muriano to Espejo — there's no longer any question about that," says Cynthia Young, a curator at the International Center of Photography in charge of the Robert Capa and Cornell Capa Archive and one of the exhibition's organizers. "But I don't see how one goes from 'new location' to 'fake photo' — it's a lot more complicated than that. Capa never said the photo was taken at Cerra Muriano — not once, not anywhere."

Indeed, many who have long followed this debate see the latest investigation as part of a larger tension. "There is more going on than just getting at the truth," says Sebastiaan Faber, a Civil War scholar and professor of Hispanic Studies at Oberlin College in Ohio. "In the reactions to these latest revelations there is a clear undertone of irritation and indignation, an underlying accusation of opportunism: Capa as an unscrupulous, deceitful foreigner who made his career off the Spanish Civil War." He adds: "This is one more chapter in the Spaniards' long struggle to regain control over the story of their civil war, reversing the notion that only foreigners have access to the 'truth about Spain.'"

On this point, at least, those pursuing the meaning of Capa's falling militiaman may find common ground. "To show that Capa fabricated this photo shakes his reputation, yes," says El Periodico's Alos. "But rather than destroying Capa's myth, it forces us to confront the realities of that time and place: that it was 1936, that Capa was a 22-year-old on his first assignment." More important, he says, "this is part of an effort to recuperate the historical and graphic memory of our country. That's the really important thing — that we've taken a new step forward in understanding our own history."