Is Robert Capa's Falling soldier a fake?
This week it was widely reported in various media that the Spanish newspaper El Periódico “had found conclusive evidence” that Robert Capa's famous photo from the Spanish civil war, Falling soldier was a fake.
While not mentioned in the article, the Spanish newspaper's claim is based upon the work of professor José Manuel Susperregui, who teaches communications studies at País Vasco University in Spain, and an analysis that he published in his recent book Sombras de la Fotografía (Shadows of Photography). Professor Susperregui provides compelling evidence that Falling soldier was photographed in Llano de Banda, an area of countryside close to the small village of Espejo, and not in Cerro Muriano (45 km from Espejo), where Capa claims the photo was taken. Historians say there wasn't a battle in Espejo on September 5, 1936, when the photograph was taken, so the death must have been faked.
We also know, due to an obituary uncovered by Alicante historian Miguel Pascual Mira, that the militiaman depicted in Capa's photo is not Federico Borrell García as previously thought. Borell died in the Cerro Muriano battle on September 5, 1936. While he has been postively identified as Capa's fallen militiaman by his brother's widow and his niece, Borrell's obituary, published in anarchist journal Ruta Confederal number 13 of October 23rd 1937 (one year and thirty eight days after the battle of Cerro Muriano) and written by a fellow militiaman and eyewitness to Borell's death, describes Borell being shot while seeking cover behind a tree. There is no tree in Capa's photograph.
Mira's discovery has, as far as I know, not been widely reported. Susperregui's findings was first reported on June 14th 2009 in the British newspaper The Guardian, but wasn't widely disseminated before El Periódico picked up the story, on July 17th 2009.
However, while Susperregui may be right about the location where the photo is taken, he still may be wrong about the death being faked. While no actual battle took place in Espejo on that day, there may have been snipers in the area.
Capa's main biographer, Richard Whelan, has struggled extensively with the photograph, and devotes 32 pages of his This Is War! Robert Capa at Work (IDC, Steidl, 2007) to a discussion of its authenticity. Whelan's account about how this photo came into being, quoted below, may also explain why Capa lied about the location.
The image, known as Death of a Loyalist Militiaman or simply The Falling Soldier, has become almost universally recognized as one of the greatest war photographs ever made. The photograph has also generated a great deal of controversy. In recent years, it has been alleged that Capa staged the scene, a charge that has forced me to undertake a fantastic amount of research over the course of two decades. I have wrestled with the dilemma of how to deal with a photograph that one believes to be genuine but that one cannot know with absolute certainty to be a truthful documentation.
What does one do with a photograph that is now often published with a caption mentioning the doubts that have been raised about its authenticity? Has the taint of suspicion rendered it permanently impotent? Will Capa's photograph have to be relegated to the dustbin of history? As I will attempt to demonstrate here, the truth concerning The Falling Soldier is neither black nor white. It is neither a photograph of a man pretending to have been shot, nor an image made during what we would normally consider the heat of battle. (Whelan 2007, p. 54)
The disturbing fact of the soldier's flat-footedness, along with the equally disturbing inference that the man was carrying his rifle in a way suggesting that he did not expect to use it soon, led me to reconsider the story that Hansel Mieth, who had become a Life staff photographer in the late 1930s, wrote to me in a letter dated March 19, 1982.
She said that Capa, very upset, had once told her about the situation in which he had made his famous photograph.
“They were fooling around,” [Capa] said. “We all were fooling around. We felt good. There was no shooting. They came running down the slope. I ran too and knipsed.”
“Did you tell them to stage an attack?” asked Mieth.
“Hell no. We were all happy. A little crazy, maybe.”
“Then, suddenly it was the real thing. I didn't hear the firing - not at first.”
“Where were you?”
“Out there, a little ahead and to the side of them.”
Beyond that, Capa told Mieth only that the episode haunted him badly. We do not know the nature of Capa's guilt. Did he initiate the “knipsing” and feel guilty about its outcome? Or perhaps the soldiers initiated the “knipsing” because they wanted to be photographed. The “knipsing” seems to have ended when the soldier stood up to have Capa make a portrait of him. But did Capa ask the soldier to stand up for his portrait, or did the soldier himself suggest making the portrait? Whatever the case, Capa implied to Mieth that he felt at least partially responsible for the man's death. (ibid., pp. 72-74)
By Capa's own testimony to Hansel Mieth, his Cerro Muriano photographs leading up to The Falling Soldier depict "fooling around" rather than posing or actual fighting. But, according to that same testimony, the moment captured in The Falling Soldier was deadly earnest. Federico Borrell García stood up for what was intended to be a heroic portrait but which became, completely unexpectedly, a picture of a man who has just been mortally wounded. (ibid., p. 86)
Whelan's account, where a staged photo opportunity turns deadly due to a sniper's bullet, may explain why Capa did not reveal the true location of the shot. If he didn't want his own involvment in the events that lead to the militiaman's death to become publicly known, he would be well served by locating the photo to a place where the real battle took place on that day, rather than in a location where he and the loyalist militia were just "fooling around".
However, the new evidence uncovered by Mira and Susperregui can not be ignored. Both findings strengthen the case of those that believe that this particular photograpic icon is indeed a fake.
See also my note about Photography and deception.