Saturday, September 19, 2009

Willy Ronis and Robert Capa

Willy Ronis 1910-2009

Ronis by Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images

Willy Ronis died September 12, 2009. The Telegraph of London ran a very nice appraisal of his life and work. It starts:

Willy Ronis, who died on September 12 aged 99, was the last of the great photographers whose images came to define postwar France; like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau, he was an aesthete of photo-reportage and street life, capturing politics and poetry in the humdrum and the everyday.

He was, however, more artistic than Doisneau and less patrician than Cartier-Bresson. Ronis had a tender eye, photographing working-class neighbourhoods where men drank rough wine and children played on the streets.

It can be found here.

Here is a piece on The Atlantic's site that uses his death to discuss "humanism" in photography, then and now.

The only bit of Ronis ephemera I have is a book inscribed to Richard Whelan.

And speaking of Whelan and Capa, it was only recently that I became aware of the Spanish newspaper El Periodico's claim to have put the controversy of the authenticity of "The Falling Soldier" to rest. By comparing the backgrounds in a number of Capa's photos taken around the same time to actual landscapes in Spain, they claim that "The Falling Soldier" was taken somewhere other than where Capa said it was taken and that where it in fact was taken, there was no fighting going on on the day that Capa was there. Therefore, the photo was staged.

Robert Capa/Magnum

If anyone missed this, here are places to go for everything from an overview to...really...more than most of us need to know.

The New York Times had a good piece even if they did come to the party a month late.

The Daily Mail Online has a sequence of photos comparing the landscapes.

Then there is a blog that has literally thousands of words on the subject and hundreds of contemporary photos of the areas where Capa shot. The blog is the work of José Manuel Serrano Esparza of the Leica Historical Society of America and the first part (of ten) is a reprint of an article that he wrote in 2007 about Capa at Cerro Muriano. That culminated 11 years of research on where Capa and Gerda Taro went while covering the Spanish Civil War, the types of cameras and lens Capa used, who the people in the photos were, etc. Part ten of this epic is where he analyzes the research of José Manuel Susperregui, a professor of communications at the Universidad del País Vasco, who put forth the information the news reported.

Part 1
Parts 2-10, mixed in with articles on Leicas.

And if you're really interested in the history of all this, Luca Pagni has compiled pdf's and reprints of the many voices that weighed in on the subject. They're available on this website. Some of it is in Italian.

Vu, September 23, 1936

And finally--no really--here is a Capa obit that I found in the copy of Slightly Out of Focus that I bought many years ago. Not sure what paper it's from but at the end it mentions Werner Bishof's death as well.


jose manuel said...

Dear Sirs:

First of all, I do wish to thank you for having reported about my research on the topic of the Falling Soldier picture made by Robert Capa.

On the other hand, I think that there has been a misunderstanding:

I have publicly admitted that I was wrong, because for a lot of years I thought that Robert Capa made The Falling Soldier picture in Cerro de La Coja, a little hill near Cerro Muriano village, and now we know that the picture was taken in Espejo.

Referring to me you say:
"He believed that the photo was authentic in that it captured the militiaman at the moment of his death".

In order to avoid any possible confusion,I must say that I did believe that the photo was authentic in that it captured the militiaman at the moment of his death, and now more than before I do go on believing even more strongly that the photo is authentic in that it captured the militiaman at the moment of his death, in a split second after his heart had just been pierced by a 7 x 57 mm bullet shot by a Moroccan Tabor of Regulares enemy soldier on a reconnaissance mission, who was probably highly stressed and infuriated after having being hidden all the time and having watched the militiamen on the slope
making so many movements, jumps, runnings upwards and downwards, simulating of aiming and firing against really non existing Francoist troops attacking, etc.

From the very beginning of my research a lot of years ago, I stated that these deaths hadn´t been made by machine gun rattling, but by two consecutive shots made by the same Moroccan Tabor of Regulares sniper, because there are
two deaths, the first one being instant and corresponding to the famous Falling Soldier, and the second one being not instant, but within little time, corresponding to another different militiaman already on the ground, very badly injured and in a highly agonizing posture, with his right arm sleeve turned up and the tip of his bent bolt Mosquetón Mauser 7 x 57 mm rifle backwards and touching the ground of the wheat covered slope by Espejo village.

By the way, the slope by Espejo village where Capa made the Falling Soldier picture and where the rest of Capa and Taro´s photographs were made that morning of 1936, was found by

Yours sincerely,
José Manuel Serrano Esparza
Leica Historical Society of America

P.S: is a humble blog on photography made up by three persons: Javier Izquierdo, Joseba Bolot and José Manuel Serrano Esparza

jose manuel said...

I´m sorry. I hadn´t enough space in the previous space. I hope I won´t disturb anybody or break any rule.

You can verify it all in the 10th Part of my research.

And it was also who discovered on June 16 2009 the white houses called Cortijo de Casalilla and Los Molinos del Campo or de Aceite that can be seen in the background of the two new decisive pictures unveiled by ICP during the This is War! Robert Capa at Work itinerant exhibition, one of them in which there are five militiamen holding their rifles simulating to be aiming at really non existing attacking Francoist troops, and a further one in which appears the body of a militiaman on the ground of the wheat covered slope with his Mosquetón Mauser 1916 Model 7 x 57 mm caliber crossed on his belly and resting on his left hand.In both pictures, the Casilla de Los Taladores appeared in a very small size and blurred, so it´s not a key element in terms of identification, the significance of the Cortijo de Casalilla and Los Molinos del Campo or de Aceite being far more significant on appearing in bigger size and much more distinctly.

Obviously, the starting clue to begin with was the line of mountains of the horizon, about whom I firsly was aware on reading Giles Tremlett report on The Observer on June 14th 2009 in which he reported about Professor Susperregui´s finding, so the first thing I made in the beginning of the 10th Part on Robert Capa of my research was to congratulate him as the discoverer of this line of mountains in the horizon, with the ranges of Montilla and Cabra matching exactly the ones appearing in the quoted pictures.

Later on, we were reported that it wasn´t Professor Susperregui, but Antonio Aguilera, a secondary school pupil of IES Vicente Núñez of Montilla village, who really made the discovery in April 2009, identifying the line of mountains of the Sierras of Montilla and Cabra in the horizon of the two quoted pictures.

The photographs were shown to Antonio Aguilera by Juan Molleja Martínez, a teacher in the IES Vicente Núñez of Montilla village.

All of this is explained by Professor Susperregui himself on page 100 of his book Sombras de la Fotografía (which deals on four different pictures made by four different photographers, one of them being the Falling Soldier), where he explains that he had been for some time sending through internet the two quoeted pictures to different town halls, schools, etc, of Córdoba province, just in case anybody was able to identify the place.

With all respect, this seems to have been the main research contribution made by Professor Susperregui to the topic: the sending of the aforementioned emails with the scanned two pictures to town halls, schools, history teachers, etc, of Córdoba province, until finally Antonio Aguilera was able to identify the line of mountains appearing in the two quoted decisive pictures for the idnetification.

José Manuel Serrano Esparza

Don said...

Mr. Esparza,

Thank you very much for clarifying that. My apologies for misrepresenting your position on the matter.



jose manuel said...


We don´t know whether Professor Susperregui reported to Giles Tremlett that the discoverer of the line of mountains of Sierras of Montilla and Cabrera appearing in the background had been Antonio Aguilera, but anyhow, has always trying to do things with honesty and maximum transparency possible. After watching the information in The Observer on June 14 2009, we took for granted that Professor Susperregui had been the discoverer
of the line of mountains in the horizon matching the one in the two new decisive pictures, we were happy for that and I congratulated
him publicly at the beginning of the 10th Part of my research on Robert Capa.

Time will cast the real truth of events in this respect.

On the other hand, on page 102 of his book Sombras de la Fotografía, Professor Susperregui states that the location where Capa made The Falling Soldier is on a spot belonging to the municipal area of Castro del Río village called Cerro Ventorrillo, a place five kilometers and three hundred meters far from the rotonda of Espejo, where the road CO-4204 towards Nueva Carteya begins.

This is not true, because Robert Capa made The Falling Soldier picture on a slope by Espejo village discovered by on June 16 2009, as can be confirmed in the 10th Part of our research.

Whatever it may be, I didn´t go to Espejo looking for any personal glory, fame or anything like that. Simply, I went to Espejo on June 16 2009, because after watching Giles Tremlet information in The Observer, I became very fidgety, because I knew that the original column with Alcoyanos militiamen and regular Republican forces which had departured from Alcoi (Alicante province)on August 7 1936splitted into two ones on reaching the village of Pedro Abad: approximately a 40% of its bulk going to Cerro Muriano and the other 60% marching to Espejo village.

I wouldn´t have gone to any other village of Córdoba province, but Giles Tremlett mentioned Espejo, precisely Espejo, and on June 16 2009 made the two findings: firstly the slope by Espejo village on which Robert Capa made his picture Death of a Loyalist Militiaman, and secondly we also identified for the first time in the world regarding Capa´s pictures the white houses that can be seen in the background, called Cortijo de Casalilla and Los Molinos del Campo or de Aceite.

And both from Cortijo de Casalilla and from the second Molino del Campo or de Aceite (the then nearest to Espejo oil mill not existing any more and the third one being currently rather spoilt) I could verify the diagonal trajectory of Capa´s shots with his Leica III (Model F 1933-1939) with its Leitz Summar 50 mm f/2 when he made the picture of the five militiamen with one knee on the ground holding their rifles and simulating to be aiming at really non existing attacking Francoist troops (page 77 of the superb ICP/STEIDL This is War! Robert Capa at Work exhibition catalogue book) from the slope by Espejo village, while in the other picture, being vertical, and depicting the body of a militiaman
lying on the ground of the wheat covered slope by Espejo (though it is another point more on the left of the slope -page 85 of the aforementioned ICP/STEIDL catalogue book-)the trajectory of the shot is much less diagonal with respect to the then three Molinos del Campo or de Aceite (Oil Mills)visible on top right of the picture just under the strong corner vignetting rendered by the uncoated Leitz Summar 50 mm f/2
(though the image reveals in my opinion that the lens shows very good center performance along with dropping of contrast and definition almost at any distance from the axis, and some scratches on his front element, so it delivers a classical vintage image)and the Casilla de Los Taladores, exceedingly small and blurred and much less significant regarding the identification of the place.

José Manuel Serrano Esparza

jose manuel said...


On the other hand, I think that in the ninth part of my humble research on Robert Capa and his famous picture in
with our in-depth analysis one by one, of the pictures made that day of 1936 on the slope by Espejo village, we have proved that neither Robert Capa nor Gerda Taro gave any previous instructions to the militiamen to pose and they didn´t place them one by one before each picture.

In my viewpoint, it´s important to bear in mind that Robert Capa and Gerda Taro had been in Spain for only a few weeks. Capa could speak Hungarian, German and a bit French.
Gerda Taro could speak Polish, German and French, so they couldn´t speak to the militiamen in Spanish, and besides, they didn´t need to make anything like that, because it would have delayed it very much.

In spite of having official Republican accreditations as photographers, it is clear that Capa and Gerda Taro hadn´t the power on the slope and had to adapt the best they could to very special circumstances in which the
anarchist militiamen were highly overjoyed because of the presence of two foreign photographers and made a wide range of movements, jumpings, runnings in different directions, simulating of aiming and shooting against really non existing Francoist attacking troops,etc, and besides, there are some moments in which an old anarchist man with power over the militiamen probably orders the militiamen some of the movements.
Everybody wants to appear in the pictures as best as possible, expectation is great and even the quoted old anarchist man with power over the militiamen does his best to appear exerting command (for instance in Gerda Taro´s picture
on page 79 of the This is War! Robert Capa at Work in which this mature man clad in white fatigues clothes is on the right lower area of the image handling a Mauser rifle on his right hand and encouraging the five militiamen
on his left running up the slope and simulating to attack a really non existing Francoist position on top of the knoll,the Falling Soldier in this image being the second from left.

The non visible head of the firing
pin in a lot of Mauser 1893 Model rifles of the militiamen clearly indicate that the guns can´t strike any bullet.

What happened on the slope was a kind of revolutionary spree taken out by highly overconfident anarchist militiamen, many of whom
would be wiped out within a few weeks, during the battle for Espejo village between September 22and 25 1936, by the Squadron of Regulares of Melilla under the command of Major Sagrado and a complete Tabor of Regulares from Melilla under the command of Major Baturone, which would fulfil the encircling manoeuvre from the northwest, destroying the Republican artillery. Id est, from a military viewpoint the best infantry in the world then both fixing bayonets and regarding the accuracy of middle and long distance shots with their Mauser rifles, also sporting a great manoeuverability in combat and commanded by professional officers with a lot of years of experience in ruthless colonial African war in Morocco, struggling against militiamen mostly lacking
military experience and gun drill, coming from a comprehensive range of occupations: peasants, cobblers,textile workers,electricians,print workers,masons,etc.

José Manuel Serrano Esparza

jose manuel said...


Therefore, these pictures don´t show at all any kind of fake prepared in advance by Capa and Taro. Things didn´t happen that way.

As I said before, a sort of revolutionary binge happened on the slope by Espejo village on which the militiamen themselves and at least the aforementioned anarchist man with power over the militiamen reigned more or less supreme, so Capa and Taro had to adapt to the context the best they could, striving after making the best feasible pictures from different angles and distances, semetimes focusing on a specific militiaman and other times making good shots.

This is very apparent in one of the square images made by Gerda Taro of a probably Andalusian militiaman wearing a big straw hat,
where she crouches very much and puts the focus of the Carl Zeiss Jena 7,5 cm f/3.8 lens of her medium format Rolleiflex Standard K2 Model 622 at full aperture on his face to make him stand out over the nearest and farthest wheat spikes, rendering them outside the field depth area.

But generally speaking, apart from the quoted revolutionary revel,a great naiveté was constant and it is very apparent in a high percentage of the things made by the anarchist militiamen while Capa and Taro make the photographs.

This is very evident in many of the pictures, in which it is more than clear than Capa and Taro are not trying to deceive future observers of the photographs into believing that actual battle was happening against Francoist troops at those moments.

This was the general context until the two utterly unexpected 7 x 57 mm caliber shots made by the same Tabor of Regulares soldier (who chooses for the first shot the most cheerful militiaman that had previously showing off) killed instantly the Falling Soldier with the bullet piercing the barely visible upper left torso (apart from the fact that the 730 meters/second high velocity speed of the bullet piercing the heart of the militiaman in such a short split second that there isn´t enough time for the blood to sprout)and also a second militiaman
shot by 7 x 57 mm bullet, who is not instantly killed, but dies within a short time and shows a very agonizing position on the ground, with his right arm bent backwards, faintly grabbing the Mosquetón Mauser also falling backwards and whose barrel tip is touching the ground of the slope by Espejo.

José Manuel Serrano Esparza

jose manuel said...


This is a much more gruesome picture than the preceding and most famous one Falling Soldier photograph, and in my opinion it greatly brought about the feeling of deep guilt experienced by Robert Capa until his death and the reason for which Capa almost never wanted to speak about the circumstances in which he made the Falling Soldier picture, because he knew perfectly that this image
was what catapulted him to fame in 1936 and he didn´t like at all to have gained fame on these two deaths,something which haunted him innerly during his whole existence,specially the second one, though it was the first one which made him famous in 1936.

That´s why in my viewpoint throughout his lifetime he even gave different versions of how things happened.

I think that the remembrance of these two pictures,specially the hair-raising second one,in which another different militiaman appears on the ground very seriously injured and still alive
(and not dead as many sources have said and still say)and the death of Gerda Taro, also in horrible circumstances crushed by a tank during Brunete battle in 1937, were the two events that more strongly affected Capa´s life until his death in Thai Binh (Vietnam) on May 25 1954.

Richard Whelan.
The Greatest expert
on Robert Capa
in history.
Authority on
Alfred Stieglitz
and many other
things. Lover of

In Memoriam

José Manuel Serrano Esparza

P.S:Thank you for your kind words, Mr Don, but it´s me who must beg your pardon for this such a long letter. I hope not having bored the readers of your excellent blog or having disturbed you or then any way. It wasn´t my intention, but only to clear things as much as I could and avoid any confusion.

Great the article on Willy Ronis, the wonderful pictures of binded American Photography magazines from forties, Edward Weston´s first group of Kodak Ektachromes pictures, etc.

It´s a great shame for me not having known your blog before.

My respects for the quality of contents and the good taste.

Yours sincerely,
José Manuel Serrano Esparza

jose manuel said...

(VI B)

To take it for granted that if the picture was not made in Cerro Muriano but in Espejo the Death of a Militiaman Soldier picture made by Capa is a fake doesn´t make sense, in the same way as Professor Susperregui´s statement that "the possibility of a sniper shot must be excluded because there isn´t documentary evidence of the use of snipers in Córdoba province during the Spanish Civil War" is wrong, irrespective of how things really happened.

The concept of sniper is not exclusively linked to archetypes like Vasili Zaitsev or Matthias Hetzenauer, id est, isolated soldiers among the immensity of the army which excelled in their very good accuracy with medium and long distance shots with their rifles, being used above all in missions whose goal was killing enemy officers and high officers from long distances.

In 1936, the Moroccan soldiers of Tabor of Regulares were considered the most accurate shooters with their Mauser 7 x 57 mm rifles, being able to kill enemy soldiers up to a distance of 900 meters using only the sight on the rifle, without any telescopic device, if they had any supporting base for the gun. This happened a lot of times during the repression taken out by the Spanish Army of Africa in Asturias in 1934, which was shown in images among others by the Spanish photographer Luis G. de Linares on the cover of the newspaper Crónica Año VI Number 259of October 28 1934, depicting the picture of a Moroccan sniper of Tabor of Regulares shooting from a window and killing Asturias miners from a distance of almost 1 km on October 28 1934.

Therefore, if for instance there were around 10,000 Moroccan Tabor of Regulares soldiers in Spain in September of 1936, practically all of them were elite snipers, and to properly understand it is very important to know the 1936 context and specially the many years of previous colonnial war experience
whose main trait was the use of small columns with a very limited number of men going inside enemy territory, always in danger of being surrounded by superior forces in numbers, so the deft in close combat fixing bayonet and above all the medium and long distance accuracy with their rifles had to be very great in all of them to be able to survive.

Very often, during the previous weeks to the Francoist troops attacks, small contingents of Moroccan soldiers belonging to "mias", companies of Tabor of Regulares men, infiltrated beyond the front lines, inside enemy territory with the mission of reconnoitring and observing where
were located its defenses, the quantity of troops they had on them, etc, because in Summer of 1936, at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, on having very few soldiers available in Andalucia (the aerial bridge was still in course), the Francoist commanders, featuring a lot of experience of colonnial war in Africa, always tried to glean as much information as possible to be able to successfully launch their attacks, so usually these tasks of infiltration and reconnaissance were assigned to the Moroccan soldiers of Tabor of Regulares, whose mobility and capacity of survival being isolated was remarkable.

Therefore, they daily fulfilled the quoted info gathering missions, as well as trying to control the roads and ways near the strongly defended villages, without forgetting the very important information they tried to get in advance on the position of the trenches with Republican forces, to choose the best attacking angles and encircling manoeuvres.

This way, to state that "there isn´t any documentation on the existence of snipers during the Spanish Civil War in Córdoba" is untrue and reveals a poor knowledge of the conflict,since there were everywhere, and to all intents and purposes, vast majority of the Moroccan soldiers of Tabor of Regulares had a lot of years of experience as "pacos".

José Manuel Serrano Esparza