Robert Capa and Gerda Taro’s 20th Century War Photography

Robert Capa and Gerda Taro were two of the most famous war photographers of the 20th century.

Jun 1, 2023By Anyla Kabashi, MA Semiotics, BA Art History

robert capa and gerda taro war photography


Robert Capa was born in Hungary in 1913, while Gerda Taro was born in Germany in 1910. Both immigrated to Paris during the 1930s where they started working together. They frequently worked in dangerous and explosive environments. They dedicated their lives to capturing the impact of violence on society. They were known for war photography which documented armed wars, military activities, and the effects of war on individuals and societies.


What is War Photography?

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Republican Soldiers, La Granjuela, Córdoba front, Spain by Gerda Taro, 1937 via Magnum Photos


By representing war, artists want to bring attention and awareness to social and political issues. War photography, also known as art depicting scenes from wars, can be considered activist art. It covers armed conflicts, military operations, and devastation. The practice played a particularly significant role in the 20th century. The expansion of mass media and the development of new technologies made it possible for photographers to document and share images of war more widely and quickly than ever before.


Depicting War

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The Third of May, 1808 by Francisco Goya, 1814, via Wikimedia


Art and war have had a complex and often intertwined relationship throughout history. Some artists use their art to document and bring attention to the realities of war and how it affects different people. It has also played a role in shaping public perceptions and attitudes about conflict.


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In Western art history, Francisco Goya is famous for his series The Disasters of War (1810-1820) which contains 82 visual depictions of the French occupation of Spain that was led by Napoleon Bonaparte. Goya made the etchings to protest against the French occupation and their aggression in Spain. He depicted the aftermath of war and the struggles of dealing with what was left, both physically and emotionally. The Third of May, 1808, is one of Goya’s most famous paintings depicting the execution of a Spanish peasant by the French troops. Another renowned painting depicting war is Guernica by Pablo Picasso.



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Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, via Museum of Jewish Heritage, New York


The 20th century found Europe in turmoil over social and political issues. Photography and magazines broadened the scope of visual information. That’s when photojournalism arose as a new profession to fill the need for visual information and documentation of triumphs and atrocities of wartime.


One of the best-known war photographers of the 20th century was Robert Capa. He covered conflicts around the world, including the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and the Vietnam War. His photographs were known for their emotional impact and ability to convey the human cost of wars. Moreover, Picture Post published The Greatest War Photographer in the World: Robert Capa on December 3, 1938, featuring a range of 26 images taken during the Spanish Civil War.


However, Robert Capa was actually a pseudonym for two photographers, Endre Erno Friedmann and Gerta Pohorylle. They were partners both personally and professionally. They met in Paris in the 1930s and began working together as photographers, covering conflicts and wars worldwide. Eventually, the two separated and Friedmann continued using the name Robert Capa, while Pohorylle took the name Gerda Taro. She became the first woman photographer that depicted wars.


Who Was Robert Capa?

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Photographer Robert Capa during the Spanish civil war by Gerda Taro, 1937 via Wikimedia


Robert Capa was a Hungarian-born photographer best known for covering conflicts and wars. Capa began his career as a photojournalist in the 1930s and became one of the best-known war photographers of the 20th century. In 1933, he moved to Paris because of his Jewish identity. He fled the nation due to the danger of the Nazi administration in Hungary. Capa covered conflicts in many parts of the world, including World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Spanish Civil War, which he documented alongside his partner Gerda Taro. He worked for major publications such as Life magazine and Magnum Photos.


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Death of a Spanish loyalist militiaman. Córdoba, Spain, by Robert Capa, via Magnum Photos


Robert Capa’s most famous photograph is The Falling Soldier. It was captured in 1936 at the start of the Spanish Civil War. The photograph shows a Republican soldier being shot and falling to the ground. Capa took this photograph during the Battle of Cerro Muriano, a conflict between the Nationalist and Republican forces in Spain. The photograph became a symbol of the Spanish Civil War and it contributed to Capa’s fame as a war photographer. It was first featured in French and British periodicals and later reproduced in several books and exhibitions.


His other famous photographs include The Kiss of Life which shows a utility worker being rescued from an electrical wire by a colleague after a workplace accident in New York City and the D-Day landings which show Allied soldiers landing on Omaha Beach during the Normandy invasion on D-Day in World War II. Capa often worked in dangerous and volatile environments since he was committed to documenting the direct impact of a conflict. Capa’s photographs continue to be highly regarded and widely exhibited and he is considered one of the pioneers of war photography.


Who Was Gerda Taro?

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Republican militiawoman, training on the beach outside of Barcelona by Gerda Taro, 1936 via Magnum Photos


Gerta Pohorylle, known as Gerda Taro, was an artist best known for her work as a war photographer during the Spanish Civil War. Taro was born in 1910 in Stuttgart, Germany. She became interested in photography as a teenager. As Germany sank into economic, social, and political instability, anti-Semitism grew stronger. Taro became interested in left-wing politics after becoming acutely aware of the emergence of the far-right movement. She was detained after spreading anti-Nazi flyers throughout Leipzig in March 1933. Taro went to France soon after, urged by her parents.


Taro began her career as a photojournalist in the 1930s. She also became known for her coverage of the Spanish Civil War. Taro and Capa worked together for major publications such as Life magazine, covering the conflict between the Republican and Nationalist sides. She was known for her bravery and fierce commitment to her work. Some of Taro’s best-known photographs include Refugees from the Spanish Civil War which shows a group of refugees fleeing the conflict in Spain, The Funeral of a Republican Soldier which shows the funeral of a soldier killed during the Spanish Civil War, and The Republican Army on the March that shows Republican soldiers marching through a Spanish town during the conflict.


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Spectators at the funeral parade of General Lukacs by Gerda Taro, 1937, via Magnum Photos


Taro’s photographs capture the human toll of the conflict and the devastating impact it had on civilians. Her pieces are poignant and powerful images that convey the suffering and desperation of the refugees as they seek safety and security amid conflict. Like Capa, Taro is considered one of the pioneers of war photography.


Gerda Taro died in 1937 while covering the Spanish Civil War. Taro was hit by a tank during the Battle of Brunete and died from injuries a few days later. Robert Capa died in 1954 while covering the First Indochina War in Vietnam. Capa was traveling with a group of French soldiers when he stepped on a landmine and died. Both photographers died on battlefields while trying to capture soldiers fighting.


Taro and Capa’s War Photography in Popular Culture

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The Mexican suitcase movie poster from 2011, via Artium Museoa


Taro and Capa’s work has been widely exhibited and featured in books and publications. Their lives and careers have been the subject of multiple films, documentaries, and other popular culture works. For example, there is a song called Taro by the British indie rock band Alt-J. The lyrics of Taro reference Gerda Taro’s life and work as a photographer, with lines like Taro took pictures/Of the world’s disasters and Taro took pictures/Of the factory girls. The song also references Taro’s death at 26 while covering the Spanish Civil War.


Gerda Taro: Inventing Robert Capa is a documentary film about Taro and her work as a war photographer. The film explores Taro’s life and career, including her relationship with Capa. It examines the impact of her work on documentary photography. Gerda Taro: On the Front Line is a book about Taro’s life and career as a war photographer. The book explores Taro’s work in the Spanish Civil War and her role as a documentary photography pioneer.


There is also a film on Robert Capa called Robert Capa: In Love and War. The film explores Capa’s work covering conflicts around the world, including the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Trisha Ziff directed the 2011 documentary film The Mexican Suitcase which depicts the narrative of about 4000 film negatives created by photographers David Seymour, Gerda Taro, and Robert Capa during the Spanish Civil War. The film traces the images’ history from their disappearance at the start of World War II through their rediscovery in 2007.

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By Anyla KabashiMA Semiotics, BA Art HistoryAnyla is passionate about exploring different artistic discourses and visual culture through history and philosophy. She holds a BA degree in Art History from the University of Zagreb and a MA in Semiotics from ELTE University.