Robert Capa, the legendary Hungarian-born photojournalist who set the prevailing standard for war photographers, spoke seven languages — none very well. He didn't need to. For over 20 of the bloodiest years of the 20th century, Capa let his cameras do the talking. "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough," he famously declared.
Getting close to Capa himself could also be a tricky business, though the challenge was usually surmounted by soldiers, poker players, bartenders, writers, artists and beautiful women. Nearly a half-century after Capa's untimely death while covering the French colonial war in Indochina — and after four years of dogged research — the British journalist and author Alex Kershaw has also gotten close. In his elegant Capa biography, Blood and Champagne (Macmillan; 298 pages), Kershaw portrays an indisputably brave and talented photographer who could also be reckless, cynical and opportunistic. Much as Capa held his camera only inches from the faces of the grief-stricken and the grievously wounded, Kershaw focuses — tightly and unblinkingly — on a man who "invented himself" and who was exposed to an excess of both joy and horror in his 41 years.
Born André Friedmann in Budapest in 1913, Capa entered a world in conflict, between nations and between his parents. In his teens, André — poor, clever, bored, romantic at heart and discriminated against as a Jew — became involved with leftist revolutionaries, seeking out conflict and danger. When he was barely 18, he moved to Berlin and took up photojournalism. His first big break came in 1932, when he was assigned to photograph Trotsky as he spoke in a Copenhagen stadium on the meaning of the Russian Revolution. His pictures were the most dramatic of the day, writes Kershaw. Taken within a meter of so of Trotsky, they were intense, intimate and imperfect — the trademarks of the man who would become famous as Capa, or "shark" in Hungarian.
As Nazi power grew in Germany,...
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