Magic Bullet? Experts Examine Work of Legendary Photojournalist Robert Capa

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Experts who examined a cache of long-lost photos from the 1930s Spanish Civil War say it yielded a lot of new information, but failed to solve the biggest mystery — whether legendary photojournalist Robert Capa took the famous picture of a man at the instant he was killed by a bullet.

Answering that question was a principal goal of curators at the New York-based International Center of Photography when they first delved into the so-called Mexican Suitcase, a collection of 4,300 frames shot by Capa, his companion Gerda Taro and close friend David “Chim” Seymour.

The negatives, long believed to have been lost, were rediscovered in Mexico in 1995. In December 2007, the aging black-and-white, 35 mm film arrived at the ICP in three cardboard boxes.

Capa’s legacy includes the so-called “falling soldier” photo, showing a Spanish Republican militiaman at the apparent moment he was hit by a fatal bullet.

Taken in September 1936, the third month of the war, the iconic picture has stirred controversy for decades, with Capa supporters defending it as authentic, but some critics suggesting it was too perfect not to have been staged.

ICP experts came up empty in their search for the photo’s negative. They found nothing in the collection that shows whether it definitely came from Capa’s camera or whether it depicts a spontanous incident rather than one staged for dramatic effect.

Cynthia Young, assistant curator at the ICP, said she had been dubious that the negative would turn up. As to whether Capa took the picture, “there is no reason to think otherwise,” she said.

After 17 months of digital scanning, curators did conclude that Seymour took many more of the photos than previously thought. Of the approximately 126 rolls, 46 are attributed to Seymour, 45 to Capa and 32 to Taro. Three rolls are attributed to Capa and Taro.

Seymour is best known as a co-founder, along with Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson and others, of the Magnum photo agency in 1947.

“This gives us a much better idea of the extent of his work as one of the most important photographers of the time,” Young said.

The now-expanded Seymour collection will be the subject of an exhibit in fall 2010.

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