Robert Capa: The Falling Soldier. Spain, 1936
Possibly the most famous of war photographs, this image is all but synonymous with the name of its maker, Robert Capa, who was proclaimed in 1938, at the age of twenty-five, “the greatest war photographer in the world” in the British magazine “Picture Post.” Taken at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War and showing the moment of a bullet’s impact on a loyalist soldier, this photograph has become an emblem of the medium’s unrivaled capacity to depict sudden death. It is also prototypical of the style of photojournalism that came to define the work of Capa and his colleagues at the picture press agency Magnum Photos in the late 1940s.
Although the scene depicted is specific to an event now temporally distanced, the image nevertheless seems strangely familiar and retains its powerful impact. Its expressive charge recalls another, equally famous image of war in Spain, Francisco Goya’s “The Third of May, 1808” (1814). Capa’s image excludes Goya’s narrative elements - the executioners, stark backdrop, and dramatic nocturnal light - and instead zeroes in on the instant of death forever anticipated in the painting.