Thursday, November 5, 2009

What Can Airplane Photographers Learn from Robert Capa?

This is the first in an occasional series in which I introduce a famous non-aviation photographer and discuss what contribution his or her body of work can make to our shooting of airplanes.

Robert Capa (1913-54) is the most legendary of war photographers. Born in Hungary and originally named Endre Ernő Friedmann, he photographed five different wars from 1936 more or less continuously until he himself was killed by a land mine while covering the French campaign in Indo-China. Capa has so many things to teach us that I had difficulty picking just three.

Capa is famous for saying, "If your photographs aren't good enough, you're not close enough." Capa lived by this motto, coming ashore on Omaha Beach with the second wave of infantry during the D-Day landings and getting amazing pictures that could have been achieved no other way. He not only lived by that principle but also died by it, with camera in hand.

I am reminded of Capa's motto when I see legions of people at airshows pointing their long lenses at the airplanes flying by. About 99% of their pictures are an attempt (not usually acknowledged as such) to imitate air-to-air photos taken from a camera plane, and inevitably they are not as good. Even with the best lenses and image stabilization, they have less detail and the characteristic long-telephoto compression of perspective as compared to air-to-air shots. Only a very few of the best ground-to-air airshow photos are as good as even mediocre air-to-air, basically because the photographers aren't close enough. It makes me wonder whether, rather than investing in expensive equipment and specialized skills to get these inferior pictures, we would be better off either investing in the access and relationships necessary to get a seat in a camera plane for better (closer) shots, or else concentrating on other types of photos that we can do well with such access as we have.

Capa's most famous single photograph was made early in his career during the Spanish Civil War, and depicts a Loyalist militiaman at the moment of being killed by a sniper a few feet away from Capa. Besides the striking nature of the photo, it has also become famous because of the controversy over whether it is real or staged, a question that still has impassioned advocates on both sides. This in turn has sparked discussion of the broader question of whether it matters whether the photo was real or staged.

The real vs. fake debate has come into greater prominence in the digital era. The stakes are greatest, obviously, in the photojournalism area. This would encompass Capa's war photography, but what happens when a photo goes beyond reportage and is "repurposed" as a work of art, or a political symbol? Opinions differ as to whether, and how much, its original authenticity as journalism still matters.

Most in the art-photography community understand that every photo is a creative and selective product, no matter what it pretends to be, and regard any type of manipulation for expressive purposes as fair game. The audience for aviation photography is more conservative. In my experience they don't like a lot of retouching or fakery. They perceive aviation photography as quasi-journalistic in nature, and are more interested in "truthful" depictions of the planes than in the photos as aesthetic objects.

The photo above is an angle that I've always wanted to get of a Spitfire in flight but, recalling Capa's maxim, could never get close enough. In Canada recently I found a full-size replica Spitfire mounted on a pylon, and walked around it shooting photos with fakery in mind. After some Photoshop work, though it is no masterpiece, the picture does what I wanted in revealing the subtle shape of a Spitfire's fuselage in dramatic lighting with a suggestion of flight and movement. I would expect most aviation buffs on seeing the photo initially to be excited at a shot of a Spitfire in unfamiliar markings (serious buffs know how each of the approximately 50 real flying Spitfires is painted), then to find a few telltale clues that it is not a real plane, and come to regard the picture as uninteresting, if not dishonest.

One final lesson from Capa's life. Capa's photos from the Normandy Landings on Omaha Beach in 1944, where he came ashore with the second assault wave, are legendary. Part of the legend concerns the fact that only about 10 of them, including the one at the top of this thread, survived to be published. The rest of the approximately 100 that he took on the beach were destroyed in a darkroom processing mishap back in London, while Capa was still out shooting. How would you feel about taking the same risks as the soldiers that stormed the beaches of Normandy, armed only with a camera, only to have almost everything that you did it for ruined by a lab assistant? But Capa never expressed any bitterness over the loss of the images. Most photographers will tell you that their most treasured images are those yet to be taken.

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