Capa in Color: A closer look at Robert Capa’s colour photography

Amateur Photographer

Robert Capa is known mainly for his black and white war photography; however he also created a body of colour photography work. The Capa in Color exhibition, currently showing in France, explores this lesser-known work.

Jul 25, 2016 11:45 AM EDT

Robert Capa is hailed as one of the most respected photojournalists of the 20th century, known especially for his war photography and photojournalism work as correspondent for Magnum Photos.

What is perhaps less well known is his colour photography, which he used regularly from 1941 until his death in 1954. Over the years much of this colour work has been forgotten, which is why the International Center of Photography (ICP)’s exhibition of his work, Capa in Color, currently on tour at Le Tripostal, Lille, France, is of note.

Robert Capa, [A crewman signals another ship of an Allied convoy across the Atlantic from the U.S. to England], 1942. © Robert Capa/International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos. Amateur Photographer
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Capa did use some colour in his early war photography. In 1938 before it was widely used by other photojournalists, he requested that his agency send 12 rolls of Kodachrome and instructions on how to use it. For the first two years that he covered World War II, he carried two cameras – one colour and one black & white – and shot colour images of a number of military operations. However during the mid ’40s he returned to exclusively shooting in black and white, partly due to the processing, editing and publishing times that colour required.

After the war, his use of colour became more prevalent during his travels in the late ’40s to cover postwar life in the USSR, Budapest, and Israel, and during the ’50s, while covering the glamorous lifestyles of fashionable ski resorts and French holiday resorts.

Robert Capa, [Skier sunbathing in front of the Matterhorn, Zermatt, Switzerland], 1950. © Robert Capa/International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos. Amateur Photographer

His images from this period, which reflect the glamour and allure of the location and lifestyles, lent themselves more to the vibrancy of colour photography. During this period he also experimented with fashion photography and though his friendship with prominent actors of the time, he was able to capture intimate moments on a number of European film sets, shooting actors such as Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, Orson Welles, and John Huston.

Robert Capa, [Ava Gardner on the set of The Barefoot Contessa, Tivoli, Italy], 1954. © Robert Capa/International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos. Amateur Photographer

It is perhaps proof of Capa’s technical ability – how easily he was able to move between colour and black & white and adapt to a postwar audience, who were now seeing entertainment and escape.

‘Capa’s talent with black-and-white film was extraordinary, and starting color film halfway through his career required a new discipline, but it also opened up new opportunities,’ said ICP Curator Cynthia Young, who organized the first showing of the Capa in Colour exhibition in 2014. ‘The exhibition is also about how Capa reinvents himself as a photographer during the years when he is not covering war and political conflicts. The colour work was very much a part of trying to keep the Magnum agency afloat, because the magazines wanted more and more colour in the postwar period.”

Capa in Color is drawn from the Robert Capa Archive in ICP’s permanent collection. The Archive contains roughly 4,200 colour transparencies – 35mm Kodachrome, 21⁄4 Ektachrome, and some larger Kodachrome sheet film. It also includes thousands of vintage black-and-white prints, negatives, tearsheets, and papers.

Some of these photographs were published in magazines of the day such as Holiday, Illustrated, Collier’s, and Ladies’ Home Journal, but the majority have never been widely exhibited.

Capa in Colour is currently exhibiting at Le Tripostal, Lille, France, until the end of July 2016.

The exhibition will also travel to Circulo de Bellas Artes in Madrid, Spain, from October 20, 2016–January 15, 2017