65 Years Later: Robert Capa and D-Day on Film

Travel Blog  •  Eva Holland  •  06.05.09 | 11:44 AM ET

Tomorrow marks the 65th anniversary of the Allied landings in Normandy, an assault that is widely viewed as one of the key turning points in the Second World War. President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and Canadian and British Prime Ministers Stephen Harper and Gordon Brown will be converging on the area for an official ceremony this weekend, following in the footsteps of thousands of tourists who visit the beaches each year.

The event has me thinking about the enduring appeal of the D-Day beaches—after all, Europe has no shortage of battlefields and war monuments, but few are as well-known to Americans as Omaha Beach (or, for Canadians, Juno Beach). It seems to me that their historical significance alone doesn’t explain it. The beaches, I think, have such a powerful presence in the public consciousness thanks in part to a few iconic photographs by Robert Capa.

Photo by Robert Capa, via Wikipedia.

Capa, who worked as a war photographer in Spain, France, Vietnam and beyond, is probably best known for his Spanish Civil War-era shot, Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, and for this often-repeated quote:

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”

On June 6, 1944, he took his own advice to an extreme, volunteering to get in the water with one of the first waves of soldiers to hit the beach.

He described the next few minutes in his memoir, Slightly Out of Focus:

The next shell fell even closer. I didn’t dare to take my eyes off the finder of my Contax and frantically shot frame after frame. Half a minute later, my camera jammed—my roll was finished. I reached in my bag for a new roll, and my wet, shaking hands ruined the roll before I could insert it in my camera ... I held my cameras high above my head, and suddenly I knew that I was running away. I tried to turn but couldn’t face the beach, and told myself, “I am just going to dry my hands on that boat.”

Photo by Robert Capa, via Wikipedia.

The resulting photos (pictured) are uncomfortably close to the action, and they have circulated for decades, shaping the image of the Normandy landings. The bloody opening scenes of Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”—arguably, the source for many people’s ideas about D-Day—are said to have drawn on Capa’s eerie, blurry shots.

Considering his subject matter, I doubt if Robert Capa ever expected to be fueling tourists’ daydreams with his photography, but in a strange way, he has.

I’d like to make it to the beaches myself some day—in the meantime, this weekend I’ll be keeping an eye on the ceremony’s media coverage. The CBC has a collection of archival radio and TV clips from June 6, 1944, while Jaunted and the AP have travel-focused coverage, for a start.

Eva Holland is co-editor of World Hum. She is a former associate editor at Up Here and Up Here Business magazines, and a contributor to Vela. She's based in Canada's Yukon territory.

2 Comments for 65 Years Later: Robert Capa and D-Day on Film

Julia Ross 06.05.09 | 12:18 PM ET

Interesting post, Eva—an angle on D-Day I hadn’t thought about.

Travel Photography 06.05.09 | 1:21 PM ET

The first half an hour of Saving Private Ryan fills me with a lot of different emotions. Hurt, anger, sadness, and patriotism. It gives us who weren’t there an insight into not just the physical pain that they went through on the front line, but the emotional turmoil of watching their new-found brothers die before them.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.