A concerned photographer

Cornell Capa (1918-2008) pursued an art that contributed to the understanding and well-being of humanity.

hands of kennedy cornell capa 224.88 (photo credit: The Cornell and Edith Capa Estate, ICP)
hands of kennedy cornell capa 224.88
(photo credit: The Cornell and Edith Capa Estate, ICP)
On May 23, 2008, Cornell Capa, one of the world's most distinguished photographers, died peacefully at his home in Manhattan. He was 90. During his long and illustrious career, Capa wore many hats and assumed many roles, as a staff photographer for Life magazine from 1939 to 1954; an active member of Magnum Photos cooperative and its president from 1956 till 1960; and in 1974 founder and first director of the International Center for Photography (ICP) in New York City. Born Cornell Friedmann in 1918 - the name Capa was adopted from his brother Robert who changed his name on arrival in Paris from Berlin in 1931 - into an assimilated, non-practicing Jewish family in Budapest, his early direction was medicine but that soon changed. After meeting up with his older brother Robert and friends Henri Cartier-Bresson and David "Chim" Seymour in Paris, he began to develop film and print pictures for all three. From this seminal darkroom experience, it became clear that the younger Capa would follow in his brother's footsteps. Photography became his passion and his life. With the rise of Nazi Germany, Capa's mother immigrated to New York in 1936 and was followed by Cornell one year later. Robert's visit soon after was instrumental in helping Cornell get a job at Pix, Inc. and immediately afterward at the Life darkroom. Upon returning from World War II, where he served in a photo intelligence unit, Cornell was hired by Life as a junior photographer. Robert Capa was considered one of the greatest war photographers of the 20th century. His black-and-white photographs documenting events of the Spanish Civil War and World War II are historical icons of the times. After his death in Indochina in 1954, Cornell undertook to keep his legacy and reputation alive by maintaining and promoting Robert's archives. After his brother's death, Capa said: "From that day I was haunted by the question of what happens to the work a photographer leaves behind, by how to make the work stay alive." Capa's greatest interests were in the fields of politics and social justice. He documented the repressive Peron regime and the revolution that followed, Christian missionaries and the destruction of indigenous cultures in Latin America, a review of the Russian Orthodox Church during the Cold War and a pioneering photo-essay on educating mentally-challenged children and a subsequent book on the subject Retarded Children Can Be Helped. His coverage of John F. Kennedy's successful presidential campaign for Life resulted in a Magnum book entitled Let Us Begin: The First Hundred Days of the Kennedy Administration. A Farewell to Eden, printed in 1964, is a study of the Amahuaca Indians of the Amazon. Capa was thrust into photographing the Six Day War simply because he was in Israel at the time to document something entirely different. It was then that he and Micha Bar-Am, the country's preeminent photojournalist, became close friends and colleagues and spent several days together covering the war. The camaraderie became a lifelong association and lasted until Capa's death. Although Capa had no religious affiliations, he and his family (mother, brother and Cornell's wife Edith) are buried in a Quaker cemetery. Nevertheless, Bar-Am recited the Kaddish at his graveside. Capa coined the phrase "The Concerned Photographer," a statement he defined as belonging to one whose passion and dedication to his art leads to the creation of photographs that contribute to the understanding and well-being of humanity. These three words have been an inspiration for photojournalists for the past 50 years. And Capa followed its precepts in all that transpired at the ICP. Robert Pledge, a friend and head of Contact Press Images, remarked that "...the legacy of the ICP and what he did there is so tremendous; it totally changed the understanding and interest in photography in this country and beyond. The history of every art form... is always shaped by incredible individuals, and in our field he's one of those rare, special, amazing people." Since its inauguration in 1974, the ICP, in addition to maintaining archives and providing professional services in its library and school, has mounted more than 500 exhibitions and displayed the work of more than 3,000 photographers. In his New York Times obituary, writer Philip Gefter reminds us of what historian Richard Whelan wrote in his introduction to Cornell Capa: Photographs; that Capa often quoted the words of the early 20th century American photographer Lewis Hine: "There are two things I wanted to do. I wanted to show the things that needed to be corrected. And I wanted to show the things that need to be appreciated." Cornell Capa will be remembered by family, friends and colleagues at a memorial service in New York on September 10.