From the outside, the “Casa Nacional del Bicentenario” looks like a bookshop. The building is nestled in the Facultad Medicina area, near streets of dental supply shops, and amidst crowds of schoolchildren, medical workers in scrubs, and the hustle and bustle of the city. But when you step in through the doors of the building, the quiet and cool are palpable – a relief from the heat in the streets. At 4pm on a weekday afternoon, the place is almost empty of people, and I am greeted and ushered up to the exhibition quickly by two friendly guards.
This space – the one between the social life of the busy crowd, and of the individual in a small group, or almost alone – is a space that Robert Capa delves into throughout his work. This exhibition of Capa’s color photographs, curated by Cynthia Young, is presented on the fourth floor of the building. The space, lit from above by two glass atriums, painted white with sober accents of blue, showcases the beauty and clarity of Capa’s use of color, and the contextual information – letters, magazine spreads, and lists – allows viewers to engage even further with the reality behind Capa’s shots.
Capa is known as a great war photographer, and is a co-founding member of Magnum, an international photographic cooperative. But in this collection of his work it is not war, but the crowds of individuals who man the war, with whom Capa’s lens seems the most concerned. The first photographs which we see are war photographs; the very first, a photograph of a boxing match between soldiers aboard a warship is displayed above a letter in which Capa describes the ship as ‘so crowded, that I could not believe, that she could take one more man’.
But as the exhibition continues, Capa’s war photographs move into other fields – of agriculture and industry. Whether depicting a German graveyard in Tunisia, or a crowd of men working on the docks, Capa’s works of this era seem to convey a similar mood, of state, flags, emblems, uniforms, community, hard work and often of masculinity.
Whether in Morocco, Tunisia, Israel, the USA, France, Russia, Norway, Vietnam; men, and it is primarily men in these photographs of Capa’s, are presented in interaction with vast machines and vaster landscapes. Capa captures the huge blues of the skies and seas through which these men traverse by plane and ship, and of the vast landscapes through which trains, circuses, and men on horseback move. But whether immersed in crowds or empty landscapes, nevertheless, Capa’s shows a deep respect for the individuals that exist in these situations. His focus gives each figure clarity and weight, so that the character of each one of his subjects at the moment of the photograph appears different.
This figures, celebrated as ‘great men’ – a phrase which suggests immeasurable superiority to the mediocrity of most of us – are depicted by Capa in social, equal interaction with other individuals. Portraits of Ernest Hemingway hunting with his family in Sun Valley attend to Hemingway’s sons and his surroundings as much as they attend to the great man himself. Likewise, a series of portraits of Pablo Picasso and his family and friends on the beach present the ‘great man’ as one member of a family, and by extension as one member of society, in which each member is an individual of importance.
Yet in Capa’s letters, which are displayed throughout the exhibition, he seems to be more concerned with how the Hemingway shots highlight the difference between color photography developing in the USA and Europe. Indeed, his attention to the technical aspects of his work is perhaps what makes each of his images sing with a clarity and balance that seems seems to pause chaotic crowds in brief moments of contemplation.
Later photographs, particularly Capa’s work on Generation X, see his attention turn towards the individual. But even here he does not lose sight of the crowd, of the society, in which they exist. In fact, this series of photographs – a project which attempted to depict a young woman and a young man going about their life in each country he, and his fellow photographers, visited – seeks to gain insight about a generation more generally.
One of the most intimate, private photographs in this series of portraits, shows two young women relaxing in a bedroom, both listening to a voice through the telephone receiver. But even here they are reaching out into the public eye, both through the telephone, and through the gaze of the camera.
Capa’s photographs in color, then, constantly remind us that we are individuals in a crowd. Each of his photographs shows us the communication between self and society in the moment of being seen. Stepping back out onto the hot crowds on Riobamba, Capa’s images stay with me, letting me notice the small, still, moments of communication even on the loudest of streets.
You still have plenty of time to see ‘Capa en Color’, which is open until the 7th of January 2018.