New doubts raised over Capa’s ‘falling soldier’

 After nearly three-quarters of a century, Robert Capa’s “Falling Soldier” picture from the Spanish Civil War remains one of the most famous images of combat ever. It is also one of the most debated, with a long string of critics claiming that the photo, of a soldier seemingly at the moment of death, was faked. Now, a new book by a Spanish researcher asserts that the picture could not have been made where, when or how Capa’s admirers and heirs have claimed.
       In “Shadows of Photography,” Jose Manuel Susperregui, a communications professor at the Universidad del País Vasco, concludes that Capa’s picture was taken not at Cerro Muriano, just north of Cordoba, but near another town about 55 kilometers away. Since that location was far from the battle lines when Capa was there, Susperregui said, it means that “the ‘Falling Soldier’ photo is staged, as are all the others in the series taken on that front.”
       Experts at the International Center of Photography in New York, where Capa’s archive is stored, said they found some aspects of Susperregui’s investigation intriguing or even convincing. But they continue to believe that the image seen in “Falling Soldier” is genuine, and caution against jumping to conclusions.
       “Part of what is difficult about this is that people are saying, ‘Well if it’s not here, but there, then, good God, it’s fabricated,'” Willis E. Hartshorn, the center’s director, said in an interview. “That’s a leap that I think needs a lot more research and a lot more study.”
       Susperregui said he began his inquiry by examining the background of other photographs from the same sequence as that of the “Falling Soldier,” pictures in which a mountain range can be seen in the distance. He then e-mailed the clearest of those images to librarians and historians in towns around Cordoba, asking if they recognized the landscape, and eventually got a positive response from a community called Espejo.
       “I didn’t tell anyone that this was connected with the ‘Falling Soldier’ because that subject is just so ideologically and emotionally charged,” he explained in a telephone interview from his home east of Bilbao. “But a teacher showed his class the photo I sent, and right away one of the students knew the place.”
       Picking up where Susperregui left off, the Spanish press, led by El Periodico de Catalunya, a newspaper in Barcelona, recently sent reporters to Espejo. They returned with photographs in which the current skyline seems an almost perfect match with what is seen in the background of Capa’s photographs, taken in September 1936, less than two months after the Spanish Civil War began.
       Cynthia Young, curator of the Robert Capa Archive at the photography center, said the new evidence suggesting that “Falling Soldier” was photographed in Espejo was “compelling, even persuasive.”
       The confusion over the site may have arisen, she added, because Capa “captioned so few of his pictures” during the trip, his first as a war photographer, and “very possibly didn’t remember” where he took the picture, probably leaving his agents and editors in Paris to make a guess when they developed his film. No negative of “Falling Soldier” is known to exist.
       Spanish historians say that though there was intense combat in Espejo in late September, no fighting occurred there early in the month, when Capa, then 22 years old, and Gerda Taro, his colleague and companion, would have passed through. Until “the end of September, there wasn’t a single shot fired here, just some aerial bombardments,” Francisco Castro, a villager who was 9 years old at the time, told El Periodico. “The militiamen promenaded through the streets and ate the best hams in town.”
       An alternative explanation of the creation of “Falling Soldier,” one the photography center finds plausible, is that Capa’s photograph was taken “not during the heat of battle,” as Hartshorn put it, but during maneuvers, perhaps being done for Capa’s benefit, “and that there was a moment in which the exercise became real, and this is the result of that moment.” He added: “The supposition has always been that there was a sniper” who picked off the militiaman from a distance.
       But Susperregui challenges that notion too, saying it “has to be entirely dismissed.” Not only were the front lines of the opposing sides too widely separated and “the aim of gunnery too inexact” to make that hypothesis feasible, he said, but “there is no documentary reference, neither written nor visual, about the use of snipers” on the Cordoba front.
       The renewed debate about “Falling Soldier” coincides with the opening of an exhibition, previously shown in New York and London, of nearly 300 of Capa and Taro’s photographs and notes at the Catalan National Museum of Art in Barcelona. The wounds of the civil war have not yet completely healed in Spain, and the country’s Socialist government has felt compelled to defend the photograph, still a symbolic image for the left, which lost the war to General Francisco Franco, against accusations that it was staged.
       Spain’s culture minister, the film director and screenwriter Angeles Gonzalez-Sinde, said that even if the new controversy proved that the photograph is something other than what Capa and his admirers have always claimed it to be, that would not detract from Capa’s genius. “Art is always manipulation, from the moment you point a camera in one direction and not another,” she said.