Walking through the Meadows a couple of weeks ago during a sudden burst of warm, bright autumn weather, came across this chap making giant soap bubbles – I love finding little surprises like this as I wander round Edinburgh, it’s one of the reasons I always have my camera stashed in my bag, you never know what you might see just walking home from work… If you look at the lower pics, over on the far right you can just make out a bubble exploding into soapy shards, it must have popped just a millisecond after I hit the shutter (click on the pics to see the larger viewing options on my Flickr)
Jean-David Morvan, Severine Trefouel,
Photographs by Robert Capa & Magnum, translation by Edward Gauvin
“It’s not always easy to stand aside and be unable to do anything except record the suffering around one.”
I’ll be honest up front – Robert Capa has always been one of my photography heroes, a fascinating character who reinvented himself several times in his early life as he was forced to flee from one country to another, until he crafted the person of “Robert Capa”, which he thought sounded a bit more American and would help him make contacts for his work as a pioneering photo journalist (this at a time when photo-heavy magazines were just becoming common, a rich source of images for many in the days before television reporting). Despite being only a little over forty when he was killed covering the early stages of the Indochina war (which would later snowball in the murderous morass of the Vietnam War) in the mid 1950s, he was by then one of the most famous photo journalists in the world. Even before the Second World War he had been dodging bullets, armed with a camera rather than a gun, recording the Sino-Japanese war and the Spanish Civil War (where he became firm friends with Ernest Hemingway, but would also lose his partner Gerda Taro). During this period he took one of the most famous images of combat ever seen, the “falling soldier”.
Iconic though the Falling Soldier image has become though, Capa’s “finest hour” was still in the future, on a grey, cold morning on the coast of France. The 6th of June 1944: D-Day, the greatest armada in the history of the world set sail from Fortress Britain. The Allies are about to attempt the impossible, to land a vast force of men and equipment in the face of an entrenched, determined, fortified enemy. Gold, Juno, Sword, Utah and Omaha: the invasion beaches divided between the British, Canadian and American forces. Many brave men would fall on this morning amid explosions and machine-gun fire or simply drowned before they could even touch boot to the soil of Occupied France. Intricately planned and arranged as it was, it was still a massive throw of the dice on which the fate of the free world would depend, and Capa, an inveterate gambler himself, couldn’t resist that. He managed to get himself assigned to the American troopships, destination Omaha Beach. Bloody Omaha, as it became known, the worst of all the D-Day landing beaches (half the entire casualties from the first day for all five beaches came from Omaha alone, it was that bad, thousands fell), and plans going wrong as men desperately improvised a way through the Nazi defences as their friends went down around them.
And Capa was there, camera in hand, in the very first wave, wading ashore as bullets ripped beach and men alike, soaking, cold, terrified, seeing American soldiers falling all around him, storming onto the beaches with the very first troops (from the famous Big Red One division). And he shoots his camera. Again and again he snaps picture after picture: one of the most pivotal moments in the history of the twentieth century is happening and Capa is right there, recording it, bearing witness as bullets bounce around him. He shoots four rolls before he makes for a landing craft carrying wounded back to the waiting ships, and even then the horror doesn’t end – there’s guilt at being able to leave, unlike the soldiers (I’m a coward he tells one injured GI, no, you volunteered to do this, you’re no coward the man tells him), the sight of the dead and wounded… The rolls of film make it to the Time-Life offices in London, but in an absolute disaster the rush to develop them leads to an accident. Three rolls are mangled, unusable. After all Capa went through, those images are gone. But that final roll? The developers pull ten images from that. Amazing images, our eye on the Longest Day, history recorded in grainy black and white, with hand-shake from movement and from terror (Capa used to joke that a combat photo should always have a little blur or shake in it), but filled with the enormous power of the image, reproduced endlessly, tiny moments of major history frozen forever by the camera.
And that’s what Jean-David Morvan and Severine Trefouel explore here, in this fascinating and unusual book, a long, landscape-format hardback which is half comics story and half photography book, the first half using the comics medium to explore the events leading up to and during those astonishing, world-changing moments of the 6th of June, 1944, the second half is a rich helping of wartime photographs by Capa and from the famous Magnum photography co-operative which he co-founded (not unlike Chaplin et al’s United Artists, it was a way for the talent to retain some independence but also to have support; it would produce some amazing images and nurture superb talent) and prose discussing Capa and his life and work and death. Both halves are compelling, fascinating and often seem like something made up for a film, but it’s all true…
The artwork is in a nice, clear line style for the segments before and after the events of D-Day: Capa preparing for the big push, a last moment party with friends and lovers in war-torn London (including Hemmingway – his girlfriend mistakes the writer for Capa’s dad when he calls him “Papa” until she is told it is Hemmingway’s nickname). And the landscape format allows for some good use of wider images – smaller, traditional frames for intimate moments of friends talking, then bigger images filling the whole landscape page, like a movie camera pulling back in a reverse zoom to show scenes like the busy harbour as the invasion forces prepare to leave Britain for their destiny, or in some cases those large, landscape-filling scenes continue onto the next page with a few regular frames over the top, again very filmic, like cuts between internal scenes between characters and wide-screen shots of the exterior around them. This also effectively suggests both the individual nature of the people involved but also how they are part of one, massive group effort about to do something truly Herculean.
And then there are the pages dealing with D-Day itself, which are, quite frankly, staggering. Much of the art here takes on dark, sombre, grey tones to match the dismal weather (too dark for good photos, quips Capa, preparing to wade ashore), and washes of monochromatic watercolour effects render much of this far muddier than the preceding clear line work, quite deliberately so, I think, an attempt to imitate the “blur” and “shake” of Capa’s photographs, shot while running, ducking from fire, shaking with fear and adrenalin and horror (decades on Spielberg would use these as his inspiration for the shockingly powerful opening to Saving Private Ryan). Several scenes draw directly on those legendary ten photographs, while others, when you pause and take them in more closely, reveal themselves to be those same scenes from the opposite perspective, such as the famous “man in the surf”, a GI crawling forward through the waves, seen as he is in the photo but also seen from a perspective behind him, looking to the hell of the beach, and amid the chaos, on one side, Capa, kneeling behind an anti-tank barrier for cover, camera held up, shooting the scene.
The landscape format also allows for an astonishing double-page spread, the vast invasion armada appearing out of the grey dawn, filling the entire horizon, And then something even more spectacular – a four-page gatefold, those four pages unfolding their long, landscape pages to reveal an enormous panorama of the invasion beach, sweeping from a Nazi gun emplacement on one end firing on the invasion, to one just captured at great cost by the GIs at the other end, the sweep of imagery between taking in ships lurching in high waves, being blown up, disgorging more men, bodies in the water and over the beach, men fighting, running, dying. It’s perhaps the most stunning single image in any comic work I have seen this year. I keep coming back again and again to take it in. It’s a piece of art that I know will be burned into my memory for a lifetime. It was too large to fit on the scanner, the only way I could get an image was to lay it out on the desk and stand over it on a chair with my camera, so apologies, this isn’t and ideal picture of that magnificent fold-put, but it was the best I could manage (click on it for the larger view below):
“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”
The second half of the book detailing his life and work is richly illustrated with his photographs from the war. Of course those iconic ten D-Day images are there, and it is fascinating to flip back and forth between the comic images and the actual photographs of that event. But there are many other images, still radiating power across the decades; bodies of the fallen on the beaches, burned out tanks and landing craft behind them, images of oh-so-young lads boarding ships in Weymouth harbour for the invasion, a young German soldier being taken prisoner, uniform and hat askew, piercing eyes and blonde hair, he would normally be a handsome young man, but here he looks like a young boy who has seen too much (which I suppose he was, really), the thousand yard stare of his face haunting, physically unharmed but clearly wounded somewhere deep inside. And there’s a detective story piecing together the true identity of the blurry “man in the surf”, the actual soldier, still alive, finally identified.
Although really, while nice to know, it doesn’t really matter who the man in that D-Day image was, he stands for all of his brothers-in-arms, he’s symbolically all of them, the ones who fell and the ones who came home bearing scars physical and mental. I’d like to think both Capa and those who served would see those images not just as individuals but as standing for all who did what they had to do on that long, long day.
Capa was a pioneer in believing that a few still images could tell a moving story, and to me it seems highly appropriate that a medium that does just that, the comics medium, should tackle this moment in his life. As with his photographs the comics medium allows us to perceive both a frozen moment, to take in all the details at our own speed in a way real life of moving film cannot, and yet is part of a sequence, connected to other still images, creating a narrative in our minds. Even in our media-saturated modern culture where anyone can shoot video which ends up on global news, the power of a few static images, photographs or comics panels, can still be tremendously powerful and effective in a way nothing else can.
The book uses some of his own lines from his autobiography Slightly Out of Focus, and is also framed by the device of having Capa relating the story to a journalist over the phone. The journalist is talking to him for an article to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the D-Day landings. Capa was killed by a landmine while covering the Indochina war in May 1954, as former French colonies asserted themselves after the Second World War and made their bid for independence (in what would escalate later to the quagmire of the Vietnam War). It was just a couple of weeks before that tenth anniversary, a date he wouldn’t live to see – he was only forty year old. A camera was found in his hand; he recorded the world right to the last moments of his life.
It’s dark well before I leave work at this time of year, but those short daylight hours and long, dark Scottish nights are not entirely bad news, because it means I get views like this “blue hour” shot looking up the Royal Mile (although I should add that western horizon was black to my eyes, the pale blue only came out with a long exposure):
It was the annual Doors Open Day at the weekend and as I usually do I went out exploring. Walked from the lower east end of the New Town back up through the Old Town and to Tollcross before going for a break, several hours of walking, exploring and of course taking photos as I went. I shot a gig of pics, still culling out the duff ones, but one set I processed quickly and uploaded to my Flickr, a set shot from a vantage point I didn’t even know existed. One of the places taking part in Doors Open was the old India Buildings, which used to be offices, including the civic registry office (so there was often a lot of confetti outside the doors). At the moment it is mostly empty, plans in hand to redevelop it into something cultural hopefully, so there wasn’t a huge amount to see inside (apart from a lovely central atrium). However once through a suite of empty, dilapidated rooms on the topmost floor there was a narrow spiral staircase in a corner, only wide enough (just) for one person), which lead up to a small attic room. And as I was thinking, is that it?
I noticed outside the open window a very, very small stone balcony, invisible from the streets way below, so narrow it was only wide enough for one person, so I clambered out the window and along it, and oh, what a hidden and wonderful surprise… Views across half the Old Town of Edinburgh… Including this view of Edinburgh Castle:
And historic Greyfrairs church and kirkyard, witness to some pivotal moments in Scottish and British history
Nearby across the roofs was the lantern top of the enormous Central Library – I’ve been to several literary events in that space (multiple level library room with all those windows so high up flooding it with natural light), but I’ve never seen it from this perspective before
North over curving Victoria Street to the Royal Mile and the distinctively coloured historic structure of Riddles Court, which I’ve visited on previous Doors Open (amazing interiors)
And a view down into Victoria Street, which curves downwards from George IV Bridge down into the Grassmarket, and which is a splendid spot for observing the multiple levels Edinburgh’s Old Town architecture exists on as it straddles the steep slopes of the great volcanic ridge which runs down from Castle Rock to the palace. Normally I am looking up at this scene of multiple levels curving around and above me, but this time I got to look down into it all – quite wonderful experience to see it all from the perspective of the eagle’s eyrie
Ah, Edinburgh, you can still surprise me after all these years living here and give me such lovely presents to point my camera at (coincidentally I noticed I just passed the 12,000 images mark on my Flickr photo stream over the weekend). There’s history and geology and literature and more embedded into this hilly, volcanic terrain and towering, ancient structures which rise from the rocks (and often cut deeps into them too, to a world below…), such a remarkable city, no wonder I love living here.
Last weekend Edinburgh basked in glorious, golden autumnal sunlight, so I walked up Calton Hill, not far from the east end of Princes Street and the spot the great Robert Louis Stevenson regarded as one of the finest for taking in picturesque views of the city. It was very busy with locals and tourists enjoying the fine autumn weather, and I decided to take some cityscapes looking out over Edinburgh. I’ve taken shots from there before, of course, many times, but Stevenson was right, it’s a wonderful spot for taking in panoramas of Edinburgh, and even though I have taken pics there before, the autumn light was so beautiful I couldn’t resist taking more. I find that happens often here, there are some elements of Edinburgh I have taken photos of many times over the years, same area or building, but different time of year, different light quality (and the light quality here is constantly changing, daily, not just the major shifts with the seasons). And anyway, can you blame me for taking more views of my city when it looks like this?
The Palace of Holyroodhouse – the palace is mostly a sixteenth century structure, home of the monarchs of Scotland and today the official residence of the UK monarch when in Scotland. It is, unsurprisingly, filled with Scots history, from Mary Queen of Scots to the mighty Robert the Bruce who held a parliament in the nearby (now ruined) abbey in the 1320s.
I’ve always loved the oddness of this Playfair-designed building on Blenheim Place – it’s a typical neo-classical structure of the type common in the New Town (and this area was to be essentially an eastern extension to the New Town), but look how unusual it seems, pillars and steps leading down not to ground level but to the town houses below it…
Looking down eastwards, the fine buildings of London Road in the foreground, Leith and the docks then the mighty Firth of Forth in the background. In the closer zoom you can clearly see some of the industrial structures around the docks area, such as the tall flour mill, then the Forth beyond
Looking south, towards the bottom of the Royal Mile in the Old Town, this is the Canongate Kirk, a 17th century church near the palace – the cemetery includes residents such as Adam Smith, Dugald Stewart and “heaven sent” Fergusson, the poet who died young and was claimed by Robert Burns as one of his main inspirations. In fact Robert Fergusson’s grave there unites three different literary Roberts – Fergusson himself, Robert Burns who campaigned for a better memorial for his brother poet, then much later Robert Louis Stevenson who planned to restore the then-crumbling memorial, “one Edinburgh lad to another”. He didn’t manage before his early death, but a literary society later did restore it and now a plaque on the grave notes all three writers. That’s Edinburgh for you, it’s built as much on writing and books and words as it is geology and history…
It’s August and it’s festival time here in Edinburgh, the city bursting at the seams as the Fringe and the International Festival kicked off over the weekend, the world’s largest arts festival now in full swing, and the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the world’s biggest literary fest, starts next weekend (and I will be chairing a couple of events there again this year). Part of the Royal Mile is given over to the Fringe performers – with hundreds of shows it’s no easy task to get audiences, they have to fight for bums on seats, so they strut their stuff on the Mile, many in costume, some doing excerpts from their shows on the mini stages to entice audiences. It’s madly busy – almost literally wall to wall with people across the breadth of that historic thoroughfare – but it’s also a happy hunting ground for me to snap some more photos, and I tend to take a ridiculous amount this month (and the views on my Flickr tend to go mad as well as folks all over look for pics of the festival).
The first pic I shot at this year’s Fringe, actually a couple of days before it officially started, but it was on my way home from work and I thought some performers may be out already (some preview show were running by then), and my first shot was this group of Asian performers posting up their flyers for their show. Just as I lined it up the lovely lady turned around, saw me and gave me a nice big smile and wave, which was a nice way to start my festival season of photos.
Sushi Tap 2, with their rather eye-catching neon pink costumes, hard to miss, even once the Mile filled up with more people over the weekend!
“Living” statue performer as a cyclist
John Robertson’s The Dark Room
Charming performers from A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Of course all the hurly-burly of the crowds and performers and the summer sunshine can be too much for some – this chap just settled right down on the busy steps of Saint Giles Cathedral and nodded off
Waking Beauty, a look at fairy tales from a feminine perspective
With their black garb and white masks the performers from Baggage were just perfect for a monochrome shot
Singers from The Sweet Nothings, an all-women a cappella singing group
More pics (and larger formats) over on my Flickr page under this tag for the Fringe pics
The remarkable – and apparently huge – statues of the Kelpies have been a great success since they were erected by the canal near Falkirk, rapidly becoming a landmark as well as an artistic installation. For a short time the original maquettes – the scale versions the actual statues would be based on – are on show in the West End of Edinburgh’s New Town, quite striking even at this scale. I’m looking forward to eventually seeing the full scale versions at some point. As ever, click on the pics to view the large versions on my Flickr.
Quick shot from top deck of the bus to work as it was paused at the lights – this it Tom Gilzean, fundraiser extraorindaire and well-kent Edinburgh character. Mr Gilzean is a veteran in his mid 90s, yet is regularly at his post, usually outside the old Jenners Department Store on Princes Street, right across from the towering Scott Monument (I’m sure the statue of Sir Walter Scott looking across the road to him approves of his diligent work). He’s raised over £100,000 for charities, quite remarkable, as he is seen on Princes Street, medals polished, a charity collection box in each hand rattling away.
Petrol stations seem to be a vanishing species these days around UK towns, I’ve noticed several go just in the last couple of years near where I live, unable to compete with the large petrol stations attached to so many supermarket chain stores these days.
This one is on the Cumbernauld Road by the dual carriageway towards Glasgow, just as you come off to Chryston and Muirhead. I noticed it a few months ago when I was visiting dad and we passed by, this particular day I remembered it was there in time to get dad to pull over so I could get some shots.
Usually when petrol stations close down the pumps and the underground tanks are removed pretty quickly – they have to go and the site needs to be cleaned up before the rest of the demolition then any new structure taking its place. So while it is not uncommon to see a closed former filling station, they are rarely more than weed-choked concrete forecourts and a boarded up building. This one, I noticed though, still had its petrol pumps, which is unusual for those to be left in place for any length of time, so I wanted to get a few photos while they were still there, rusting away, the filling hoses and nozzle lying like contented snakes soaking up the sun. The light was strong that day so perfect for bagging a few shots of urban-commercial dereliction before it gets demolished.
Couldn’t resist a perspective shot – the three pumps in the front all lined up, and if you click the pic to go to the original on my Flickr and check the larger size you will see there is actually a fourth pump at the back of the station, lined up with these:
The once bright, jolly blue paint is peeling off, the metal oxidising
Someone had wrenched open the inspection panel on the front of one pump, as if to “disembowel” it, exposing the mechanics within, the wiring, hoses and pumps, with even the serial numbers and inspection stickers still all clearly visible and legible:
View from the back of the abandoned Crowood Filling Station
The rusting petrol pumps seemed to be like commercial tombstones marking a form of business that just couldn’t evolve to keep going in the cruel and merciless, ever-changing marketplace
Even the metal sign listing different tyre pressures for various models of car was decaying, rust now obscuring almost all of the information, only the Michelin logo and the smiling face of Bibendum still clearly visible on this abandoned place:
No, I don’t really know why, but I just felt quite compelling to document this site with a few photos – as I said, rare to see one closed for any length of time and still having all the pumps etc still in place, and of course it’s only a matter of time before it will be gone, so was good to grab a bright day to take a few photos before it vanishes some day.
Seventy one years ago today, on the beaches of Normandy, ordinary, everyday blokes from Britain, America, Canada, France, Norway, Poland and more walked into legend. Not some semi mythic great heroes like Achilles, these were regular men, bakers, plumbers, butchers, bank clerks, called on to do something extraordinary, while behind the lines who knows how many Resistance fighters fell, vanished in the dark, shot down during vital sabotage missions to help the landings, or worse, taken alive to face certain torture and only then death. Ever since I first read about it as a wee boy I’ve never been able to quite grasp the sheer bravery and desperation and terror of that day – impossible for us to really imagine what it was like to be in a small landing craft, rolling in the waves, men throwing up, seasick and also terrified at what was to come, shells and bullets exploding, the metallic clank as they hit the sides of the ship. Then the thump as the craft hits the sands, the large, flat bow door falls down, exposing the men within to withering fire from concrete gun emplacements, and they still run forward, into that fire, some of them never even making it out of the water, more would make it, some marching into battle under the sound of the bagpipes, like something you’d make up for a film or book, but it actually happened.
And I’ve never been able to imagine what it must have been like on the other side – for every die-hard Nazi zealot there must have been a dozen men who were there because they were made to be there, and as with the Allied side many wouldn’t even really be men yet, just boys really, who hadn’t tasted life but had been shoved into the endlessly voracious war machine (you’ve barely lived yet but you’re old enough to die, son, get out there for the glory of the fatherland). Imagine being an eighteen year old recruit drafted into the army, waking up early, yawning, looking out of the slit of your pillbox and seeing the largest armada in history, sitting right off shore, the massive guns of US Navy and Royal Navy battleships pointing right at you. Imagine firing, firing, firing, the smell of cordite and fear in your enclosed fortification, the raw horror of knowing that those bullets chopping into the soft bodies of men bravely advancing up the beaches are being fired by you, you are sick with fear and horror at what you are doing but you can’t stop, and neither can they, and they keep coming, and you’re screaming inside your skull because you don’t want to die like that, please, god, mother, father, don’t let me die like these poor men I am shooting down, please make it stop, I don’t want to die, I don’t want to kill them, why am I here, how did this happen…
And then, away from the bullets and shells and blood, but never away from the fear, the home front, the families. Where is my son, my father, my uncle, my brother, my husband on this day? you know they are on active service but they can’t tell you where – loose lips sink ships – and you wonder if they are among the thousands storming the blood-splashed shores of Occupied Europe? Are they among those brave men? Did they make it, did they fall, are they alright, are they horribly injured? And you simply wouldn’t know, trying to go through the daily routine but your mind elsewhere in worry all the long, long day, your heart skipping a beat every time you see a post office messenger coming towards your street, no, please, not that telegram, not for us, please no. Imagine living with that day in, day out, but especially on that day, and knowing you could do nothing about it, you couldn’t help your loved ones on the front, you couldn’t protect them, you could only hope and get on with life here, do “your bit” on the home front because that helps those at the sharp end of the spear. And on the other side, imagine the mother in Hamburg or Cologne, who had thought her young lad safe in his French posting, at least he’s not on that awful Russian front, then hearing of the invasion and her heart skipping like the mothers on the other side in horror and terror, my boy, what about my boy, is my boy alright…
(photo from one of my photographic heroes, Robert Capa, taken under fire during the D-Day landings)
We remember the big events like D-Day, the unbelievable heroism and acts of valour that were committed for the benefit of every generation that came after, and so we should. But we should always, always remember those events were made up of individuals, every one of them with hopes, dreams, fears and every one with someone back home in Berlin or Glasgow or Chicago or Toronto who lived in constant fear and hope for them. Some of them given the relief of a loved one returning home finally, when it was over, others that awful, awful telegram, “I regret to inform you…”. And the men and women who did come home, always marked by it, never the same, always bearing guilt because they got to come home, to marry, to have kids, to live, to grow old, and their friends never did. And they know their mates would want them to live that life, but still they’ll feel that guilt till the end of their days. And these ordinary people doing extraordinary things are what shaped our world, preserved our freedoms, so many individual people each doing their bit to create something enormous and world-changing. There are fewer now, each year, time slowly finishing what the war didn’t and claiming them, but those women and men who remain will be thinking on those friends who never came back today.