Robert Capa on D-Day


Robert Capa was a war photographer and photojournalist covering wars and violent events in China, Spain, Mexico, Sicily and Italy.

He was selected as one of only two “pool” photographers to go ashore during the invasion, the pictures being shared amongst all the publications “Capa had a reputation as a great war photographer … and he was stuck with it,” says John G. Morris, the photo editor at LIFE magazine’s offices in London (Herrick, Coleman, and Baughman, 2015). As Capa’s reputation preceded him he may have been obligated to be on the beach without being enthusiastic to be there.

The pictures he took on D-Day have appeared in many publications since they were taken on the 6th June 1944. There are ten pictures in the series from that morning.

The pictures appeared in June 19, 1944 issue, “Beacheads of Normandy: The Fateful Battle for Europe is Joined by Sea and Air.”  Life magazine


The “Face in the surf” or “Crawling through the water “D-Day, 6th June 1944.

No 9 in the series

The image appears overexposed, highly grainy with a reduced tonal range. Areas of shadow are blocked-up and highlights blown. The shot is facing west so not contra jour. It is hard to see any focused parts of the image and Capa titled his account of D-Day’ Slightly Out of Focus” (Capa, 1947) so one assumes he thought they were out of focus. The tonal range is very limited with blocked shadows but clear whites.


According to Morris, the image was rescued from a development mistake and is one of only eleven surviving images of five rolls taken so may have been distressed in development.


The overall effect is of an extreme situation with not only the distressed image imparts the stress the photographer and the subject were under.


Of the image was taken under extraordinary conditions –under fire. According to Capa  “the bullets tore holes in the water around me” (Capa, 1995). He goes on to describe the day as “very gray (sic) for good pictures”. Additionally he was shooting away from the sun (judging by the obstacle orientation) therefore the light is soft, however, it is unknown what the negative processing has done to the final print as unlike the others in the set the negative is not available.

According to Pulitzer Prize winner J. Ross Baughman, Capa’s camera, Contax II 35mm rangefinder camera with Carl Zeiss Jena 5 cm f/1.5 high-speed lens. Could give him no more than a modest shutter speed and a shallow depth of field (Herrick, Coleman, and Baughman, 2015). Photojournalists of the time would have used a similar camera because of its ability to use rolls of film, portability and robustness. The nature of the camera influenced the genre.

The image is in black & white. In 1944, it is believed that this would have been a choice forced upon photographers down to the early days of colour film, cost and requirements to look after the colour substrate before and after exposure.

The circumstances were so extreme that it is hard justify any criticism as the man was in the water, while being shot at. Again he says “a new kind of fear shaking my body from toe to hair, and twisting my face.” Recent commentators point out that he was on the beach for some while in cover behind “vehicle 10” (Herrick, Coleman, and Baughman, 2015). They also  raise the issue of  whether he took more pictures or not.  

In the largest crops available (the contact print/ negative appears unavailable). The hedgehogs (beach obstacles ) form a line from left to right on the third line. The soldier is centre frame but lies roughly on the lower third line.

The picture can be used successfully either cropped or uncrossed. The picture has been used frequently in portrait, landscape cropped and uncrossed. While there are short diagonals found in the beach obstacles they really make an impact as the ugly subject. There seems no need for leading lines  as the central subject is so dominant.   

The image starkly conveys the terrors of the day. The almost impressionist result with its distressed look makes the soldier look lonely, vulnerable and exposed. On a day when thousands of men are landing he looks alone in the surf. With this image Capa boils down the the invasion to the single soldier his weapon either lost or underwater.

The story photograph has a further element as the subject is a GI named Huston Riley, he had taken thirty minutes to reach the shore. He is pulled out of the water by Capa and another soldier. Capa’s camera jams shortly after and leaves the beach.

Number seven in the series and therefore prior the face in the surf.

With landing craft in the background soldiers of an engineer demolition unit prepare a hedgehog for demolition. Previously captioned as “Men in the second wave taking cover” in Life Magazine that these images appeared in on June 19th .

Now that it has been correctly attributed to engineers demolishing beach obstacles the picture engenders a feeling of intense admiration for those demolition experts going about their mission in what appears to be a fearless manner.

Equally in the background are coxswains steering their landing craft skilfully through what appears to be a huge swell.

The image is very grainy but much clearer than the face in the surf. It is underexposed with blocked out areas around the metal obstacles.


It is a low-key exposure with taken in a northerly direction with sun (if any, to the left again judged by the beach obstacles). Again the picture has low tonal range with no clear whites.

The engineers are in focus although the image is very grainy. Centrally composed, the group of engineers and obstacles line up on the bottom third line. Slightly surprisingly in the specimen image the engineer helmet white “arc” insignia is clearly visible which is not the case in other images seen   

Again it is churlish to criticise as the images are unique. Other photographers and cinematographers have taken pictures later in the day that are clearer such as

This picture has been reimagined with different crops and even as a panorama.

Finally Capa, despite revisionist analyses, a man armed only with a camera who had put himself in a perilous position just so we might know what feats of heroism are required to maintain freedom.

Appearing initially in Life Magazine to a worldwide audience hungry for news of the Normandy landings the pictures have reproduced on many publications frequently on the front cover. Arguably the audience included the Axis powers and might be considered part of the misinformation plan.

Steven Spielberg used his pictures as the inspiration for the Mise-en-Scene and plot of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ saying he was inspired by the photos (Duncan, 2009)



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