Cornell Capa, Photographer, Is Dead
Cornell Capa, who founded the International Center of Photography in New York after a long and distinguished career as a photojournalist, first on the staff of Life magazine and then as a member of Magnum Photos, died Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was 90.
His death, of natural causes, was announced by Phyllis Levine, communications director at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan.
In Mr. Capa’s nearly 30 years as a photojournalist, the professional code to which he steadfastly adhered is best summed up by the title of his 1968 book “The Concerned Photographer.” He used the phrase often to describe any photographer who was passionately dedicated to doing work that contributed to the understanding and well-being of humanity and who produced “images in which genuine human feeling predominates over commercial cynicism or disinterested formalism.”
The subjects of greatest interest to Capa as a photographer were politics and social justice. He covered both presidential campaigns of Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s and also became a good friend of Stevenson. He covered John F. Kennedy’s successful presidential run in 1960, and then spearheaded a project in which he and nine fellow Magnum photographers documented the young president’s first hundred days, resulting in the book “Let Us Begin: The First One Hundred Days of the Kennedy Administration.” (He got to know the Kennedys well; Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis would become one of the first trustees of the I.C.P.)
In Argentina, Mr. Capa documented the increasingly repressive tactics of the Peron regime and then the revolution that overthrew it. In Israel, he covered the 1967 Six Day-War. The vast number of picture essays he produced on assignment ranged in subject from Christian missionaries in the jungles of Latin America to the Russian Orthodox Church in Soviet Russia during the cold war, the elite Queen’s Guards in England and the education of mentally retarded children in New England.
His work conformed to all the visual hallmarks of Life magazine photography: clear subject matter, strong composition, bold graphic impact and at times even a touch of wit. In his 1959 essay about the Ford Motor Company, for example, one picture presents a bird’s-eye view of 7,000 engineers lined up in rows behind the first compact car all of them were involved in developing: a single Ford Falcon.
“I am not an artist, and I never intended to be one,” he wrote in the 1992 book “Cornell Capa: Photographs.” “I hope I have made some good photographs, but what I really hope is that I have done some good photo stories with memorable images that make a point, and, perhaps, even make a difference.”
Mr. Capa had three important incarnations in the field of photography: successful photojournalist; champion of his older brother Robert Capa’s legacy among the greatest war photographers; and founder and first director of the International Center of Photography, which, since it was established in 1974, has become one of the most influential photographic institutions for exhibition, collection, and education in the world.
It was because of Robert Capa that Cornell became a photographer. Not only was he Cornell’s mentor, along with Henri Cartier-Bresson and David (Chim) Seymour, but it was on his brother’s coattails that Cornell first became affiliated with Life magazine. In 1947, Cornell’s three mentors founded Magnum Photos, the agency he would join after his brother Robert was killed on assignment in Indochina in 1954.
“From that day,” Mr. Capa said about his brother’s death, “I was haunted by the question of what happens to the work a photographer leaves behind, by how to make the work stay alive.”
The I.C.P. was born 20 years later, in part out of Mr. Capa’s professed growing anxiety in the late 1960s about the diminishing relevance of photojournalism in light of the increasing presence of film footage on television news. But, also, for years he had imagined a public resource in which to preserve the archives and negatives of “concerned photographers” everywhere. In this regard, his older brother’s legacy was paramount in his thoughts when he opened the I.C.P., where Robert Capa’s archives reside to this day.
Born Cornel Friedmann on April 10, 1918, in Budapest Hungary, he was the youngest son of Dezso and Julia Berkovits Friedmann, who were assimilated, nonpracticing Jews. His parents owned a prosperous dressmaking salon, where his father was head tailor. In 1931, his brother Robert, at 17, was forced to leave the country because of leftist student activities that had caught the attention of officials of the anti-Semitic Hungarian dictator, Admiral Miklos Horthy. In 1935, his eldest brother, Laszlo, died of rheumatic fever.
Growing up, Cornell had planned to be a doctor, and, upon graduating from high school in 1936, he joined Robert in Paris to embark on his medical studies. But first he had to learn French. Robert, who had become a photojournalist in Berlin before settling in Paris, had befriended two other young photographers, Cartier-Bresson and Seymour. To support himself, Cornell developed film for Robert, Henri and Chim and made their prints in a makeshift darkroom in his hotel bathroom. Soon enough, Cornell’s interest in photography grew, and he abandoned his longtime ambition to be a doctor. He also adopted his brother’s new last name, a tribute in variation to the name of the film director Frank Capra.
In 1937, Mr. Capa followed his mother to New York City, where she had joined her four sisters. When Robert came for a visit and established connections with Pix, Inc., a photography agency, he helped get Cornell a job there as a printer. Soon after, Cornell went to work in the Life magazine darkroom.
In 1940, Mr. Capa married Edith Schwartz, who, over the years, assumed an active role in his professional life, maintaining his negatives and archives, and also those of his brother. They had no children, but she provided a home away from home for hundreds of the photographers they came to know over the years. Mr. Capa wrote that Edie, who died in 2001, “deserves so much of the credit for whatever I have accomplished.”
After serving in the U.S. Air Force’s photo intelligence unit during World War II, Mr. Capa was hired by Life magazine in 1946 as a junior photographer.
“One thing Life and I agreed on right from the start was that one war photographer was enough for my family,” he wrote. “I was to be a photographer for peace.”
The historian Richard Whelan wrote in the introduction to “Cornell Capa: Photographs” that Mr. Capa “often quoted the words of the 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 needed to be appreciated.’ ” That is what Mr. Capa dedicated his life to doing.