General René Cogny, commander in chief of the French forces in the área of Tonkin (North Vietnam), was photographed by Robert Capa inside the Morane-Saulnier MS-500 liaison aircraft (in which was also the correspondent for Life magazine John Mecklin) during the trip from Hanoi to Nam Dinh on May 24, 1954.
© Robert Capa / ICP New York
This highly meaningful picture reveals faithfully the definition of struggling photographer applied by Dirck Halstead to the great war photographer, because Capa masterfully captures the French general being thoughtful and worried.
René Cogny knows that the war is lost and that the life of thousands of men depends on his decisions, because he has had to simultaneously tackle two fronts after the route of transport between Hanoi and Haiphong has been greatly disrupted by Nguyen Giap by sending the Viet Minh 320th Division, complemented by 14 regional battalions and three autonomous regiments, attacking at the same time the French outposts located in the rural zones between Phu Ly, Nam Dinh, Thai Binh and Thanh Ne.
Once more, Capa´s ability, sensitivity and nose to perceive and photograph the most representative moments, with an exceedingly accurate timing when pressing the shutter release button of his camera, stands out.
On the other hand, this image isn´t only the result of the photographic act during the exposure of the Kodak Super-XX High Speed Panchromatic black and white film but stems from a previous exhaustive work of observation of the character, his movements and reactions inside the plane by Capa, from the very moment of the aircraft took off at Hanoi Gia Lam airport, approximately half an hour before.
In addition, this very interesting picture is likewise relevant since it shows the perfect synergy for handheld shots between:
a) The Contax IIa rangefinder camera
from 1950 (manufactured by Zeiss Ikon A.G.Stuttgart, improving the already masterpiece of optical and mechanical engineering Contax II from 1936 created by Zeiss engineer Hubert Nerwin - first model featuring combined rangefinder and viewfinder in a single window- ) in which the shutter was redesigned and greatly improved, replacing the connecting cloth of the curtains by geartrains, as well as reducing the number of components and the rangefinder baselength from 90 mm to 73 mm (with a 0.66x magnification and an affective base length of 48 mm), which enabled a more comfortable grabbing of the camera.
b) The Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 5 cm f/2 with one layer T antireflection coating. Such T coating, patented by Alexander Smakula in November 1935, rendered brilliant and high contrast images and was the fruit of twelve years of research by Carl Zeiss Jena from the study of the 1923 prototype CZJ 8,5 cm f/1.75 aimed at improving the quality of the lenses coating the surface of the optical elements with very thin layers of special materials which bettered the light transmission.
c) A highly experienced photojournalist who fights to his utmost with his 35 mm rangefinder camera within the very tight space of the aircraft to get the picture, since under normal circumstances this kind of plane can only transport the pilot and one passenger, so Capa and Mecklin (whom Donald M. Winslow has given his seat, because there wasn´t enough room for a third journalist) are exceedingly crammed behind the general, in such a way that Capa can barely move.
And though getting a high technical quality is not the priority in this sort of photojournalistic pictures, it´s really amazing the resolving power delivered (watch for instance the excellent detail in the general´s nose and the extinguisher) by the lens designed by the genius Ludwig Bertele twenty-two years before, for the picture is made within a very short distance, probably at f/5.6 and from a position very near the minimum focusing distance.
It speaks volumes of the Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 5 cm f/2 T used by Capa and designed by Ludwig Bertele in 1932 in an utterly handcrafted way, using a lot of thousands of hours of manual tracing of light rays throughout the creation stages, without any help of computers or electronic calculators, only taking advantage of his impressive knowledge on optics, physics, mathematics and available optical glasses of the time, as well as making an extensive use of tables of logarithms, two years before Konrad Zuse started in 1934 the conceptual genesis of digital computers, which brought about two years later the Z1 (featuring sixty-four words, each one containing 22 bits) and the Z2 from 1938, which used 800 transmitters, managing to create in 1941 the Z3, first wholly operative digital computer in the world, and in 1946 the Z4, the most sophisticated of his digital computers (including the revolutionary Plankalkül software based on arithmetic logics and the application of pure states on doing the numerical calculi) that was the embryo of the 1951 Zuse Z5, first computer used by Leica to help in the design of its lenses and sporting plenty of electromechanical relays, making possible to attain a seventy times faster designing speed of high luminosity and top-notch quality photographic lenses than with manual calculi, thanks to the acceleration with floating coma calculum, which made possible to a great extent the automatization of improvements in optical designs, the increase in production capacity with new optical glasses and a far superior manufacturing quickness, which resulted in the launching into photographic market by Leica of the 7 element in 6 groups collapsible Summicron 50 mm f/2 Version 1 in 1953, the first one including the remarkable LaK9 rare earth glass.
And this was a turning point in the history of photographic lenses, because both the Summilux-M 50 mm f/1.4 First Version from 1959 and the Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 Version 2 (1956-1968), available in rigid mount and dual range (sharing identical optical design and reformulated with respect to the previous retractable Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 Version 1 1953-1960, increasing its resolving power and contrast, as well as bettering image quality at the nearest focusing distances) were feasible thanks to the synergy between the tremendous knowledge possessed by the Leitz optical designers and mechanics and the use of the Zuse Z5 computer installed in Wetzlar since 1952.
Ludwig Bertele, one of the greatest designers of photographic lenses ever. Among his abundant achievements highlight the legendary Ernostar f/2 lens from 1923 (for the 6 x 4.5 cm medium format Ernemann Ermanox, which allowed the dawn of the agile and dynamic indoor photojournalism with available light embodied by the towering figure of Erich Salomon), the birth in 1931 of the Sonnar scheme (derived from the 1924 Ernostar Type 2 but featuring a lesser quantity of optical groups, managing to greatly reduce the light scattering as well as generating a superior contrast) that made possible the creation of the not less mythical Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 5 cm f/1.5 from 1932 and Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 5 cm f/2 from 1932, without forgetting the Carl Zeiss Jena Biogon 3,5 cm f/2.8 from 1935, the Sonnar 180 mm f/2.8 from 1935 and others, which were followed after the Second World War by extraordinary photogrammetric wideangle lenses as the large format Aviogon from 1950 sporting a 90º coverage, the large format Super Aviogon from 1956 providing a 120º coverage, the Biogon 38 mm f/4.5 medium format 2 ¼ x 2 ¼ for Hasselblad cameras and many others.
It all proves clearly that the design by Ludwig Bertele of both the Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 5 cm f/2 featuring 6 elements in 3 groups (used by Capa to get the picture of general Cogny inside the plane) and the Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 5 cm f/1.5 sporting 7 elements in 3 groups make up one of the greatest feats in the History of Optics, since they were created with 100% manual designing and building parameters, without any help of computers or software whatsoever, with no aspherical surfaces and an strenuous stint of three years, started in 1929 and finished in 1932, nothing less than eighty-one years ago.
As a matter of fact, both lenses are excellent even to the very exacting current standards of quality, already in XXI Century, in which there are tons of objectives whose optical formula includes aspherical elements and there are available very powerful computers boasting highly sophisticated software programs, albeit when tackling the designing of ultraluminous class reference lenses in different focal lengths the key factor goes on being the personal touches provided by the best optical designers based on their expertise.
It´s therefore not surprising the unquestionable fact that throughout nothing less than twenty-two years, between 1932 and 1954, the highly luminous lenses for 24 x 36 mm format photographic cameras made by Carl Zeiss (which had top class designers like Carl Paul Goerz, Willy Merté, Robert Richter, Sylvester Hubert, Ludwig Bertele himself and others) were by far the qualitative world benchmarks (above all the extraordinary for the time Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 5 cm f/1.5 from 1932 and the excellent Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 5 cm f/2 from 1932 , Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar 50 mm f/2.8 from 1932 and Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 85 mm f/2 – both in its version of 6 elements in 3 groups previous to the Second World War and in the one featuring 7 elements in 3 groups launched into market in 1951-, without forgetting the Biogon 35 mm f/2.8 from 1937 featuring 5 elements in 3 groups and the Topogon 25 mm f/4 from 1950 including 4 elements in 4 groups), to such an extent that among all the lenses manufactured by Leica between mid twenties and 1954, only the Leitz Elmar 5 cm f/3.5 designed by Max Berek could challenge Carl Zeiss standard objectives, although with much lesser luminosity.
The picture made by Capa to General Cogny inside the Morane-Saulnier MS-500 liaison aircraft corresponds to a tipping point year in the optical and mechanical evolution of 50 mm ultraluminous lenses, which have been and keep on being the quality yardstick of each brand, and is a good example of the formidable symbiosis between a 35 mm rangefinder camera built without any qualitative compromises and a rather experienced war photographer like Capa to carry out the mission for which they were created: the capturing of great images, even under the most extreme conditions.
In this regard, though there was a lot of available light inside the cabin of the aircraft thanks to its transparent cockpit design optimized for reconnaissance tasks, which enabled to stop down in the range f/5.6-f/11 without any problem, circumstances for Capa weren´t favourable on trying to get this picture: he had to work very near the minimum focusing distance of the camera, he had barely any space to move his arms, because he was behind general Cogny, very cramped next to John Mecklin, and the slight rattling generated by the 240 h.p Argus As 10 inverted V-8 air-cooled 90º piston engine of the STOL Morane-Saulnier MS-500 Criquet liaison plane (which is essentially a Fieseler FI 156 Storch with aluminum wings) generated risk of blurred picture because of lack of precise focus or camera shaking while the shutter was open, but the very wide 73 mm rangefinder baselength of the Contax IIa enabling a very accurate focusing, the non existence of a swivelling up and down mirror, the balance of masses of the camera body and above all the fight and experience of the photographer striving after getting the image, overcome the difficulties.
Needless to say that Capa would have made the photograph even if he had only had a Kodak Brownie 1900 with meniscus, because he was born to
© José Manuel Serrano Esparza