lunes, 30 de septiembre de 2013


On April 29, 1938 Robert Capa photographed Chinese civil population watching the aerial combats taking place over the city of Hankou (Hubei province) between abundant Japanese Mitsubishi A5M fighters (escorting Mitsubishi G3M2 bombers) and Chinese fighters Polikarpov I-15 and Polikarpov I-16 (made in Russia).

The Chinese Air Force distributes the defense in such a way that a total of 42 I-15 biplanes (piloted by Mao Ying-Chu, Liu Chi-Han, Liu Chung-Wu, Yang Shen-Yen and other Chinese pilots, along with twenty-three Russian pilots hired by Chiang Kai-shek among whom are relevant Aleksey Blagoveshchensiy, Anton Gubenko, A. Grishenko, Aleksey Dushin, A. Zingaev, I. Puntus, Giorgiy Zakharov and others) dash against the 27 Japanese A5M fighters under the command of lieutenant Y. Ozono, while the 25 I-16 monoplanes (nine of them manned by Chinese pilots and sixteen handled by Soviet pilots) attack the 18 Japanese G3M2 bombers of the 13th Kokutai of the Japanese Naval Air Force.

The Japanese pilots of the AM5 escorting fighters already feature a long battle experience (with officers like Takahide Aioi and Motonari Suho, who have received intensive training as a part of the increasing imperialist Japanese politics that has developed since 1931 and has been reinforced to full scale with the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War on July 7, 1937 when the Marco Polo Bridge Incident happened. But in spite of it, both the Chinese and Russian pilots put up a dauntless resistance.

The massive aerial battle is being watched from the street and with high levels of expectation by Chinese civilians, whose reations and gestures are masterfully captured by Capa, who gets some pictures of these instants, among which four of them highlight:

                                     © Robert Capa / ICP New York

Image made from a perpendicular and slightly upward angle, enhancing the dramatism of the full of tension moments which are being lived.

There are three adult men and a boy who are looking at the sky seeing the fight between Chinese and Japanese aircraft.

Although all of them share to greater or lesser extent the stress of the moment, each person is different and has a way to express through body language his internal feelings and reactions on watching the events live.

- The man wearing a hat located on the right of the image faces the situation with as much serenity as possible bearing in mind the circumstances and is highly watchful staring at what is happening. Nevertheless, his worried countenance reveals contained stress, complemented by the great attention he is paying to the air war unleashing over Hankou (Hubei province), albeit his level of fear is smaller than the one experienced by the other two men appearing in the picture, and seems to have come to terms with the facts with a certain acquiescence.

- But the restlessness of the man placed behind him is far bigger, His face clearly reflects fright, edgeness and uncertainty, exceedingly raised by both his left arm (bent in a nervous and unsteady way) and his left hand with his fingers very open because of the stress, which try desperately and instinctively to find a support on the back of the man wearing a hat. In addition, the facial expression of this man shows anxiety and concern about his countrymen pilots. You can also see two thirds of his right hand, who he likewise keeps in the air, without any support, which fosters the tension of the on the spot unfolding instants.

- The boy beside him, due to his much younger age, doesn´t perceive so intensely and accurately either the seriousness of what is happening or the deaths which are taking place, but appears fidgety, looking at the sky with great attention, keeping a tab on the ongoing aerial combats and aircraft shooting downs which are happening, while simultaneously eating sunflower seeds in a compulsive and fast way.

- Finally, the tallest man located on far left of the image, is highly stirred by the aerial combats, has his mouth half-opened because of the dread and his neck and head protrude diagonally, unlike the other two men whose neck and head appear almost vertical, and the vertically depicted neck and head of the boy.

Besides, this tallest man is pointing at the sky with his left hand, probably indicating the shooting down of a plane which has just happened.

The reactions of these four persons seem to suggest that the Chinese aircraft are bearing the brunt of the fight at those moments.

The presence of the left hand of this man has a fundamental significance in the photograph, since it protrudes just behind the nose of the man under a state of shock (with a parallel trajectory to his left hand, that strives after lying on the back of the man wearing a hat), helping a great deal to increase even more the deep dramatic meaning of the image, aiming at an area of the sky in which some deaths are being brought about.

On the other hand, the four people appearing in this picture are looking at different airplanes. That´s why the degree of upwards inclination of their heads is diverse. This is undoubtedly a full-fledged aerial battle in which a number of aircraft of both sides are taking part.

24 x 36 mm format rangefinder Contax II with Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 5 cm f/2. This was the camera model used by Robert Capa during his stay in China between February 16 1938 and September 22, 1938. Capa had changed of camera (he had previously used a Leica II Model D with Leitz Elmar 5 cm f/3.5 lens and a Leica III with Leitz Summar 5 cm f/2) in late May 1937. The Contax II was with difference at the moment the best 35 mm camera in the world, thanks to its combined rangefinder and viewfinder (a trait lacked by every screwmount Leica camera of the time – which sported independent windows for RF and finder- and that wouldn´t be adopted by the Wetzlar firm until the M3), which in symbiosis with its very wide rangefinder base of 90 mm with 0.75x magnification provided an effective base length of 67.5 mm, enabling the photographer to focus with far superior quickness and accuracy, in such a way that a remarkable increase in agility of work, speed on photographing and picture yield was attained, without forgetting the very important fact that the Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 5 cm f/2 featuring 6 elements in 3 groups designed by the genius Ludwig Bertele in 1932 and the Carl Zeiss Jena 5 cm f/1.5 sporting 7 elements in 3 groups (also created by him in 1932) were the best standard lenses on earth along with the Leitz Elmar 5 cm f/3.5 designed by Profesor Max Berek, but beating it in luminosity, so the Contax II made feasible to shoot at full aperture with outstanding precision thanks to the great separation distance between the combined VF and RF and save more pictures under dim light conditions.

This great picture is made by Capa with his Contax II and Carl Zeiss Jena 5 cm f/2 lens designed by Ludwig Bertele in 1932.

The photojournalist photographs all of these persons by surprise, from a very near distance of around 2 meters and probably at f/5.6, managing to go unnoticed and capture both the emotional intensity of the events and its influence on the different civilians watching them, which is reflected on their facial expressions and all kind of body gestures they show during the developments.

Cover of the special number of the Weekly Illustrated magazine of June 11, 1938 including a great 26 x 34.2 cm size 6 page reportage with 24 pictures taken by Robert Capa in China, and whose page 4 reproduces for the first time one of the photographs made by Capa to Chinese people – in which three adults, one of them wearing a hat, and a boy – can be seen in Hankou (Hubei province) watching the aerial combats between Chinese aircraft and Japanese on April 29, 1938.

Pages 4 and 5 of the special number of Weekly Illustrated of June 11, 1938 with a 10 picture layout made by Stefan Lorant, editor of the publication, who inserted the aforementioned photograph made by Capa in Hankou on April 29, 1938 on the upper right area of page 4, but reframing it in a square format, mutilating the image of the b & w original negative featuring a 2:3 aspect ratio and exposed by Capa with his 24 x 36 mm format Contax II, in such a way that he eliminated approximately half of the body of the tallest man located on the left, the whole man wearing a hat placed on the right of the picture in the quoted original negative, and what is even worse, the very significant left hand of the man spotted just by him which tries instinctively to find a support on his back, because of the stress and fear of the moment. Things like would be decisive for Capa to take the decision to found Magnum Agency, creating the essential concept that the photographers should keep the original negatives of the pictures made by them and control both the preservation of the frame such as it was at the moment of the photographic act (and the 100% of its content) together with the information provided by the caption made by the photographer, without any subsequent manipulation.. The aim was to garner as much respect as possible for the photojournalists so that they could work not only for big magazines like Life, Look, Colliers, Picture Post, etc, but above all for themselves, being independent and able to sell their images (that they had created, often risking their lives and after long years of experience and work) to different publications at the same time, transcending the statu quo of mere employees.

A 15,7 x 23,5 cm copy of this great picture was sold at Westlicht Vienna on November 23, 2012, during its 7th Photographic Auction. It was a silver gelatin print made during seventies from the original black and white 24 x 36 mm negative, utterly respecting the content of the image such as it was created by Capa, and a final bid of 2,280 euros was the winner.

Therefore, it´s a fairly symbolic image, faithfully synthesizing Capa´s style of getting pictures, mainly based on being in the suitable place at the appropriate moment, approaching as much as possible to the core of the action, paying top attention to the most defining moments and moving very quickly to press the shutter release button  of the camera with the most accurate possible timing, without forgetting an innate ability to perceive curious details (as the ones previously mentioned of the hand trying to lean upon the back of the man wearing a hat and the left hand of the tallest man pointing at the sky), something that he had already proved extensively before getting photographs of civilians contemplating combats between planes, as the famous one he made within Bilbao downtown and in which can be seen a nervous mother looking at the sky and taking her little daughter (who is clad in a coat whose buttons have been badly fastened because of the fidgety and fear) grabbed with her hand.

                            © Robert Capa / ICP New York

An image made from a diagonal position with respect to the two men staring at the sky watching the abundant aerial combtas which are happening over the city of Hankou (province of Hubei) between Japanese and Chinese aircraft.

The man wearing a buttoned clear garment and whose left hand is holding one of the metallic tubes of a car placed by him (whose back area appears on the right of the image) looks at the sky with a distressed demeanour. Highly probably he´s watching one or more Chinese aircraft fall.

The facial expression of this man seems to confirm what was hinted by the countenances in the previous picture (in which there are three men and a boy) taken by Capa very near this spot: the Chinese I-15 and I-16 fighters are suffering some shootings down by Japanese A5M fighters at the moment.

- On his turn, the face of the man wearing a hat, white shirt and black trousers visible on left of the image, speaks volumes: violent combats are taking place between enemy aircraft in the sky over Hankou, with plenty of shooting downs resulting in deaths of pilots.

His eyes are quite wide, his mouth appears half-opened and fear is strongly marked on his countenance. This man is seeing the death. He´s rather fidgety, has unfastened the upper button of his shirt and some muscles and veins of his neck protrude apparently in tension.

- Between both men appears a young man with short hair and black attire who is not looking at the sky at the moment, but probably speaking about the events with a fourth man whose white colour garment can be seen, unlike his face which remains hidden after the back area of the car.

- The quietness of this man stands in stark contrast to the huge concern, stress and fright reflected on the faces of the two main characters of the image, whose dramatism steps up geometrically with the inclusion inside the framing by Capa of a young boy appearing on far left, with his countenance fairly convulsed because of what he´s watching, his eyes wide open and who is attentively tracking the struggle in the sky over Hankou between Japanese and Chinese aircraft.

The photographer shoots from a distance of approximately 3 meters, probably at f/5.6. It´s an instinctive and very fast shot, made from very near, in which Capa manages to remain undetected and captures all the people appearing in the image by surprise.

Once more, the bewildering speed on photographing along with the prowess and experience when choosing the most meaningful instants clearly verify that Capa is a higly gifted photographer for this genre of photojournalistic war images in which the technical thoroughness or a 100% precise focus are not the most important sides.

                            © Robert Capa / ICP New York          

Photograph made from a low position, with a more pronounced upward taking angle than the previous ones.

The facial expression of the six men appearing in this image (plus another one of whom only part of his left leg and shoulder can be glimpsed) indicates that one or more Japanese aircraft are being shot down by the Chinese I-15 and I-16 fighters at the moment in which Capa gets this picture.

A very high level of expectation and excitement is tangible in all these people because of what they´re seeing, but the anguish, uncertainty and fear have decreased very much, turning into a kind of joyful tension, summarized by:

- The hands inside his pockets of the man clad in clear jacket and trousers, white shirt and tie occupying the center of the image, who in spite of realizing that the shot down plane or planes at those moments are not Chinese, keeps a worried demeanour on noticing the deaths which are occurring.

- The smile of the man wearing black jacket and trousers, clear tie and spectacles located on far left of the image and appearing under a state of taut jitters and elation, scratching the upper left area of his face.

- The even more conspicuous and intense smile of the man wearing black garment, placed just behind, overjoyed because of what he is seeing and whose left hand is slightly leaning on the elbow of the man wearing spectacles, both instinctively looking for a  support and trying to share what is happening with his countryman.

- The military man clad in a peaked cap visible on the right of the image. He´s an officer of Chiang Kai-shek´s Kuomingtan and seems to be commenting gleeful some details of the aerial combat he´s watching with the man of whom we can only see half of his head (since he´s wholly hidden by the man wearing a clear attire located in the middle of the picture), whose noticeable tilting (to such an extent that his crown is pointing at the top right corner of the photograph) helps substantially to enhance the huge interest with which he´s tracking the Sino-Japanese aerial struggle taking place in the sky over Hankou.

- The man wearing black garment and hat appearing on far right of the picture. His smile indicates gaiety because the aircraft manned by his compatriots and the Russian volunteers supporting China are prevailing at the moment, but at the same time he shows in his countenance the stress of those instants and that he´s fully aware that the massive air combats are resulting in deaths.

Capa takes this picture with a very fast shot from a rather short distance of approximately 2,5 m and at f/5.6 or f/8, which has brought about that the face, left arm and left hand of the man wearing spectacles appear slightly out of focus and shaky, due to the low shutter speed used and to the fact that the 24 x 36 mm format black and white film used by Capa features a Weston 32 sensitivity, roughly equivalent to ISO 40.

The image seems to correspond to a 4:3 aspect ratio print made from the original 35 mm negative featuring 3:2 golden proportion exposed by Capa by the Sankiao Café Restaurant in the Dump Street of Hankou and developed by a Chinese laboratory before his sending through certified email to paris and proves once more the huge speed and energy on photographing displayed by Robert Capa, along with his unwavering effort to capture the images from the most different angles possible, something of which were witnesses - to name only two examples – during 1948 Mischa Bar-am, Pablo Picasso and Jean Françoise Gilot.

On the other hand, this picture features glaring parallelisms with another one made by Capa a year and five months before in the city of Madrid in late November 1936 depicting civil population watching from the street the aerial combats between Russian Polikarpov I-16 Ratas monoplane fighters and Italian Fiat C.R. 32 Chirri biplane fighters, in which the revolutionary Russian fighters equipped with the awesome Shvetsov M-25 engine delivering 700 H.P and excelling as to exceptional climb rate and manoeuvrability, clearly prevailed, which is visible in the ecstatic faces of the persons appearing in the image.

                           © Robert Capa / ICP New York

Image captured shooting from a low angle, at a distance of around 3 meters and at f/5.6 or f/8.

It´s a square reframing made from the original 24 x 36 mm negative, so the enlargement from a specific area of it has significantly increased the presence of grain, but it doesn´t dwindle the photojournalistic power of the image whatsoever.

Despite being very near and just in front of them, Capa manages to photograph the eight people appearing in the picture (two of whom have their faces hidden by the two men located on far right of the image), so in the same way as happens with the rest of images of this series, none of them is looking at the camera.

The picture reveals the variability and seething struggle ruling the aerial battle between Chinese and Japanese aircraft taking place over Hankou and in which the courage and stubborn resistance of the Chinese pilots together with the experience of the Russian aviators is putting the Japanese fighters and bombers in a tight spot.

- The main character in the picture is the man located in the middle, looking at the sky with bated breath and having his left hand leant on the left area of his chin, lips and face, while awaits for the outcome of the aerial battle.

- On his turn, the man wearing clear jacket, white shirt, black tie and hat just on his right, has his mouth wide open as a consequence of the stress and dramatism of the moments which are being lived.

- The man clad in black attire pladed on the left of the image has his arms cross rather tightly and is also watching attentively what´s happening.

Unlike the rest of Chinese inhabitants appearing in the picture, his head is out of focus because of the low shutter speed used to get the picture and the fact that at the moment in which the photographer presses the shutter release button of his camera, this man is turning his head following the evolution of the aerial combats, so its movement isn´t completely frozen.

- Moreover, on far left of the image, just behind the right shoulder of the man with his arms crossed, we can see the head of a youngster whose eyes are wide open and is watching the unfolding aerial fight with top ettention, his mouth being half-open because of the jitters.

- The man wearing black attire appearing (as seen in the image) on the right of the middle one with his left hand leaned on his chin, lips and face, is also looking at the sky with tons of attention, but experiencing greater tension and distress regarding the uncertainty of the final result of the massive aerial battle, and the sloping of his head opposes to the one of the man with his arms crossed on the left of the photograph.

- On the other hand, there´s a woman on the lower far right area of the image. She´s wearing a black dress with white collar and we can see her face. She appears visibly nervous and flustered by the events she is watching, has her mouth half-open because of the high emotional intensity of the moment, and her presence fosters the dramatism of the scene a great deal.

Furthermore, the picture is boosted by the presence very near the middle area of the upper border of the image of a woman sticking her head out of the window of her room in the first floor of a hotel and whose face contours are discernible because in spite of the highly apparent grain of the black and white Eastman Kodak Nitrate Panchromatic film used by Capa, this monochrome emulsion features a good acutance and sharpness of contours, so though the chemical products used during the development weren´t in the best possible conditions and the Chinese darkroom man who handled Bob´s 35 mm negatives exposed in Hankou didn´t have the top-notch level of expertise and skill of Csiki Weisz, he did his best and the definition of border effects inherent to the b & w emulsion and the Mackie lines have been possible to distinguish the facial contours of the head of this woman.

It´s important to bear in mind that Life magazine had published on May 16, 1938 its special number with cover showing a 15 years old Chinese soldier boy and some inside pages including pictures made by Robert Capa on March 12, 1938 in Hankow (China) during the parades held to commemorate the death of Sun Yat-Sen and celebrate some victories obtained by the Chinese army against the Japanese, and it was a great sales success.

On its turn, the French magazine Regards had already published in its number 225 of May 5, 1938 a four page remarkable reportage with photographs made by Robert Capa in China and titled ´ La China Lutte ´,

which was also highly successful in sales, so when Henry Luce, owner of the Time Life Inc. editorial group, knew that Weekly Illustrated was going to launch in England on June 11, 1938 its special issue with images also made by him in the big Asian country, sparkled the quick reaction of Henry Luce, who ordered Wilson Hicks, picture editor of Life, the most important illustrated magazine in the world, to make contact with Robert Capa and reiterate him that he was in China on assignment as a Life photographer, that they had already published many of his photographs and that they wanted to insert many more of them. 

Letter sent from New York to China by Wilson Hicks, picture editor of Life, and addressed to Robert Capa on June 1, 1938.

Therefore, a fierce competence among Stefan Lorant (Director and Picture Editor of Weekly Illustrated), Leon Moussinac (Director of Regards) and Henry Luce (Editor of Life, who had the formidable team made up by Edward K. Thompson, Wilson Hicks, Daniel Longwell and John Shaw Billings) unleashed to obtain pictures made by Capa in China, without forgetting the pressure exerted by Simon Guttman (Director of Dephot Agency in Berlin) on Csiki Weisz, with his constant phone calls asking for Capa´s images to rue Froidevaux, 37, which had turned to all intents and purposes into the conceptual embryo of the future Magnum Agency which would be found in New York 9 years later.

© Text and Indicated Photos: José Manuel Serrano Esparza