“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” stated Robert Capa, the famous war photographer. Well no one could accuse Capa of not getting close enough.
He is most famous for his photos of the Spanish Civil War. He also travelled to China to document the war between China and Japan and was a photographer at the D-Day landings in 1944.
He pictured a US soldier against a swastika-adorned monument when the German city of Leipzig was liberated from the Nazis in 1945.
The images helped to form contemporary opinion about these wars, since they were printed in the mass circulation picture magazines of the time.
They are also an important piece of our history, helping to show both the humanity and the brutality behind the great political issues of the 1930s and 1940s.
Capa was a leftwinger, born Andre Friedmann in Budapest in 1913.
His politics led him into exile – first from his native Hungary and then from Berlin, where his first assignment was to photograph the exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.
Capa moved to Paris in 1933, during the period of the Popular Front. It was a time of great radicalisation and the flourishing of socialist and left wing ideas against the growing menace of war and fascism.
There he met Gerta Pohorylle, another young Jewish exile from Germany, who helped him with his work and also took her own photographs.
To set themselves out from the large number of Jewish émigrés from Eastern Europe, they created a fictional American photographer – Robert Capa – and Gerta changed her name to Gerda Taro.
They both went to Spain when the civil war broke out in 1936. They were deeply committed to the cause of Republican Spain and their pictures reflect this.
Capa’s most remarkable pictures are those of soldiers in battle – his most famous being Falling Soldier.
This shows a Republican fighter falling to his death after just being shot and has attracted much interest and controversy since.
These battle scenes have a strange resonance, seeming both very distant in time but also very immediate.
Capa also captures the despair of the civil war, especially his photographs of refugees fleeing Barcelona as it fell to the fascists in 1939.
They reminded me of the terrible scenes described in Ronald Fraser’s book Blood of Spain, where hundreds of refugees jumped into the harbour and drowned rather than be captured by Franco’s troops.
Even more striking though are the images taken by Gerda Taro – and that is quite an achievement.
She portrays a more social and sometimes more human side of the struggle – of a young boy in a militia hat, or of women fighting and training on the beach outside Barcelona.
Taro also photographed at the front, and made her name when she captured the fighting for the city of Brunete.
It was here that she died, fatally injured as part of a hasty retreat from battle.
Taro was buried in Paris on what would have been her 27th birthday. Her funeral was attended by tens of thousands.
Go to see these exhibitions if you possibly can. They show the power that photography has to capture images that can express the suffering of a generation.
Photographs have a power that television sometimes doesn’t – precisely because they capture such moments.
At the same time, these images have influenced film and other visual images.
Steven Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan has a lengthy sequence on D-Day that draws on Capa’s images of soldiers landing on the beaches to be met by a rain of fire.
A third exhibition, On the Subject of War, shows contemporary images and brings us up to date after seven years of the “war on terror”. They are valuable but don’t have the same power.
In fact one of the most shocking things about this exhibition is that it reminds us how few independent photos and films come out of today’s battlefields.
The refugee women are there today, in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. The young soldiers and fighters are there today.
But their pictures are rarely shown in this age of instant mass media.
Capa and Taro’s images are an antidote to this – committed art from another time that reminds us why we are still fighting against these wars today.
This is War! Robert Capa at work, Gerda Taro and On the Subject of War are on at the Barbican art gallery in London until 25 January. The Barbican is hosting a number of films, exhibitions and talks relating to the “war on terror”. Go to » www.barbican.org.uk for more details