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A Tip of the Cap to Cornell Capa

A tribute to a friend and mentor.

by Hugh Steven
June 4, 2008

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A Tip of the Cap to Cornell Capa

Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee." ~John Donne, 17th century poet and preacher.

One of the classic aphorisms in photography is, "If your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough."  The man who gave us those words was the brilliant war photographer and photojournalist Robert Capa.  Some of the most compelling and emotionally charged photos of D-Day taken on Omaha Beach where those by Robert Capa.  John Steinbeck said of Robert Capa, "He could show the horror of a whole people in the face of a child.  His camera caught and held emotion."  Sadly, Robert Capa, who had become a legend in his own time, was killed in Indo-China by a land mine in 1954. 

However, Robert had a brother who, while not as dashing or as strikingly handsome, was also photographer of legend in his own time.  His name was Cornell.   Like his brother, Cornell Capa's creative instincts were able to capture an image that in it's simplicity of design told a story that truly caught the emotional reality of the moment.  

Some of you who are of a certain age might remember the news that galvanized the evangelical and secular world in January 1956 when the world first heard the word Acua (now called the Waodani) and the spearing death of five young American missionaries in Ecuador's dense northern jungle.  As a staff photographer for Life magazine, Cornell Capa was assigned to cover that tragic event.  While the five wives waited for word of their husbands, Cornell poignantly captured the pain and anguish of that difficult waiting time.

Cornell also accompanied the ground search party that recovered the speared bodies of the five missionaries. His photographic images of soldiers with rifles at the ready, inching their way up the Curary River, the blackness of the fierce tropical rain storm that occurred when the bodies were being buried on what became known as "Palm Beach," are all packed with heart-stopping emotion.   

As a result of that event, Cornell became a friend of Wycliffe Bible Translators and was involved in several photography projects for Wycliffe.  In 1965, and again in 1972, it was my privilege to be part of two photograph shoots with Cornell for Wycliffe.  During the 1965, shoot I was a novice, but he treated me with grace, patience and as an equal colleague. 

Cornell, who had a shock of steel grey hair more akin to a mad musician, told engaging stories with a delightful Hungarian accent. e haHe He had a magic smile, a merry twinkle in his eyes and a winsome wit.  His natural diplomatic skill made people feel easy and comfortable. 

By example, he taught me the nature and art of photography, or rather he taught me the poetry of photography that requires a photographer to bring something deep within him or herself to capture the intensity and emotion of the moment.  "Without this, your picture will not live," he said.

This past May 23rd, my friend and mentor Cornell Capa, died at his New York home.  He was 90.  What is enduring about Cornell's legacy is that he championed many social and humanitarian causes, i.e., the destruction of the rain forest, and native cultures in Latin America, mental retardation in children, aging in the US and more. He was also a person who championed the work of other photojournalists.  He coined the word, "The Concerned Photographer" and busied himself with showing and preserving the work of humanitarian photojournalists.  He was the creative force in establishing the International Center of Photography founded in 1974 as a repository for his brother's work and to collect and preserve the work of others.  Cornell once said, "I hoped the work of concerned photographers all over the world will provide the visual history of their century."  And he also wrote, "Photography is demonstrably the most contemporary of art form.  It is the most vital, effective and universal means of communication of facts and ideas between people and nations." 

When I learned of Cornell's death, I immediately thought of John Donne's famous quote that the death of any man diminishes me, because he [Cornell Capa] was involved in mankind.  But Cornell wasn't just involved with mankind, he was involved with individuals. 
I once read that great writers and artists are great because they are able to intuit profound truths about human nature and human life and to present their intuitions in a way that engages and allows the viewer, and the reader to both explore and learn something about their own humanity.  As a concerned photographer, a humanitarian, and being involved with mankind, this was most assuredly true of Cornell Capa.   I am grateful for his warm friendship and mentoring as young, aspiring photographer, and for his later friendship given to both Norma and myself.

Comments (2)

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Greg Asimakoupoulos from Mercer Island WA writes:
June 4, 2008
Hugh, I want to thank you for this poignant tribute to one of the great photojournalists of the past century. You captured his heart and gave us a window into yours. Please keep posting on the Partial Observer. Your talent and insight needs to be shared with its readers.

Ken Lottis from Mercer Island, WA writes:
June 4, 2008
Great piece on Cornell Capa. I'd seen only a blip in my online version of the NY Times about his death. But I needed to read your article to be fully reminded that this was no ordinary man.

I have vivid memories of those pictures he brought back from Ecuador. The stark grayness in the river, the sandbar, the sky, in the faces of the men. The kitchen photo of the wives, now widows, was enough to bring tears to the eyes and a lump to the throat. The photos conveyed a message that needed no words.

One of my most prized books, is a slightly tattered copy of The Savage My Kinsman, in which Elizabeth Elliott describes how Cornell Capa encouraged her to buy and camera and then taught her how to use it. The photographs in that book are a tribute to his skill as a photographer and to his humanity as a mentor to a widow.

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