Robert Capa (1913 – (1954) was born in Budapest, Hungary as Endre Ernö Friedmann. Following the stock market crash in 1929, he relocated to Germany where he studied political science. Fearing the anti-semitism backlash, Capa fled to Paris when the Nazis came to power in 1933. It was only after he changed his name to Robert Capa and together with Gerda Taro ‘invented the ‘famous’ American photographer Robert Capa’ (Magnum Photos, n.d.) that he started to gain recognition. Capa documented the Spanish Civil War, the Chinese war in 1938, and World War II. He is probably most famous for his photograph of the D-Day landing at Omaha Beach. Towards the end of the war, Capa cofounded Magnum Photos together with Henri Cartier-Bresson, and two other photographers. Capa was killed in Indochina in 1954 when he stepped onto a landmine (Jeffrey, 2008, pp. 200-203). Capa is considered to be the father of photojournalism, being the first to provide a point of view taken from within the midst of battles, rather than from afar (Gray, 2014).
The photograph that I have chosen is one of Capa’s lesser known photos and it was taken in the village of Cassino in Italy (Arnold, 1996) during one of the three bitter battles of Monte Cassino which took place between January and May 1944 during World War II. It was a site where there were over 55,000 Allied casualties (Chen, Peter C., n.d.).
Here in this photograph one sees a Dodge WC 54 truck with a muddy tyre, which is fitted with snow chains. On the side of the truck one can see two insignia and a vehicle identification number. Two ladies in uniform sit against the truck knitting, their helmets stacked on top of the truck’s bonnet. The foreground is strewn with rocks and stones of varying sizes. The truck is parked next to two conjoined buildings, judging from the differing external brick work. Just behind the truck the letters ‘La Vitto…” are visible.
The photograph has been taken from a low point of view and the photographer is quite close to his subjects. It is a strong image with the positioning of the women’s heads and helmets creating a powerful diagonal line which leads the eye through the image. This diagonal line is repeated in the positioning of their knitting needles and women’s right legs, while the two tyres create an intersecting diagonal and their round shape serves to keep the viewer’s gaze within the frame.
The women are dressed in battle fatigues and sport field service caps and leggings. From their dress we connote that they are in the army; more importantly we know they are in the French army due to the symbol of the French flag on the truck’s door. Since the French Revolution, the tricolour of this flag symbolises liberty, equality and fraternity. Just above the flag is the vehicle’s identification or unit number. The insignia above the spare wheel is a caduceus. Through social convention this sign has globally come to be associated with the medical profession or medicine. This symbol conveys to the viewer that the truck is an ambulance. The signifier of the caduceus sign is the winged staff of Hermes, with two serpents wrapped around it, while the signified conveys the message of healing.
The snake figure was associated with Asclepios, the ancient Greek God of medicine, and possessed benevolent properties.
(Ramoutsaki IA, Haniotakis S, Tsatsakis AM, 2000)
The detail that provokes the viewer in this image (the punctum) is that of the knitting. Similar to Koen Wessing’s image Nicaragua, 1979 where two nuns walk down a war torn street while soldiers patrol, there is a similar duality in Capa’s image. Here we have a scene of domestic action, that of two women knitting, not seated in comfortable chairs in pleasant homely surroundings as one might expect, but seated between mud and rocks in the midst of a war zone during a lull of fighting. They have a relaxed attitude about them and appear to be concentrating on their knitting. Their helmets sit within easy reach for when the action resumes. As Barthes states: “it is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me” (Barthes, 1980).
It is a particularly poignant scene showing the viewer that even though these brave volunteers are serving their country by taking care of the wounded soldiers, they are still caring for their loved ones, back home or on the front line, by knitting socks and jerseys for them, giving credence to the old idiom “a woman’s work is never done”.
The mud, rocks and chains on the tyre serve as indexical signifiers connoting the rough and treacherous terrain the ambulance drivers had to traverse, while one might interpret the iconicity of the field ambulance drivers as representative of bravery when we realize that these ladies had to drive their ambulances as close to the fighting action as possible. The words on the wall “La vittoria” bear witness to the Italian location, i.e. Cassino.
Capa took another photograph of the two women from another angle, showing the environment which can be seen here. Upon researching the partial phrase that is visible on the wall, together with the words in my chosen photo, I found that the full phrase (Spinetti, Piraino, Fiorito ,1940, p. 63) behind the ambulance is: ‘la vittoria non è un punto di arrivo! È un punto di partenza’ which means ‘victory is not a point of arrival! It is a starting point.’ This phrase, painted on the wall by the Fascists, is a perfect example of what Barthes (1972) was referring to in his discussion on the signification of myth: ‘… Myth is a double system; there occurs in it a sort of ubiquity: its point of departure is constituted by the arrival of a meaning.’ Ironically, we know through history that there was no victory at the end of World War II for the Fascists, so the meaning of these two sentences has become distorted.
In closing, let us take one last look at the initial image. By photographing the ambulance drivers seated below the words we now know to be “La Vittoria”/The Victory”, Capa is sending a subliminal message to the viewers back home that the Allies are winning. The home front will soon be returning to normal. This photograph is ultimately a message of hope.
Arnold, E., 1996. Robert Capa Remembered. [online] Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/robert-capa-remembered-1358188.html [Accessed 2 February 2016].
Barthes, R., 1972. Mythologies. New York: The Noonday Press.
Barthes, R., 1980. Camera Lucida. New York: Hill and Wang.
Chen, Peter C. (n.d.) Battle of Monte Cassino |17 Jan 1944 – 18 May 1944. [online]. Available at: http://ww2db.com/battle_spec.php?battle_id=312 [Accessed 31 January 2016].
Gray, M., 2014. WWII Italy through Hungarian eyes | Alinari Museum hosts Robert Capa retrospective. [online] Available at: http://www.theflorentine.net/articles/article-view.asp?issuetocId=9027. [Accessed 2 February 2016].
Jeffrey, I., 2008. How to Read a Photograph. New York: Abrams.
Koen Wessing: Duality as Photographic Punctum [online]. Leicaphilia. Available at: http://leicaphilia.com/koen-wessing-duality-as-photographic-puntum/ [Accessed 6 February, 2016]
Magnum Photos, n.d. Robert Capa: American, b. Budapest 1913 – d. Indochina 1954. [online] Available at: http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=CMS3&VF=MAGO31_9_VForm&ERID=24KL535353
[Accessed 31 January 2016].
Ramoutsaki IA, Haniotakis S, Tsatsakis AM, 2000. The snake as the symbol of medicine, toxicology and toxinology. [online] Veterinary and human toxicology, October, 42(5), pp. 306-8. PubMed.gov. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11003127 [Accessed 31 January, 2016]
Spinetti, G. S. ed E.; Piraino, Marco; Fiorito Stefano, 1940. Sintesi Della Dottrina Fascista. [online] Milan: Lulu.com. Available at https://books.google.ca/books?id=X7FfCgAAQBAJ&pg=PP1&dq=SINTESI+DELLA+DOTTRINA+FASCISTA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjS04zc1ebKAhUFuw4KHSaNBTYQ6AEIHzAA#v=onepage&q=SINTESI%20DELLA%20DOTTRINA%20FASCISTA&f=false. [Accessed 7 February, 2016]
Capa, Robert (1944). It’s a Tough War. [online]. Life Magazine January 31, 1944 p 17-23. Available at: https://books.google.ca/books?id=QFUEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA17&lpg=PA17&dq=robert+capa+fifth+army+front&source=bl&ots=kf3QketQBi&sig=Jb08mJK3qIfD3K9rMBnEowA-wF0&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjJoc70tNPKAhVLcRQKHRiwDbEQ6AEIKDAD#v=onepage&q=robert%20capa%20fifth%20army%20front&f=false [Accessed 31 January, 2016]
Capa, Robert (n.d.) ITALY. W.W.II. French and American Troops On Fifth Army Front [online]. Magnum Photos. Available at: http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&STID=2TYRYDGO4XDK [Accessed 31 January, 2016]
Dodge WC 54 Ambulance WW2 – Historische Fotos Teil 1 von 4 [online] Available at: http://www.command-car.com/ambulance/historyamb.html [Accessed 1 February, 2016]
Feeney, Mark (2013). The experience of battle in ‘War/Photography’ [online]. Boston Globe. Available at: https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/theater-art/2013/12/14/review-war-photography-images-armed-conflict-and-its-aftermath-brooklyn-museum/R0uDP9TfIc7A1FIaoKM1EJ/story.html [Accessed 1 February, 2016]
Smith Whitney (n.d.) Flag of France [online] Encyclopaedia Britannica. Available at: http://www.britannica.com/topic/flag-of-France [Accessed 31 January, 2016]
WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath Overview of the Exhibition by Section Content [online]. Corcoran Gallery of Art | College of Art+Design. Available at: http://newsite.corcoran.org/sites/default/files/WAR%20PHOTO%20Exhibition%20Overview%20by%20Section.pdf [Accessed 1 February, 2016]
Wilkes Tucker, Anne. WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath [online]. http://photowings.org/ann-wilkes-tucker-war-photography/ [Accessed 31 January, 2016]
WW2 US Army Ambulances and Medical-Related Vehicles. WW2 US Medical Research Center. Available at: https://www.med-dept.com/articles/ww2-us-army-ambulances-and-medical-related-vehicles/ [Accessed 1 February, 2016]
Demonstration of technical and visual skills (materials, techniques, observational skills, visual awareness, design and compositional skills)
This assignment is a critical essay, so I have mainly relied on my observational skills and knowledge of photographic composition to make comments on my chosen photograph. I have tried to follow Daniel Chandler’s method for analyzing an advert/photo as well as Helena Zinkham’s advice on visual literacy which I came across just after I began The Art of Photography.
Quality of Outcome (content, application of knowledge, presentation of work in a coherent manner, discernment, conceptualisation of thoughts, communication of ideas)
I think I have communicated my ideas well and presented my work in a coherent manner. I structured my essay by giving a background on the photographer, then dealt with the denotation of the image. From there I tackled the connotations, bringing in mentions of various aspects of semiology and myth. I found that I did struggle a little with the phraseology in trying to convey the idea of the signifier and signified at times, but like any new language one must learn, I’m sure this will become easier with time and practice.
Demonstration of Creativity (imagination, experimentation, invention, development of a personal voice)
I don’t this section applies to the writing of a critical essay as experimentation, invention and personal voice are not applicable here. To a lesser degree I suppose imagination would come into play in deciphering signs which I believe I have succeeded in doing.
Context (reflection, research, critical thinking)
I really enjoyed researching my chosen photograph. I found myself researching almost every element within the photograph. Each little piece of information I uncovered led to another nugget of information. I had to rely on the internet for most of my research as the Vancouver city library did not have much choice on Robert Capa. I now know more about the fleets of ambulances used in World War II than I had ever imagined and have read with interest about the various battles that took place at Monte Cassino. The restriction on the number of words, however, prevented me from going into much detail about that. I was delighted to discover another photograph of the same women, also taken by Robert Capa. This photograph allowed me to use my language skills (Latin and Portuguese – albeit very rusty) to tease more meaning out of the photograph. This is the first critical essay I have had to write in many years, but despite the rusty start I think I have conveyed and linked my strands of thinking clearly within the confines of the essay’s length.
My detailed notes on the exhibitions that I attended are linked to their individual postings and listed below. As photographic exhibitions are not very prolific in Vancouver, I have to look at other art media exhibits, which are sometimes rather difficult to comment on as these are media which are not really in my wheelhouse:
- Martha Rosler: Below the Surface
- The Duchamp Effect – Seattle Art Museum
- Robert Rauschenberg: Art and Life in Real Time
- The European Collection at Seattle Art Museum
- Samuel F. B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre
I attended my first mixed media workshop (acrylic lifts with panel) with Ross den Otter and found it really fascinating. When I have some free time, perhaps between modules, I’d like to try some of the methods den Otter explained. The methods he used to create different textures were particularly interesting.
I also attended a Fine Art Digital Printing Workshop with Marc Koegel. I now have a better understanding on ICC profiles, soft proofing and different tonalities and depth of saturation that different papers can bring about. All I need now is a photographic printer – my all in one little printer will not pass muster. At the very least, I know what to look for and how to communicate what I want when sending prints off to a print lab.
I continued my journey into semiotics, delving into syntagmatic analysis which I discovered is very relevant to photographic text.
I have done a few rewrites on some of my previous research into photographers from my last assignment as requested by my tutor. The rewrites have been done below the original write up so that the changes can be compared:
I also completed research into Jim Golberg’s Open See which I had omitted to do for my previous assignment.
I completed an online course through Coursera on Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects to try and pick up some study tips. It was extremely interesting, explaining how the brain collects and retains data and the best methods to use to put something into the long term memory bank.
Chandler, Daniel. Analysis of Advertisements [online]. Available at: http://visual-memory.co.uk/daniel/Modules/FM21920/analad.html [Accessed 21 December, 2015]
Zinkham, Helena (June 2004). Visual Literacy Exercise. [online]. Library of Congress. Available from: http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/tp/VisualLiteracyExercise.pdf [Accessed 15 March 2014]