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Installation view, ‘Capa in Color’ at the International Center of Photography (© International Center of Photography, 2014, photo by John Berens)

Famed for his iconic black-and-white images from war’s torn edge — humane, harrowing snapshots of the Spanish Civil War and World War II — Robert Capa also carried on an enduring exchange in color film. Beginning in earnest in 1941 and continuing until his tragic death 13 years later, Capa shot thousands of color photos. It was common for him to travel with a pair of cameras — one color, one black and white — and indeed, when Capa stepped on a landmine in May 1954, on assignment covering the French Indochina War, he had just that set on him.

Yet, for many, this body of work may come as a surprise — and not just that Capa took so many color photos, but that he took color photos at all. Few of them were ever seen again after they first ran in print in publications like Life, Holiday, Illustrated, Collier’s, and Ladies’ Home Journal, dismissed in large part from the Capa canon as commercial, unserious aberrations. Which gives the International Center of Photography’s current exhibition Capa in Color, coming on the heels of what would have been the cameraman’s 100th birthday, the aura of a curious revelation, akin to learning of your grandmother’s heretofore secret, pre-marital affair(s).

Robert Capa, [Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre on the set of ‘Beat the Devil,’ Ravello, Italy] (April 1953) (© Robert Capa / International Center of Photography / Magnum Photos)

Of the 100 selections (out of the over 4,000 in the ICP’s collection) chosen and printed for the exhibit, most come from the giddy postwar period: on assignment in the Alps or the beachside towns of Biarritz and Deauville, on movie sets or following the wealthy jet set in Paris and Rome, with John Steinbeck in the USSR. These jobs came from glossy travel and lifestyle magazines, which clamored for color photos of the glamor and glitter of these ritzy places. In their pages, Capa’s Kodachrome images capture some of the exuberance of the times, the skies a saturated, Sol Lewitt blue, the red of lipsticks and dresses a soft, deep hue.

These light subjects were the ones  Capa was essentially limited to photographing in color. From a series of both color and black-and-white shots of the writers Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn with Hemingway’s sons at the couple’s Sun Valley, Idaho, home, Life ran only the black and white. Such was the same for a series of Pablo Picasso and his son Claude: the colors images were ditched in favor of those in black and white. (A picture from that series, of a goofy Picasso holding his smiling son, has gone on to become one of Capa’s most recognizable peacetime photos.) According to the New York Times, “Capa’s biographer, Richard Whelan, later called the [color] images of Hemingway ‘personal snapshots’ — implying that they weren’t suitable for depicting the Great Author and his family.” This was the age of black and white, when color was photography’s red-headed stepchild.

Robert Capa, [On the road from Namdinh to Thaibinh, Indochina, (Vietnam)] (May 1954) (© Robert Capa / International Center of Photography / Magnum Photos)

Capa’s color photos straddle a liminal aesthetic space, seen as garish and indecorous yesterday and nostalgic today. In the early era of pioneering color film stock like Kodachrome, which debuted in 1935, the color quality and tones were what one might now called Instagramic. Which is suited for fantasias of fashion models, parties in Rome, and the peaks of the Alps. But other images suffer from an uneven palette — in contrast to the saturated red and blues, grays and browns are often grubby and dull — that can distract or scatter when black and white would be sharp and direct. Capa’s color oeuvre is simply outmatched by the strength and immediacy of his black-and-white catalogue.

Robert Capa, [Young visitors waiting to see Lenin’s Tomb at Red Square, Moscow] (1947) (© Robert Capa / International Center of Photography / Magnum Photos) (click to enlarge)

Still, the color photos speak of a cosmopolitan man with a mind for innovation. Much more than just a war photographer, Capa helped establish Magnum, the seminal photographic cooperative, with David “Chim” Seymour, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and four others in 1947. Capa also embraced the potential of color early on, shooting a tentative dozen rolls in 1937, during the second Sino-Japanese War. He returned to the medium in WWII, shooting at sea and in North Africa, but the slow processing times proved frustrating and costly. Capa obviously grasped how important, and eventually lucrative, color would be for narrative and documentary purposes (and to help keep his fledgling agency afloat). How could you shoot the Red Square in Moscow in black and white when color was available? How revealing, perhaps impish, was it to photograph in color scenes from the set of a black-and-white movie? And in Vietnam, where he died, even though his color photos weren’t published at the time, Capa’s vision seems to presage the power of color to document that conflict and many others in the decades to come. Probing and testing the boundaries where black and white ended and color began, Capa was a consummate photographer, ceaseless exploring the ways people could capture and consider themselves.

Capa in Color continues at the International Center of Photography (1133 Avenue of the Americas, Mditown, Manhattan) through May 4.

Jeremy Polacek

A son of the Chicago suburbs, Jeremy Polacek has somehow lived in New York City longer than in that metropolis of the Midwest. Often found in the dim light of the theatre or library, he tweets at @JeremyPolacek.