Capa's editor said of Capa that that he wasn't sure he was a great photographer but he was a great journalist. I think he's onto something. Cartier Bresson is a great photographer; he takes a picture of a man jumping over a puddle behind the Gare St Lazare and it means something- what exactly I don't know, but it has atmosphere, comedy, strangeness. But Capa's shaky, blurry, pictures of soldiers struggling through the surf only mean something because we know they were taken during the first assault on the Normandy beaches. It's not the photos that are great but the fact that Capa was actually there.
We were shown some pictures of life in the Lodz ghetto by a guy called Ross. The same thing applies. They're very ordinary pictures- a girl posing among sunflowers, a wedding group, a bunch of young people in a cafe- it's the time and the place that make them extraordinary. And that blurry image of people standing by a railroad car? utterly undistinguished until one learns that these are Jews being sent to Auschwitz and Ross could have been shot for taking it.
We were introduced to a former G.I. called Tony Vaccaro whose pictures of the war in Europe have only recently received recognition. Capa thought war was romantic, Vaccaro thought war was shit: can you tell this by looking at their work? I don't think you can.
Vaccaro and Capa both have pictures of soldiers at the moment of their deaths. So this is what a man looks like when a bullet hits him. Ah, right.....And what exactly have we learned?
It could be that the best photographs of war are not those taken in battle. The less we see the more we have to imagine. Roger Fenton's image of "The Valley of the Shadow of Death" - down which the Light Brigade charged at the battle of Balaclava- was taken a year after the event. A featureless sky, an unentrancing landscape- just a fold in the ground with a track going down it, no vegetation, no people- and the cannonballs lying where they fell- hundreds of them.