The Falling Soldier (Photograph) by Robert Capa

Why is The Falling Soldier photograph by Robert Capa such a stunner?

  • A spectacle and shadow of death
  • Cropping with poignant purpose
  • Controversy can’t kill a masterpiece

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War photography meets high art in Robert Capa’s masterpiece The Falling Soldier. He captured more than just an image with this picture because it also reveals the true essence of photography as a medium. This image freezes a shocking moment in time. So, we get a chance to reflect on the delicate nature of mortality. Photographs work like a time machine, pausing the imperceptible flicker between life and death.

This masterpiece also makes Capa both the luckiest and unluckiest photographer in many ways. What are the chances that a soldier gets shot just at the moment you’re taking their picture? If this was a real event, it would have been both terrifying and sickly exhilarating. Imagine a bullet whizzing past as you snap a picture. Then the person you’re capturing on film dies right there within that split second frame. Realizing he captured that must have been a stunner for Capa. After all, just observing The Falling Soldier can feel overwhelming.

This may be the most well known war photograph. That’s partially because it’s from 1936. So, the annals of photography often hold it up as a premiere example of man under siege. But Capa’s photograph isn’t a masterpiece only because people say it is. The Falling Soldier holds viewers in unforgettable suspense. It speaks to the seed of fear deep in our psyche, that fight or flight impulse always waiting in the recesses of consciousness.

The voice says, You could go at any timeso live, now. Those words and this photograph may seem macabre, even grotesque. Still, they can also serve to awaken our will to live more fully today. As dark as the message sounds, it’s also true. This portrait gives only one example of how it can happen. It rouses an urgent sense of mortality with every pixel of that mid-air soldier. From his astonished face to those widespread arms, he’s in flight toward humanity’s greatest mystery – death.


The Falling Soldier (Photograph) by Robert Capa

I’ve heard photography critiqued for a “lack of thoughtfulness and applied time” as an artform. But this criticism misses the overall point of a picture. No matter how much time a photographer takes in the composition and care they frame around a photo, time is the gift they give us. Thanks to their capture, we have the luxury to look into it for as long as we like. This enhances our understanding and appreciation of the subject matter much the same way viewing a painting can.

In fact, it’s our responsibility how we look at a work of art. I cringe to think of how many masterpieces I’ve whizzed past in museums to luxuriate in front of artworks far less worthy of consideration. Much like black and white or foreign films, photography often gets underestimated in this era of distraction. But they’re often worth a long and thoughtful look. When we take the time to delve into The Falling Soldier, it bears many fine art features.

Capa chose to crop this composition with a spare background to emphasize the focal action at front. I love the way he also chops off the shotgun in the soldiers’ hand as a way of pointing to how war strips away personal power. This portrait also reveals a poignant parallel between man and nature. The soldier’s shadow on the pale grass, lit by daylight, matches the shadowy landscape below that reaches back into a body of water with mountains behind it. This tells a story of how when a human dies they return to the earth to become a mystery and a fading memory. The way we remember those who pass falls away bit by bit just as the landscape shifts into the distance and changes form.

We can look into that distance to get a temporary reprieve from the horror show of this man dying. In that process it may become challenging to make out the shapes at the far back. Are those mountains melting into clouds? Were the people we loved and thought we knew actually like that? Or are these just our diluted memories?


The Falling Soldier – FAQs

What is Robert Capa known for?

In 1938, Robert Capa was declared “the greatest war photographer in the world” in a British photography magazine. He was only twenty five years old at the time. But his masterwork photograph, The Falling Soldier, came out in 1936 and cemented him in the art world canon as a master war photographer.

Was photograph The Falling Soldier staged?

Research and press in the early 2000s raise points which seem to prove that Robert Capa’s iconic The Falling Soldier was staged.* The subject has drawn great debate especially since the 1970s, when it first came into question. Whether or not this makes the picture any less iconic, though, isn’t debated. No matter if real or a sublime concoction, this photograph qualifies as a work of art.

Who is the soldier in the famous photograph The Falling Soldier?

The identity of The Falling Soldier has also drawn several debates over the years.* Originally, the soldier was alleged to be Frederico Borrell García. But research shows that his shooting took place behind a tree at Cerro Muriano. Also, it turned out that García didn’t look much like the soldier in Robert Capa’s famous photograph.


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Footnotes:

About the staging of the photo – New Doubts Raised Over Famous War Photo, NY Times 08/18/2009

About the identity of the soldier – Faber, Sebastiaan (17 March 2010). “Truth in the Making: The Never-Ending Saga of Capa’s Falling Soldier”. The Volunteer.

Knightley, Phillip (1975). The First Casualty: From the Crimea to Vietnam; The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker. New York: Harcourt, Brace

See The Falling Soldier at the Met online (it’s not always on exhibit)

“The Mexican Suitcase: Rediscovered Spanish Civil War Negatives by Capa, Chim, and Taro”. International Center of Photography. 16 May 2016.

Susperregui, José Manuel (2008). Sombras de la Fotografía: Los Enigmas Desvelados de Nicolasa Ugartemendia, Muerte de un Miliciano, la Aldea Española, el Lute. Universidad del Pais Vasco.

“Proving Robert Capa’s photograph The Falling Soldier is genuine” PBS American Masters by Richard Whelan