martes, 17 de julio de 2012


By José Manuel Serrano Esparza. LHSA. Published in FV Photography & Video Magazine. Number 225. May 2012
Between February 16 (arrival of the ship Aramis at Hong-Kong) and September 22, 1938 (date in which he came back to Paris by plane from Hong-Kong),

Robert Capa was in China, making the photographic coverage of the Second Sino-Japanese War, which had broken out on July 7, 1937. 

The already internationally famous photojournalist was sent to the great Asian country by the American magazine Life, and he made a lot of black and white pictures of different areas of China (Hankou, Nanchang, Shandon, Xuzhou, Xi´an, Zhengzhou, Tai´erzhuang and Wuhan) using a Contax II rangefinder camera with a non coated Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 5 cm f/2.

Contax II with non coated Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 5 cm f/2 lens (designed by Ludwig Bertele in 1932) as the one used by Robert Capa in China in 1938.

Detail of the viewfinder window of 35 mm Contax II RF camera.

Detail of the little window of the rangefinder of the 35 mm Contax II RF camera. 

But during his stay in China - and this is one of the most unknown sides of his professional career - Robert Capa exposed the first war Kodachrome photographies in History.

Original box of 12 ASA Kodachrome film from 1938.

July 16, 1938. Walter Bosshard, a photographer covering - in the same way as Capa - the Second Sino-Japanese War for Life magazine, has managed to arrive in the city of Yan´an (northwest of China), the only zone of the country which is at those moments under the control of the communist soldiers of Mao Tse-Tung´s VIII Army en Route (vast majority of China is still under the sway of Nationalist General Chiang Kai-shek´s troops).

Bosshard exposes some Kodachrome films, of which Life publishes three images - a portrait of Mao Tse-Tung, a soldier of the communist troops posing isolated, and a group of around twenty soldiers standing up with an officer on the right of the picture and a soldier with his back towards the camera, who is approaching the group- and they occupy a complete page of its number 8 of August 1938.

Bosshard has been one of the most recognized photojournalists in the world for many years, with a lengthy experience that began with his black and white reportages in Southeast Asia and China in mid twenties and consolidated during the last years of that decade and the first half of thirties, with his top-notch photographic essays on the Crowning of Mohammad Nadir Shah in Afghanistan (1929) - published in the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung - , his pictures on the private life of Mahatma Gandhi and his March of Salt (1930) - published in the Münchner Illustrierte Presse-, along with his comprehensive reportage on the risks of the high lands and deserts of Asia (1932).

Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung and Münchner Illustrierte Presse, belonging to the Ullstein Editorial Group, were two prominent magazines of the German, European and world photojournalism, where also collaborated other great photographers as significant as Erich Salomon, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Felix H. Man, Martin Muncaksi, Otto Umberh ´Umbo´, Harald Lechenperg, Wolfgang Weber, Tim Gidal, Willy Rugge and others, who outstandingly fostered the appearance and spreading of a very agile photojournalism with the arrival into market of the new miniature cameras Ermanox (6 x 4.5 cm medium format), Leica and Contax (24 x 36 mm format), enabling to quickly shoot handheld without any trepidation, getting very good sharpness thanks to the excellent quality of their lenses, which remarkably optimized the qualitative level of reproduction of the illustrated publications of the time, even in big enlargements, in synergy with duotone printing and the high acutance of Agfa Rodinal developer.

Robert Capa has already been in China for five months, often working under exceedingly hard conditions, with exhausting many hours daily trips by train to different cities of the country, often enduring a stifling heat over 40º C, a lot of dust, difficulties to simultaneously carrying out his work as a photographer and as a movie camera assistant ( a task for which he has been hired by Joris Ivens, who is shooting the film The 400 Million), virtual impossibility to take exclusive pictures, since Chiang-Kai-shek wife compels all the photojournalists to travel together and highly controlled by spies at her service, and she tries by all means to avoid either the shooting of scenes depicting the extreme poverty prevailing in most China or any footage or photographies showing Mao Tse-Tung communist troops, and as if that were not enough, a photographic laboratory in Hankou had spoilt a month before, during the drying stage, with the black and white 35 mm film rolls already developed, one of his best reportages on the peasants and fishermen conveying Chinese troops through the Yellow River, on board of drafts made with goat fur and small rudimentary boats.

On the other hand, the presence of Walter Bosshard himself also as a Life photographer (Capa was a great admirer of him since his Dephot Berlin stage when in the summer of 1932, being a darkroom assistant of that photography agency directed by Simon Guttman, he decided to become a photographer after having wondered on seeing the contact sheets of 35 mm film rolls exposed by Harald Lechenperg in Punjab, India, during the wedding of the future Patna Maharaja, which would fill some pages of the great Die Dame illustrated magazine number of August 15, 1932), is a further problem, because Bob respects him very much (to such an extent that two months later, in mid September 1938, being still in Hankou, he will take the decision to return to Paris after knowing that Walter Bosshard would stay to cover the battle and the highly probable final capture of the city by Japanese troops).

But on July 19, 1938 (six days before marching to Canton with Joris Ivens and his movie camera assistant John Fernhout),

Original cardboard box of Kodachrome ASA 12 from 1938 featuring 18 exposures of 24 x 36 mm format.

Robert Capa exposed a roll of 35 mm Kodachrome film sporting a sensitiveness roughly equivalent to 12 ASA, photographing different areas of the city of Hankou in flames and razed during the Japanese air raids that took place such day, capturing with his Contax II camera (while Joris Ivens and John Fernhout shot with a 35 mm Eyemo movie camera) a lot of burning houses, abundant neighbourhoods of the city with their dwellings come to nothing - in that period, vast majority of Chinese houses were made of timber-, the wandering of the puzzled and frightened survivors, some firemen in action and families fleeing on board of little fishing boats.

Four of the eighteen Kodachromes exposed by Capa such July 19, 1938 - with a 35 mm roll made in Rochester and lent by him by Walter Bosshard - were published by Life in a full colour double page, two weeks later, in its October 17, 1938 number.

Kodachrome capturing the Japanese air raid on Hankou (China) on July 19, 1938. Photo: Robert Capa. Life Magazine

Kodachrome capturing the Japanese air raid on Hankou (China) on July 19, 1938. Photo: Robert Capa. Life Magazine

Kodachrome capturing the Japanese air raid on Hankou (China) on July 19, 1938. Photo: Robert Capa. Life Magazine

Kodachrome capturing the japanese air raid on Hankou (China) on July 19, 1938. Photo: Robert Capa. Life Magazine.

The excerpts of footage of the documentary film The 400 Million corresponding to July 19,1938 showing the devastating effects that the bombs dropped by Japanese aircraft are making in Hankou, clearly prove that both the two cinema makers and Capa himself exposing his Kodachrome 35 mm roll (aside from the many other black and white photographs he got that day), risked their lives to capture such images, being within very few meters from the action.

Evidently, most of Robert Capa´s photographic production throughout his professional career was made with 35 mm black and white films, but besides the exotic component of these four Kodachrome colour slides exposed by Capa in Hankou (China) on July 19, 1938, undoubtedly these four colour pictures are the first example of use of the mythical par excellence film (considered the best ever, both because of its image quality, lack of grain, amazing range of colours and vividness of them, and its chromatic accuracy, extraordinary definition, even better acutance, superb tonal range and a huge longevity) in the sphere of war reportage, barely a year and a half after its launching into market as a 35 mm film for photographic cameras (Kodachrome films had begun their lifetime in 1935 with the appearance of Kodachrome film in cinematographic 16 mm format, after its invention in mid 1934 by Leopold Godowsky Jr and Leopold Mannes, twelve years after the first secret tests with a prototype of Kodachrome 16 mm emulsion made in Rochester in 1922 by order of George Eastman).

George Eastman in a family photograph being still a child, approximately in 1860. A visionary entrepreneur founder of Eastman Kodak and true alma mater in the genesis of Kodachrome film, whose first tests with primary Two-Colour Kodachrome substractive colour emulsion (created through the sandwiching together of two 8 x 10 " glass plates, and then two pictures were simultaneously taken by a special camera through green and orange red filters that reversed one image with a mirror, and once the negatives had been developed, the positive images were dyed green and orange red and bound together with the emulsion sides face to face) with which he wanted to get the transition from hand-coloured positives to a colour photochemical process, started under his decision and supervision in late 1914 at the Paragon Movie Studios in Fort Lee (New Jersey), with good accuracy of flesh tones reproduction but very limited range of colours, along with a certain lack of suitable sharpness and an aethereal appearance of the images, though the perseverance of the great spreader of photography all over the world made him keep on with the experimets until in 1922 the first tests with a prototype of 16 fps Two-Color cinematographic 35 mm Kodachrome emulsion (which was the base on which after his death in 1932 it was possible to create -though with a rather different process- the Kodachrome 16 mm in 1934 - three years after the experimental 2 color Kodachrome motion picture film tried by Fox Film Co with 35 and 70 mm movie cameras in 1931-, the Kodachrome 35 mm in 1936 and the large format Kodachrome 4 x 5 " ASA 8 in 1938) were made at the facilities of Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester (State of New York) under his supervision and wherewithal of his own. 

The 35 mm Kodachrome slides exposed by Capa in China - in the same way as the ones shot by Walter Bosshard - belong to the first batch of this emulsion made by Kodak at its Rochester factory in which the problem of decoloration and unstability of colours affecting to original Kodachrome 35 mm films from 1936 and 1937 (and which according to deep analysis fulfilled by Kodak experts, would show apparent fading of the colorants after ten years, which would be confirmed after the Second World War) had been solved to a great extent, and besides, with this new Kodachrome slide from 1938, Rochester presented for the first time a new way of inversive process easier to do than the one of Kodachromes from 1936 and 1937.

That´s to say, from a diachronic viewpoint, the Kodachromes exposed by Capa in China are 35 mm rolls of the new version of this legendary 24 x 36 mm colour emulsion, with a real sensitiveness of ASA 10, and which was the forefather of the Kodachrome process K-11, commercialized between 1955 and 1962.

Evidently, such a low sensitiveness made Capa shoot with a lot of daylight, but the mirrorless Contax II rangefinder camera with a Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 5 cm f/2, highly luminous for the time, and the abundant sun that there was in Hankou (China) on July 19, 1938, allowed him to shoot handheld without trepidation.

The origin of these Kodachrome 10 ASA rolls taken by Walter Bosshard to China, and one of which was exposed by Robert Capa in Hankou, had its birth in the desire of Wilson Hicks (Executive Director of Life magazine, who had assigned both Walter Bosshard and Capa to cover the Second Sino-Japaneses War) and Edward K. Thompson (his right arm and great Picture Editor of Life), who wished to test the new and already famous Kodachrome film in the photographic domain.

Walter Bosshard had already published thirty-two autochrome ´natural colour´ pictures made in the steppes and oases of Chinese Turkestan in the National Geographic Number 3, Volume 59 of March 1931.

But in 1938, the Kodachrome slides, already stocked in a highly improved version featuring the manifold virtues which would make them worldwide famous and the unchallenged qualitative benchmark for 75 years, made up a huge technological breakthrough and a great novelty in the photographic scope.

It´s very important to bear in mind that in 1938, when Capa exposed his first war Kodachrome slides in China, there was a year left for the beginning of the taking of around 600 images with 35 mm Kodachromes for the Farm Security Administration Project and the OWI of United States, between 1939 and 1945, taken by different photographers and focusing on rural areas, farms and factories, with top-notch results.

In 1938, Life wanted to perform tests in order to know the quality and ability of enlargement in photomechanic magazine facilities of the 35 mm format Kodachrome film exposed with RF Leica and Contax cameras within the photojournalist realm, a context which, due to the high costs of colour images reproduction and the utter predominance of black and white,

which was the massive choice in the illustrated magazines of that time (reserving colour only for the pages of commercial advertisements of important firms, though there were relevant exceptions, like the famous picture of a young woman in a fruit shop of New York, made by Ruth Orkin with a Leica rangefinder camera and 35 mm Kodachrome film, which was chosen by John G. Morris as a cover for the Ladies Home Journal magazine of March 1950), was fairly stingy at those moments.

Hicks and Thompson - who had already made a test with a full colour page in the Life number of January 1, 1938, after sending to photomechanics a Kodachrome slide exposed on a tripod at dawn of a day of early December 1937 in an oil field for its reportage Oil: A Business in the Billion- also wanted to check the huge ability of survival of Kodachrome slides to flawlessly endure long periods of time between the exposure and the development of the film, so China was an excellent test bed.

Therefore, in mid 1938, Wilson Hicks sent from New York some boxes of Kodachrome ASA 10 film, made in Rochester, to the Swiss photojournalist in China, and one of them was used by Capa in Hankou, albeit eight days later, already in Canton, Bob sent a letter to Leon Daniel, Director of Pix Agency in New York, asking him for ten boxes more of 35 mm Kodachrome slides and instructions of use, also commenting that a very good idea for Life using colour film had dawned upon him, probably some kind of special supplement on the Sino-Japanese War, because Robert Capa, apart from being one of the greatest war photographers of all time, alma mater of Magnum Agency and one of the first historical exponents of the black and white dynamic photojournalism with miniature cameras and handheld shooting, was likewise in many sides a visionary man, pioneer of colour war photography (he also exposed some 35 mm Kodachrome slides during Second World War, which would be published by Colliers, Saturday Evening Post and The Illustrated, although unlike the ones made in Hankou, China, in 1938, and because of the 12 ASA very low sensitivity, don´t show action, but rather static scenes of airdromes, men-of-war, etc, since B & went on going the choice massively used by Capa until his death in 1954) and who always strove after getting the best possible payments for both him and specially his photographers mates regarding the reportages appearing in the illustrated magazines of the time.

The clues clearly suggest that Robert Capa realized in China in 1938, in an embryonic way, that in future colour would mark a new era in photography history and would provide the photographers with a different choice to tackle subjects from new vewpoints an a new way to represent previously previously unknown subjects and situations in this sphere, something in which a lot of years later would get top marks Ernst Haas (with his unequalled eye and his very in-depth research during fifties and sixties on Kodachrome films in symbiosis with intense light and colour) and from seventies the great creators of the new language of colour like William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Joel Meyerowitz and others, without forgetting the ´New Photojournalism´, a different route of photography featuring highly saturated colours and use of chiaroscuro, embodied by figures like Constantin Manos and Alex Webb, together with the plush chromatism of Carl de Keyzer, enhancing the intricate compositions and peculiar moments.

On the other hand, from a historical viewpoint, the four 35 mm war Kodachromes exposed by Capa in Hankou (China) on July 19, 1938, integrate into the dawn of a new colour stage, epitomized by the extraordinary Kodachrome 24 x 36 mm slide, and of which also took part the 35 mm Kodachromes exposed between 1939 and 1945 for the United States Farm Security Administration and OWI by great photographers like John Vachon, Marjory Collins, Arthur Rothstein, John Collier, Jack Delano, Russell Lee, Alfred T. Palmer, Marion Post Wolcott, Howard R. Hollem and others, without forgetting some commercial photographers like Samuel Gotscho and advanced connoiseeurs like Charles Cushman, who also used Kodachrome during its first production years.

Copyright Text and Indicated Pictures: José Manuel Serrano Esparza

Homage of the photojournalists from Córdoba to Robert Capa and Gerda Taro in Espejo in the 75º Anniversary of the Death of A Loyalist Militiaman picture

Other articles on Robert Capa and Gerda Taro:
Capa and the Refugees of Cerro Muriano: Location of the 9 Pictures Made on September 5, 1936. Gerda Taro´s performance gains strength

Cerro Muriano 75th Anniversary ( I ) : Capa and Taro arrived two or three days before September 5, 1936

Cerro Muriano 75th Anniversary ( I I ) : The Keys of the Escape of the Village Civil Population During the Afternoon Deciphered

Gerda Taro: Centenary of Her Birth and Identification on a September 5, 1936 Picture Made in Cerro Muriano Area

Gerda Taro in Brunete Battle and Last Pictures taken by the Photojournalist Before Being Run Over by a Tank on July 25, 1937

Two More Pictures Made By Gerda Taro in Cerro Muriano And Unknown Till Now Discovered and Located: Moments of PreDeath

Cerro Muriano: Discovered and Located A New Photograph Made by Robert Capa on September 5, 1936. Moments of PreDeath ( I I )

Teruel: Robert Capa Photographed a Dead Republican Soldier in a Tree on 21-24 December 1937