Cornell Capa, who founded the International Center of
Photography in New York after a long and distinguished career as a
photojournalist, first on the staff of Life magazine and then as a
member of Magnum Photos, died Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was
His death, of natural causes, was announced by
Phyllis Levine, communications director at the International Center of
Photography in Manhattan.
In Mr. Capa's nearly 30 years as a photojournalist, the professional
code to which he steadfastly adhered is best summed up by the title of
his 1968 book "The Concerned Photographer." He used the phrase often to
describe any photographer who was passionately dedicated to doing work
that contributed to the understanding and well-being of humanity and who
produced "images in which genuine human feeling predominates over
commercial cynicism or disinterested formalism."
The subjects of greatest interest to Capa as a photographer were
politics and social justice. He covered both presidential campaigns of
Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s and also became a good friend of Stevenson.
He covered John F. Kennedy's successful presidential run in 1960, and
then spearheaded a project in which he and nine fellow Magnum
photographers documented the young president's first hundred days,
resulting in the book "Let Us Begin: The First One Hundred Days of the
Kennedy Administration." (He got to know the Kennedys well; Jacqueline
Kennedy Onassis would become one of the first trustees of the I.C.P.)
In Argentina, Mr. Capa documented the increasingly repressive tactics of
the Peron regime and then the revolution that overthrew it. In Israel,
he covered the 1967 Six Day-War. The vast number of picture essays he
produced on assignment ranged in subject from Christian missionaries in
the jungles of Latin America to the Russian Orthodox Church in Soviet
Russia during the cold war, the elite Queen's Guards in England and the
education of mentally retarded children in New England.
His work conformed to all the visual hallmarks of Life magazine
photography: clear subject matter, strong composition, bold graphic
impact and at times even a touch of wit. In his 1959 essay about the
Ford Motor Company, for example, one picture presents a bird's-eye view
of 7,000 engineers lined up in rows behind the first compact car all of
them were involved in developing: a single Ford Falcon.
"I am not an artist, and I never intended to be one," he wrote in the
1992 book "Cornell Capa: Photographs." "I hope I have made some good
photographs, but what I really hope is that I have done some good photo
stories with memorable images that make a point, and, perhaps, even make
Mr. Capa had three important incarnations in the field of photography:
successful photojournalist; champion of his older brother Robert Capa's
legacy among the greatest war photographers; and founder and first
director of the International Center of Photography, which, since it was
established in 1974, has become one of the most influential
photographic institutions for exhibition, collection, and education in
It was because of Robert Capa that Cornell became a photographer. Not
only was he Cornell's mentor, along with Henri Cartier-Bresson and David
(Chim) Seymour, but it was on his brother's coattails that Cornell
first became affiliated with Life magazine. In 1947, Cornell's three
mentors founded Magnum Photos, the agency he would join after his
brother Robert was killed on assignment in Indochina in 1954.
"From that day," Mr. Capa said about his brother's death, "I was haunted
by the question of what happens to the work a photographer leaves
behind, by how to make the work stay alive."
The I.C.P. was born 20 years later, in part out of Mr. Capa's professed
growing anxiety in the late 1960s about the diminishing relevance of
photojournalism in light of the increasing presence of film footage on
television news. But, also, for years he had imagined a public resource
in which to preserve the archives and negatives of "concerned
photographers" everywhere. In this regard, his older brother's legacy
was paramount in his thoughts when he opened the I.C.P., where Robert
Capa's archives reside to this day.
Born Cornel Friedmann on April 10, 1918, in Budapest Hungary, he was the
youngest son of Dezso and Julia Berkovits Friedmann, who were
assimilated, nonpracticing Jews. His parents owned a prosperous
dressmaking salon, where his father was head tailor. In 1931, his
brother Robert, at 17, was forced to leave the country because of
leftist student activities that had caught the attention of officials of
the anti-Semitic Hungarian dictator, Admiral Miklos Horthy. In 1935,
his eldest brother, Laszlo, died of rheumatic fever.
Growing up, Cornell had planned to be a doctor, and, upon graduating
from high school in 1936, he joined Robert in Paris to embark on his
medical studies. But first he had to learn French. Robert, who had
become a photojournalist in Berlin before settling in Paris, had
befriended two other young photographers, Cartier-Bresson and Seymour.
To support himself, Cornell developed film for Robert, Henri and Chim
and made their prints in a makeshift darkroom in his hotel bathroom.
Soon enough, Cornell's interest in photography grew, and he abandoned
his longtime ambition to be a doctor. He also adopted his brother's new
last name, a tribute in variation to the name of the film director Frank
In 1937, Mr. Capa followed his mother to New York City, where she had
joined her four sisters. When Robert came for a visit and established
connections with Pix, Inc., a photography agency, he helped get Cornell a
job there as a printer. Soon after, Cornell went to work in the Life
In 1940, Mr. Capa married Edith Schwartz, who, over the years, assumed
an active role in his professional life, maintaining his negatives and
archives, and also those of his brother. They had no children, but she
provided a home away from home for hundreds of the photographers they
came to know over the years. Mr. Capa wrote that Edie, who died in 2001,
"deserves so much of the credit for whatever I have accomplished."
After serving in the U.S. Air Force's photo intelligence unit during
World War II, Mr. Capa was hired by Life magazine in 1946 as a junior
"One thing Life and I agreed on right from the start was that one war
photographer was enough for my family," he wrote. "I was to be a
photographer for peace."
The historian Richard Whelan wrote in the introduction to "Cornell Capa:
Photographs" that Mr. Capa "often quoted the words of the photographer
Lewis Hine: 'There are two things I wanted to do. I wanted to show the
things that needed to be corrected. And I wanted to show the things that
needed to be appreciated.' " That is what Mr. Capa dedicated his life
By Philip Gefter
For The New York Times