Last week, as I was flying back from a photography workshop in Wyoming, word came that Cornell Capa had died. The legendary founder of the International Center of Photography was 90 years old. The New York Times ran a fulsome tribute to Capa, including a portfolio of his work at a photographer.
I first met Capa back in the mid 1980s, when I began writing about photography and working at what was then American Photographer magazine. The ICP was a little over a decade old at that time–Capa founded it in 1974—but it had become the epicenter of photography, which was then only beginning to shake up the art world. New York’s major museums didn’t have much in the way of photo departments; a handful of galleries sold photography. The ICP stood alone, thrillingly.
The museum championed the medium of photography, but, because this was Capa’s museum, it was mostly about photojournalism of a particular sort—what Capa famously called “concerned photography” that aimed to document and aid humanity. Once, that kind of photography appeared in the pages of magazines like Look, Life, and Holiday. When they folded in the early 1970s, Capa took those images and hung them on the walls of the Upper East Side brownstone that housed the ICP for many years.
It was a warm, convivial place where young photographers and their older heroes mixed, presided over by the burly Capa. Hungarian accent seemed to reach across a room to bear hug you.
In 1987, writer Todd Brewster wrote a profile of Capa for American Photographer. To open the piece, Brewster choice simply to capture Capa’s distinctive voice and enthusiasm.
As I recall, Capa wasn’t very happy with the profile. Brewster made the point in it that Cornell had to a great extent sacrificed his own photographic career in order to promote the career and memory of his more famous brother, the war photographer Robert Capa. He quoted Cornell as saying, “Everyone knows me as the director of ICP, as the brother of Bob Capa. As a photographer I don’t exist.” Cornell, I believe, felt embarrassed by the portrayal, as if in some way he was appearing disloyal to his brother.
There were some ruffled feathers for a while, then all was forgiven again and the bear hugs began again. It helped that in later years Cornell Capa’s own imagery given its due, especially in the 1992 book “Cornell Capa: Photographs.”
In the photography-laden art world of 2008, it is a hard to remember how pioneering Capa’s efforts at the ICP were. But it is not hard to remember that voice and the passion behind it.—David Schonauer