Photography: The patriarch of photojournalism, Cornell Capa, has labored for two decades to teach the world to read and write with light
June 6, 1994
Director of Photography: James K. Colton

Mary Ellen Mark: Lillie with Her Rag Doll, Seattle, Washington, 1983

Midway through a recent in­terview in his airy office at the International Center of Photography, Cornell Capa turned from his view of Manhattan's Central Park and swatted the air with a burly hand. "The questions," he muttered ominously in a thick Hungarian accent, "are too… theoretical, too…” and the hand grasped the air, "philosophical." He spit out the word. For this acclaimed photojournalist, abstraction is anathema. Though he hung up his camera 20 years ago to found one of the world's most revered photographic institutions, he is still keen on the who, what, when, where and why of things. To him, the story of his life is not in what he thought, but what he did.

This month, after two decades as director of ICP, Capa will relinquish his post. He vows, and the rest of ICP's top brass joins in on the chorus, that nothing will change when he leaves. But everyone, Capa included, knows this is a big fat lie. The goal will still be to serve photography generally and photojournalism in particular. However loyal his successors remain to the Capa blueprint, there is no replacing ICP's inimitable founder.

Ornery, contentious, dogmatic, the 76-year‑old Capa is hardly the very model of a modern museum director. He doesn't even like the word "museum." But beneath that gruff exterior lurks the lover's charm, the salesman's guile and the determination of an Old Testament patriarch. "Photography couldn't have a better spokesman than Cornell," says the prize‑winning photographer Eddie Adams. "Many times I would like to have punched him in the mouth, but you can't take away from him what he did."

And what he did was, at the outset, unthinkable. When ICP opened its doors in 1974, the Museum of Modern Art was the only other institution in New York that regularly displayed photographs. And MoMA emphasized the artistic side of the medium. Capa wanted an institution that would preserve and honor the work of photojournalists like his brother Robert Capa, who was killed when he stepped on a land mine while on assignment in Indochina in 1954. "From that day," Capa has said, "I was haunted by the question of what happens to the work a photographer leaves behind, by how to make the work stay alive."

Panoramas: In the late '60s, after curat­ing two popular exhibitions of photojournalism at the Riverside Museum in New York, he hit on the idea of a permanent archive dedicated to preserving photojournalism. It was to be, he says, "a center, a museum that taught you to read and write with light. It was always a center‑slash-museum, because we never wanted to make the statement that this is for objects. It was more for communication."

ICP succeeded mightily. With two locations in Manhattan, and with the constantly traveling shows that it assembles, it draws more than 250,000 people a year to its programs. Its collection of 25,000 prints demonstrates the astonishing eclecticism of documentary photography, from Dmitri Baltermants's searing panoramas of World War II Russia to Mary Ellen Mark's piquant portraits of Indian circus performers, and from Ernst Haas's ravishing color photography to Bruce Davidson's gritty shots of New York subway life. And while ICP pays first allegiance to documentary photography, it has also exhibited photographers as disparate as Robert Mapplethorpe, Berenice Abbott and Duane Michals.

"We have really made the world accept general exhibitions of photography," Capa claims, not unjustifiably: in New York, there are now more than 150 museums and galleries that exhibit photography. More important, with exhibition space and grants, ICP has encouraged a fresh generation of photojournalists like Jim Nachtwey, Susan Meiselas and Sebastião Salgado at a time when the old markets for their work, like Life and Look magazines, were drying up. "ICP has kept the spirit alive at a time when the mass media has really given upon photojournalism as a storytelling weapon," says Howard Chapnick, the former head of the Black Star agency. "ICP has provided a spiritual home for what Cornell always called the concerned photographer."

Capa himself was just such a photographer. Trailing after politicians, revolutionaries and English schoolboys, he spent most of his photographic career specializing in the sort of investigative photo essays perfected by W. Eugene Smith. Kid brother to a legend, Capa came of age in the '30s when the world was full of picture magazines like Look, Click, Pic and See. Leaving his native Hungary in 1936, Capa went to Paris, where he was soon developing pictures for his brother, Henri Cartier‑Bresson and David Seymour. He quickly established his own reputation after World War II as a perceptive champion of society's castoffs. In the '5Os, he captured the plight of the aged and the mentally retarded years before such problems became fashionable. The next decade found him in Latin America, subtly exploring the cultural conflicts between missionaries and the Indians they went to convert.

The art of photography, for Capa, is always a means to an end, never an end in itself. "Young photographers come to me with their cards that say 'Fine Art Photographer'." He snorts derisively. "I'm not a fine‑art photographer. That does not mean that my pictures do not have artistic value. But they were not made with that preten­sion. He has no interest in picking up a camera again now that his work at ICP is finished. "Cartier‑Bresson never went out without a camera," Capa says. "He was always at the ready to take a picture of what he just saw. I only used a camera to take pictures specifically for stories. Whenever I was not working on a story, I would not take a camera with me because I wanted to see. In this next period of my life, I want to see" ‑and here he chuckles- “without any obligation to produce a fine‑art photograph."