Out of Tragedy and Dogged Persistence, Cornell Capa Builds a Photography Museum
New York City has museums for every taste: the Metropolitan, the Museum of the American Indian, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, the Jazz Museum and the South Street Seaport Museum, to name just a few. What New York did not have for years was a photography museum. Then in 1974 an exuberant Hungarian and former LIFE photographer named Cornell Capa honored his craft by opening the International Center of Photography on upper Fifth Avenue. There were built-in problems, not least the unresolved question of whether photography really is an art. The museum is at 94th Street, out of the tourist mainstream. And funding has been in chronic undersupply.
But now, after three years, with the opening of a spectacular exhibition of sports photographs called “The Athlete,” the ICP seems here to stay. Its board of directors is blue-ribbon, even by Manhattan standards—among the 39 members are onetime newspaper photographer Jackie Onassis and publishing tycoons Dorothy Schiff and Rupert Murdoch. “Miraculously,” exults 59-year-old Capa, “we are already in zee black!” (Miraculous indeed and, by strict accounting standards, probably a little optimistic.)
Capa’s dream of a center to preserve, exhibit and publish the work of documentary photographers was born of personal tragedy. On May 25, 1954 his older brother, Robert, the celebrated war photographer, was killed in Indochina by a land mine while on assignment for LIFE. On the same day Robert’s close friend and fellow photographer Werner Bischof died when his jeep plunged off a cliff in Peru. “On that awful day,” recalls Capa, “I realized how a man can give a lifetime being a witness to great and historic events, but leave nothing in tangible form for the next generation. I could not let their work perish with them.”
Cornell Capa was born Cornel Friedmann in Budapest. His brother, Andre, headed for Paris and changed his name to Robert Capa because it sounded rich and American. Cornel followed suit. Bob Capa and his friends Henri Cartier-Bresson and David “Chim” Seymour (who was later killed on assignment in Egypt) experimented with the new 35-mm cameras. Cornell learned printing techniques so he could process their film, using his Left Bank hotel closet as a darkroom.
Moving to New York in 1936, Cornell took a job as a darkroom assistant at the now-defunct Pix photo agency. Two years later he went to work in LIFE’S lab and in 1947 joined the magazine’s staff of photojournalists. Capa spent the next seven years shooting every kind of LIFE story, from a baby-crawling race to mental retardation. Perhaps his most memorable assignment was the murder of five missionaries by Auca Indians in Ecuador in 1956. “I boarded a plane in New York in a white button-down shirt,” he marvels, “and within 24 hours I was walking through the jungle, having buried the missionaries. Suddenly I touched my button-down collar and realized that I had gone back a thousand years in one day. I had lived an entire lifetime in just a few hours. And photography had allowed me to do it.”
“Capa can’t get away from his conscience,” says one of his museum directors. But his enthusiasm makes him far from solemn. After 41 years in this country (during which he has published or contributed to 20 books), Cornell is still the mad Hungarian in rumpled slacks and frayed collar. “I am an unkempt person,” brags Capa, who gestures wildly, chain-smokes Dutch cigars and charms in heavily accented English.
Nor has he entirely given up the camera, no matter how absorbed in the museum. His photographs ran in the 1974 LIFE special issue One Day in the Life of America, and he is currently shooting a story for CBS on his friend Dorothy Maynor’s new art center in Harlem. Enthuses Capa: “As a photographer, my sap is rising. I am in robust health. My nerves are in perfect shape. I can hold a camera for two seconds without a tripod, and when I wake up in the morning the world looks absolutely beautiful.”