George Will

NEW YORK -- The 20th century was 100 years of amplitude. It overflowed with barbarous fighting faiths, wars enveloping continents, and graphic journalism assaulting global audiences with scenes of shocking immediacy. The Spanish Civil War, although small in terms of the number of combatants, was perhaps the century's emblematic conflict. As a rehearsal for the Second World War, Spain's agony became a proxy struggle between fascism and communism, with democracy crushed in the middle. And for perhaps the first time, pictures supplemented and sometimes supplanted words as primary shapers of opinion about a conflict.

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According to Robert Hughes, author of "The Shock of the New" (1980), during World War I's nation-shattering and culture-shredding carnage, no photograph of a dead soldier appeared in a German, French or British newspaper. But the Sept. 23, 1936, issue of the French magazine Vu published (as did Life magazine 10 months later) what became perhaps the century's iconic photograph -- "Falling Soldier." It was taken by, and launched the remarkable career of, a 22-year-old Hungarian refugee from fascism, photographer Robert Capa.

It supposedly shows a single figure, a loyalist -- that is, anti-fascist -- soldier, at the instant of death from a bullet fired by one of Franco's soldiers. The soldier is falling backward on a hillside, arms outstretched, his rifle being flung from his right hand. This was, surely, stunning testimony to photography's consciousness-raising and history-shaping truth-telling, the camera's indisputable accuracy, its irreducibly factual rendering of reality, its refutation of epistemological pessimism about achieving certainty based on what our eyes tell us.

Probably not. A dispute that has flared intermittently for more than 30 years has been fueled afresh, and perhaps settled, by a Spanish professor who has established that the photo could not have been taken when and where it reportedly was -- Sept. 5, 1936, near Cerro Muriano.

The photo was taken about 35 miles from there. The precise place has been determined by identifying the mountain range in the photo's background. The professor says there was no fighting near there at that time, and concludes that Capa staged the photo.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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