Aug 072012

See into the Future

Running in Traffic


When a photographer can 

see a photo before it happens 

the final image breathes with life.

A quick change in your step 

can mean the difference between 

a picture that works or the one 

that got away. 


From the Front with Robert Capa

Face Front

The split second we press the shutter, we preserve a fleeting moment.  That picture will never happen again, so its best if we make it count.  For centuries art had a front and a back.  Paintings of kings, sculptures of goddesses, and tombs of Pope’s all came with an ideal view.  The artists gave the patron “the best” view of a piece.  From that particular view the piece was absolute perfection, but what does it look like from the back?  Have you ever seen a 16th century painting off of the wall?  The back of a piece of art is often a disaster.  Unfinished wood, messy joints and rough patches of raw canvas were never intended to be seen by the viewer.  Artists left us a simple key that we can use as photographers.

Officers of WWI by John Singer Sargent. The frontal view of a person has certain implications which is why these officers were not painted from the back. The back side implies defeat, retreat, or subservience.


When you look at a scene, figure out which way

the action is moving and shoot it from the front. 


Have you ever wondered why the military makes these backwards flags? Its because they are to be worn on the right shoulder and look like a flag being marched into battle. If the flag were the other direction it would signify retreat. Hardly the message you want the advancing forces to give off.

D-Day Invasion

Photographers like Robert Capa were generous people.  They left us contact sheets, stories, and in his case an autobiography to guide our development.  Capa wanted us to learn from his successes and mistakes.

Robert Capa stepping onto Omaha Beach on D-Day. This is an important historic image, but nothing in comparison to the shots taken later that morning. Robert Capa/MAGNUM PHOTOS

The days leading up to D-Day must have been wrought with anxiety.  Like any good photo journalist Robert Capa passed the time chain smoking cigarettes and drinking ungodly amounts of liquor in London.  He took a brief stop to pick up a Burberry rain coat because the troops invading Normandy were scheduled to make a water landing.  Capa said:

“We were all suffering from that strange sickness known as amphibia.  Being amphibious troops had only one meaning for us: we would have to be unhappy in the water before we could be unhappy on the shore.”

Once Capa got out in front of the action (god bless him) the pictures really developed a powerful view. We can FEEL the Americans advancing. Robert Capa/MAGNUM PHOTOS

Capa was an optimist and a bit of a mad man.  He survived the launch from the USS Chase to Omaha beach twice.  How did he invade France twice?  After the first wave he went back to the boat to swap films and took a ride on the third wave.  Bravery, insanity, call it what you will, my hat is always tipped to Mr. Capa.


Throughout the ordeal he kept his sense of humor.  Before disembarking he was loaded up with the military essentials “…gas mask, inflatable life vest, a shovel, and some other gadgets and I placed my very expensive Burberry raincoat over my arm.  I was the most elegant invader of them all.” (p. 137, Slightly Out of Focus)

In this image, which is even more powerful than the earlier ones, Capa gives us a view into the soldier’s face as he waits for a moment to move. This shot could not have happened from behind, Capa needed to be in front of him. The photographer needs to see into the future for the picture to work and let the action come to him. Robert Capa/MAGNUM PHOTOS

Capa’s arrival to Omaha beach posed two threats, only one of which we can see from the pictures.  The first was the rain of Nazi bullets which was not picked up on film.  The second threat was the fear that every photographer has at some point.  The threat of failure.  The mental dialogue that every shutter-clicker faces is “how am I going to get a shot that works?”

Capa overcame both obstacles and left invaluable lessons in his wake.  If you want a scene to feel active, you want to be out in front.  Pictures of people’s back simply do not work.  Troops charging towards the camera are alive, full of fear, and have the ability to make us feel the D-Day intensity.

I am sure that after Capa saw his shots from the Spanish Civil War he knew that he was going to need to get out in front of things. Robert Capa/MAGNUM PHOTOS

In stark contrast, are the photographs we get of the troops leaving the landing craft and one of Capa’s photographs from the Spanish Civil War.  These shots, which were taken from the back, feel like the picture is running away from us.  Very often the scene as it was viewed by the participants is not the best view.  It explains why war movies are always shot from a million and one angles.  This is because life through the eyes of someone fighting is not as visually successful as the director’s point of view.

I came across this disturbing image of Hitler in Paris. From the front, it is a truly disturbing image. From the back it would have been just a pile of jackets. I could not find the photographer to credit, if someone knows please share.

Unfortunately only 8 of the 106 frames Capa shot that day would survive.  He lived through Normandy.  His cameras survived an amphibious invasion.  His film even made it out of the water unscathed.  Back in London an over zealous lab technician burned the emulsion off of Capa’s film and managed to save only a few.  But in these historical gems, we see the lessons of Capa clear as day.  You have to be out in front to catch the action.

VIETNAM. May 25, 1954. On the road from Namdinh to Thaibinh. One of Capa’s last pictures. Robert Capa/MAGNUM PHOTOS

Years later, in Vietnam, while Capa was following his own advice he stepped on a land mine and did not survive.  He was committed to leading by example.  And one thing he knew, from his experiences in the Spanish Civil War and WW2 was that the front view is usually better than the back view.

Too Shy

Many photographers I work with are nervous or timid about taking photographs of strangers.  It is completely normal.  Photography is about as natural as boxing.  Most normal people do not walk up to a stranger and punch them in the face (thank god).  Likewise photography can sometimes feel like an attack on a perfectly harmless stranger.  There is a balance between invasion and missing a picture because you are on the back side of an image.

Even in times of peace the frontal shot often works better than the back. Pablo PIcasso and Francoise Gilot. Robert Capa/MAGNUM PHOTOS

After You…

One of the simplest ways to take photographs of the front of scenes is to anticipate the shot.  If you see a group of builders off loading material, just as an example, you can usually tell where they are headed.  Instead of trailing them from behind, go stand next to the area where they are loading material.  The builders will keep moving towards you over and over again.  Now they might not like having their pictures taken, so you may want to try cracking a joke to get them to loosen up.


If we look at a few pictures by Capa and another photojournalist (whose name I could not find) we can see the difference between being on the front of a scene or being in the back of a scene.  In all of the pictures where the people are running away from the camera, the pictures are less engaging.  Its much more powerful to have someone running at the camera.  It gives the viewer the impression they are part of the scene.  As a photographer it allows you to connect the view with the subject in an unmediated way.

These types of connections do not need to be scenes from war.  I look for them in my own work all the time.  Here is an examples of how I looked at a scene before I picked the camera up to my eye.

Bus Stop in Matera Italy. © Adam Marelli

Bus Stop

Last year, while I was in Matera, my mind was in the land of Cartier Bresson.  HCB travelled through Basilicata (southern Italy) in the 1950’s.  One shot I had in my mind was a picture he took further east in Russia, but it was mixed up in the mental files of Italy.  I was on the look out for a scene to connect the arabesque of five or six people.  Low and behold on the fifth day, during afternoon traffic I found my shot.  The only problem was there was one person missing and I was going to have to stand in the middle of the road to get the shot.

This was the picture I was thinking about in Matera. Look at the beautiful arabesque of the heads and linked arms. SOVIET UNION. Moscow. 1954. Canteen for workers building the Hotel Metropol. Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS

Problem #1: The missing figure

Before stepping off of the sidewalk, I scanned the other side of the street.  There was a big gap in the group I wanted to photograph.  It needed another person.  After a few minute of bad candidates, a stylish old man showed up. From about thirty yards away I followed his approach.  Everything in the scene was holding together.  No one moved too much.  All I needed to do was step into traffic and catch him at the right moment (dare I say Decisive Moment, sorry Henri, it really is a good expression).

This is the arabesque I was talking about that links all of the figures in one elegant gesture. Henri Cartier-Bresson/MAGNUM PHOTOS

Problem #2: Invisibility

There are two things that usually give away photographers: clothing and personal vibe.  Locals can recognize a foreigner in a second.  There are some countries where it is impossible to blend, but you don’t need to be a chameleon.  You just need to avoid looking like a tourist.   If I had stood out, everyone at the bus stop would have turned, looked at the weird American and the picture would have been ruined.

I wanted to link all of their heads in one continuous curve. Although I almost got clipped by a car, I was happy with the image. Adam Marelli

When we travel its important to blend in.  This does not mean we need to change into an invisible super hero, we just need to be less obvious.  In Italy, that usually means dressing better than I do in NYC.  Italians are smart dressers.  If you are walking around in quick dry hiking pants and a t shirt in Italy, you will stick out like a sore thumb.  A collared shirt with a pair of wool pants will go much further as Italian camouflage.  Remember Capa, he knew he was the most stylish person on the landing ship.

The other thing that gives away photographers is their disposition.  Even if we see an amazing shot lining up, we cannot run up to it like an excited puppy with its tongue out.  We have to be cool, quick, and discreet.  Its best to walk up to a scene as if you were going to walk right through it.  Keep the camera at your side until the last possible second.  This is why visualization is so important.  If you can’t imagine the end of your frame lines and how that picture should look in advance, its going to require extra time with the camera to your face.

When you keep to yourself, in general, no one pays any mind.  In the end it allowed me to capture a scene from the front.  All of the characters worked out wonderfully.  There is great variety in their gesture, they are all looking different directions and the last figure filled the missing gap.  I was perfectly content.


One thing that many photographers want to improve is the strength of their pictures, but they are not sure where to start.  When I work with people at workshops or One on One, we open up this topic much further to explore the opportunities for how to look at a scene.  Sometimes there is a brilliant photo just on the other side of your picture.  If you want to learn more about these techniques you can join me in NYC or Italy at my upcoming workshops.  We will open a few new doors for you and your camera.


  2 Responses to “From the Front with Robert Capa”

  1. Interesting post Adam, thanks. I personally feel it all depends what story you are trying to convey (or whether you want to convey a story at all) in the photograph.

    Going back to HCB for want of a better example, two photos of his that were shot from behind jump to mind. The first is a small group sat facing out on to the banks of some river in Frane enjoying a nice picnic. The other shows a group of Kashmiri muslim women i think, praying on a hilltop with mountains and clouds and mountains off in the distance. In both instances i think we see these groups shot from the back.

    I’m not really qualified to give the reasons why he produced shots like this, but i feel very much that in both instances, i have a greater sense of connection with the subjects, in so much as i can almost put myself in the grass alongside the river in France and feel the simple joy in river bank dining, or on top of that mountain, and feel the sense of piety amongst those Muslim women. It’s almost like he is putting us inside one of the subjects so we can experience it through their eyes.

    I’m neither French, or a muslim woman (although i am fond of riverside picnics!). However, by placing those subjects in front of the camera but facing away, it gives me a unique perspective of “looking in with them” into the scene or action as it were. Not sure if the same effect could have been achieved if they were facing forward (although not necessarily looking into the camera)?

    Very interesting food for thought though, thanks again

    • Hey Dave,

      Thank you for the comment. I agree the HCB pictures from the back are both strong. They are excellent examples of how an image can work from behind. What surprised me was that when I checked the photographers website, he seems to shoot from behind too much. Have a look at his work. If feels gimicky to me.

      If HCB only shot from behind I would have the same compliant. But in this instance, its not immediately problematic in this shot. But I feel that the shy photographer tends to shoot from behind instead of really stepping out in front or looking for a better angle.

      HCB also took a great “from the back” shot at a rally which gave a sense for the size of the crowd. So there are times when its useful. But if there is too much of it in a single portfolio it reads poorly. Balance is key.

      Thanks again!


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