Iconic Photos

Famous, Infamous and Iconic Photos

Trotsky in Copenhagen

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In November 1932, Robert Capa was just a darkroom boy working at Dephot (a famous photoagency that the time). His mentor had sent to him Copenhagen to cover a speech being given there by the exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Capa remembered what was to be his first published story:

The newspapers carried a story that Trotsky would speak in Copenhagen. My bosses were excited — but, when they looked around, they saw they had sent all the photographers out to cover events that were happening in Germany. I was the only one there. They said, “Go!”

My departure was a comedy. I got an old passport and no visa. They bought me a first-class ticket and I traveled stylish like a minister. When the conductor came to inspect the passport and visa — I took out a menu card from a restaurant and gave it to him among many other important-looking papers — and he was baffled at first — but I talked faster and more than any first-class passenger he ever hand and he nodded finally and passed on. 

No one could take pictures because Trotsky never wanted to be photographed. There were photographers from all over the world with their big box cameras — none could get in. I had a little Leica in my pocket so no one thought I was even a photographer. When some workers came to carry long steel pipes into the chamber, I joined them — and my little Leica and I went to look for Trotsky. 

Here, we must pause to reflect. Capa was later to be a great self-promotor as well as a great photographer.  The first anecdote about his editors sending the humble darkroom boy was pure fabrication; while it was his first assignment, he was being mentored throughly at Dephot and Trotsky’s speaking arrangement in Copenhagen was well advertised ahead. The second anecdote Capa borrowed from his tall-tale-loving father. As for sneaking into the conference hall, he didn’t have to do this for he had a ticket for Trotsky’s lecture. Only in May 1936, he finagled his way into a meeting at which Leon Blum was speaking such.

This episode highlights the difficulty in trusting even photographers’ accounts about their famous photos.  They like any other human beings misremember, conceal and prevaricate. However he took those photos, Capa’s skills were clear: he positioned himself near the speaker and clandestinely snapped a series of photographs that captured the energy of the impassioned Russian orator and the drama of the moment. Berlin’s Der Welt Spiegel devoted a full page to Capa’s photographs.

Splotches and fissures in the above image (which is the most famous of Capa’s Trotsky images) was the result of a damage to the photographic negative. It was a broken image of a broken man, as Time magazine recalled.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

July 22, 2009 at 11:18 pm

Posted in Politics

Tagged with ,

5 Responses

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  1. […] of the speech called “In Defence of October” held on November 27 here. There are also two impressive photos secretly taken by a photojournalist. There was a lot of commotion surrounding Trotsky’s trip […]

  2. […] of the speech called “In Defence of October” held on November 27 here. There are also two impressive photos secretly taken by a photojournalist. There was a lot of commotion surrounding Trotsky’s trip […]

  3. […] escollido foi o entón mozo Robert Capa, que fixo unha das súas primeiras fotos moi coñecidas. Si, esa que seguro saía no teu libro de Historia do Bacharelato do líder arengando ás […]

  4. […] o que vi. Em 1932, ainda morando na Alemanha, dei um pulo na Dinamarca e, com 19 anos, já fiz meu primeiro grande trabalho: fotografei o Leon Trotsky discursando em Copenhague, após ser escorraçado pela turma do […]

  5. […] Selwyn-Holmes, A. (July 22nd 2009). Trotsky in Copenhagen. Iconic Photos. Retrieved 22nd December 2015, from https://iconicphotos.wordpress.com/2009/07/22/trotsky-in-copenhagen/ […]

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