As a teenager, Cornell Capa had originally wanted to be a doctor, but influenced by his brother Robert, a photojournalist in Paris, he decided that he could best help people by becoming a photographer. This launched a lifelong career of documenting politics, business, and social issues.
Capa was born Kornel Friedmann in Budapest, Hungary, at the end of World War I. After moving to Paris in 1936, he worked as his brother’s, as well as Cartier-Bresson’s, printer and then moved to New York to join the new Pix photo agency. He supported himself by working in the Life Magazine darkroom, until his first photo-essay on the New York World’s Fair was published in the British magazine Picture Post.
He then worked as a Life Magazine staff photographer, photographing some 300 assignments, from a Miss America contest to a rooster-crowing contest, to a ten-car accident in New York City, to tornado damage in the Midwest. Life then sent him to England, where he completed two parts of a trilogy of photo-essays of how English youths are groomed to become statesmen and officers. Capa joined Magnum Photos, the cooperative photo agency of which his brother had been one of the founders, after his brother’s death in Indochina in 1954, and took over as Magnum’s president.
Social issues comprise a vast core of Capa’s work. During his tenure at Life Magazine, Capa made the first of several Latin American trips, covering issues such as poverty, the revolution in Argentina, and the murder of missionaries in Ecuador. His journies to that part of the world led to three books, including the famous 1964 “Farewell to Eden,” a study on the destruction of indigenous cultures, such as the Amahuaca Indians in the Amazon.
No topic was too minor or major for Capa’s lens – he has studied old age in America, photographed folk-painter Grandma Moses on her 100th birthday, and explored his own culture in pieces such as “Judaism” for the Life Series “The World’s Great Religions,” and another on the Six-Day War.
Capa was also extremely involved in photographing political figures, events, and issues, reporting on the campaigns of Adlai Stevenson, John and Robert Kennedy, and Barry Goldwater.
In the 1970s, Capa founded and became director of the influential International Center of Photography in New York City, a museum and learning center dedicated to photojournalism, showing its neglected work, and preserving its archives. He continues to be the Founding Director Emeritus of the ICP.