Shades of Merriment

Robert Capa, famous for his battle photographs, made friends along the way

A barefoot Pablo Picasso holds a giant umbrella for his young lover, Françoise Gilot, shading her from the blazing Riviera sunshine. They are on the beach in Golfe-Juan, France, in August 1948. He is 66; she, 26. A nephew of Picasso’s grins at this mock procession in which the great man plays the minion. The photograph, by the re-nowned Robert Capa, appears in a new collection of his work, and still draws us in with its beauty, humor and irony.

Picasso and Gilot had met five years before, in Paris during the German occupation. She, too, was a painter. Picasso laughed. "Girls who look like that can’t be painters," he said. The two saw each other in secret for more than a year—he was estranged from his wife, Olga Khokhlova, but had yet to split with his other lovers—before she moved in with him. They had a son, Claude, now an entrepreneur, and a daughter, Paloma, the jewelry designer.

"There are two kinds of women," Picasso liked to say, "Goddesses and doormats." Gilot evidently tired of both roles. She left him after a decade, then angered him again by publishing a memoir, Life with Picasso, that was not wholly flattering. This famed artist, who pioneered Cubism and became one of the 20th century’s most important figures, could be cruel and small-minded; he even upbraided her for giving his threadbare clothes to the gardener.

Picasso, who died in 1973 at age 91, had several wives and companions, but unlike the others, Gilot flourished after breaking with him. In 1970, she married Dr. Jonas Salk, inventor of a polio vaccine and later an AIDS researcher, and remained with him until his death seven years ago. Today, at age 80, she lives in New York City and Paris. She works on behalf of the Salk Institute, the medical research facility in La Jolla, California. And her paintings continue to be shown in museums and galleries around the world.

She had met Capa in Paris in 1945. The Hungarian-born photographer had already taken his most famous picture in Spain in 1936, during the civil war. Falling Soldier captures the moment a loyalist is shot and killed. "If your pictures aren’t good enough," he often said, "you’re not close enough." It was also in Spain that the love of his life, Gerda Taro, was killed covering the Battle of Brunete.

In World War II, Capa landed with U.S. forces at Normandy, leading to one of photojournalism’s most notorious mishaps: all but 11 of his negatives from the landing were ruined when a harried darkroom technician left them in an overheated film dryer. In 1947 Capa founded, with several of the best photojournalists of the day, the photo agency Magnum. Capa was killed in 1954, at age 40, when he stepped on a land mine in what was then called Indochina, covering the war between France and its former colony for Life magazine.

Last year Phaidon Press published Robert Capa: the Definitive Collection, edited by his biographer, Richard Whelan, with help from Capa’s brother Cornell, himself a photographer and the founder of the International Center for Photography in New York. With more than 900 images, the book shows Capa to be a master of immediacy, whether on the battlefield, in the street—or on the beach.

He was on assignment for the British magazine Illustrated when he went to the south of France to photograph Gilot and Picasso, whom he also knew. "We were clowning," Gilot recalled of that day 53 years ago. "Capa was a friend, so it was not formal at all. He took the picture in the spirit of the moment." And so we see Picasso not as an ogre or even a genius but as a lover enjoying a summer day.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.