Slightly Out of Focus, the autobiography by legendary photographer Robert Capa, chronicles his experiences as a photographer for Collier's and Life magazines during World War II. Capa's adventure takes him from his comfortable bed in New York, across the Atlantic, into the African desert, to the beaches of Normandy and the liberation of Paris, through Germany, and finally to a posh London apartment where his journey ends. The book is a delightful read. Over 100 of Capa's breathtaking and thought provoking photographs are scattered throughout its pages. Slightly Out of Focus is ridiculously easy to read. Capa's conversational style and witty banter result in a story that feels more like your favorite novel, than the biography of a war correspondent. The memoirs span only 232 pages, but fully encompass the blood, sweat, and tears shed during the most gruesome war in American history.
Capa throws no punches when he puts his thoughts and experiences into words. He is gut wrenchingly open, honest, and human about himself and the war that he photographs. He accurately shows the not so glamorous, unromantic side of front-line journalism in stories about being too broke to pay his bills, sleeping in bed-bug infested houses, driving for hours over empty deserts, contracting malaria, bureaucratic red tape, and eventually giving up the woman of his dreams to continue photographing the war. Capa is honest enough to admit to all of this and wrote, "I began to dislike this war. The life of a war correspondent wasn't so romantic."
Capa put his life in danger countless times in the book, each time in the quest for the perfect photo that said everything and each time narrowly escaping death. While in Africa, he accidentally wandered into a mine field and had to wait for hours to be rescued. Later, the division that Capa was traveling with was bombed during the night. Capa described it as, "Next morning, when I woke up, there wasn't any tent over me. The camp had been bombed during the night. The blasts had blown away all the tents, although no one was hurt. I was the object of envy and admiration for having slept through it all without stirring." During his time in Europe, Capa joined in the Normandy invasion and parachuted out of planes. Soon after he began, Capa gave up trying to be an impartial observer and assisted in rescuing and transporting wounded soldiers during some of the fiercest fighting. He slept in fox holes, ate C-rations, and helped bury fallen soldiers.
In Slightly Out of Focus, we learn as much about Capa as we do about the war. He unashamedly allows us a constant view into his psyche. It offers a refreshing and helpful glimpse into the struggles of an embedded journalist. He admits when he is frightened, tired, apathetic, angry, or even happy. He talks often in the book of becoming tired of the sickeningly violent monotony that is war. "They were simple pictures and showed how dreary and unspectacular life fighting actually is. The correspondent's war neurosis was setting in...my pictures were sad and empty as the war, and I didn't feel like sending them to the magazine."
In spite of the inherent death and depression of war, Capa finds the everyday humor in extraordinary experiences. Just when the book seems too intense, he makes a witty remark or points out the weakness in human folly and makes you chuckle. He allows you to take the pill of war down without having to dissipate the cold, hard facts, by giving the reader a spoon full of sugar at the same time.
The love story of Capa and "Pinky" (a.k.a. Elaine Justin) also provides a breakup between intense battles. Capa maintains a lighthearted feel in the book by alternating chapters of fighting and death with chapters of his humorous roller-coaster romance. In the end "Pinky" gives up on Capa because, by covering the war instead of being with her, he finally chose between his two great loves. Capa begins and ends the book with the same line, "There is absolutely no reason to get up in the mornings anymore." The reader understands finally, on the 232nd page, that Capa lives to cover wars. In his mind, being a war correspondent isn't a job, it is a destiny. When he isn't covering a war, he is lost, restless, and aimless.
Slightly Out of Focus is jewel deserving five stars. Capa has effectively created a book that captures the feeling of World War II while making it palatable to the average reader. He educates and entertains. The work is believable and down to earth, revealing a transparency uncommon to most authors, but welcomed by readers. In this work, Capa proves himself to be far more than a great photographer. In the words of Capa's good friend, Pulitzer Prize winner John Hersey, "He has humor. He has a clear idea of what makes a great picture: 'it is a cut of the whole event,' he says, 'which will show more of the real truth of the affair to someone who was not there than the whole scene.' Above all-and this is what shows in his pictures-Capa, who has spent so much energy on inventions for his own person, has deep human sympathy for men and women trapped in reality."