The Story Behind Robert Capa’s Pictures of the D-Day Invasion that Almost Never Were

TIME’s Behind the Picture recently dove into the fascinating story behind how some of the most iconic photographs of World War II almost never were. Narrated by John Morris, Editor of LIFE magazine during WWII, Morris tells the story behind the photographs captured by Robert Capa on Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion.

One of only 18 American photographers given credentials by the US Armed Forces to cover the preparation and execution of the invasion, Capa captured frame after frame, putting himself in the middle of the gruesome action. When all was said and done, Capa sent back four rolls of 35mm film to Morris in London to be developed and printed.


As soon as Morris received the film, he sent all four rolls to the labs to be developed and have contact prints made; however, after just a few minutes in the lab, a technician came running to Morris to tell him that the first three rolls came out completely blank.

Fingers and toes crossed, they developed the last roll… and to Morris’ relief, 11 frames survived the invasion.

As the video shows, a number of those frames (including the iconic shot of the soldier in the surf) will forever be embedded in photographic history and our minds — a critical chronicle of a pivotal moment in the second World War that very nearly didn’t make it.

Robert Capa’s Iconic D-Day Photo of a Soldier in the Surf [TIME via ISO 1200]

  • Jeff Delacruz

    That’s not how I heard it. I heard the technician left the film in the dryer for too long and the emulation started to melt off.

  • fiddlergene

    A bit of mi-information here. The story is that the lab tech screwed up on developing the film at the wrong temperature and ruined the emulsion on all the film. On the few frames that survived you think your looking at blur caused my motion, shaking, and the ‘heat’ of the moment when in fact it really is the emulsion turning into liquid and dripping off the film base.

  • alexcookemusic

    This is a quote from “Blood and Champagne,” a biography on Capa from which the story was taken from both interviews and the memoirs of the Life editor involved in the incident, John Morris.

    “Life’s darkroom staff went to work, hoping to beat the next morning’s 9 a.m. deadline. Hans Wild called Morris as soon as the 35mm had been exposed. Capa had done a superb job under terrible conditions and with only limited light. ‘I need contacts,’ Morris ordered. ‘Rush, rush, rush, rush!’ A few minutes later, one of the assistants, Dennis Banks, leapt up a flight of stairs and ran into Morris’ office. He was in tears. ‘They’re ruined,’ he blurted. ‘Ruined! Capa’s films are all ruined!’

    ‘What do you mean?’ asked Morris.

    ‘You were in such a hurry,’ replied Banks, ‘I put it in a drying cabinet and closed the doors.’

    It was normal procedure to put film in a wooden locker with a heating coil at the base. But with the doors closed, the heat had become so intense that it had melted the film’s emulsion. Morris ran down to the darkroom with Dennis. He held up the four rolls, one at a time. Three were useless, just a brown sludge in frame after frame. ‘I couldn’t see anything,’ Morris recalls. ‘Just grey mud. But on the fourth there were eleven frames that could be printed, and I printed every single one of them. By now, they’ve determined that two of them were not really worth printing anyway – so there are nine that survive to this day, which is okay. There was a certain amount of repetition, but there were half a dozen good pictures in there.”

  • james

    This is complete horse manure! It was the dryer that melted the film!

  • Dominique Dudouble

    The lab tech mistake is also detailed in Richard Whelan’s biography of Robert Capa (University of Nebraska Press, 1994)

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  • Graf Almassy

    “One of only 18 American photographers given credentials by the US Armed Forces to cover the preparation and execution of the invasion”

    Robert Capa (aka. Endre Friedmann) wasn’t american. He was hungarian photographer, who left his country because the political situation.

  • dubcfan

    I’m curious, what ever happened to the remaining 17 photographers? Where are their images?