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Behind the song:
Robert Capa Goes to Iowa

Charlie's interest in photographer
Robert Capa took him to Paris, Iowa, and
the Minneapolis Public Library's archives.

1948-5 (May People Are People) intro spread LR.jpg

Click to see the Ladies Home Journal year-long photo essay.

Robert Capa Goes to Iowa

Rediscovering a Photo History

by Charlie Maguire


Whether you have an interest in the history of the Twentieth Century or in the history of photography or both, the name “Robert Capa” is sure to cross your path. Born Andre Friedman in Budapest in 1913, he took the name “Robert Capa” - some say a play on the name Frank Capra, the Hollywood Director-in collaboration with Gerda Taro and Ruth Cerf who conjured a mysterious American photographer in order to sell Friedman’s photos to Paris newspapers and magazines for top money.

      At age 22 in 1936 Capa traveled to Spain with Taro and it was there that he made the picture (“Falling Soldier/Moment of Death”) that earned him the reputation as “The Greatest War-Photographer In The World” two years later by Picture Post.


Robert Capa (Photo by Hilton/Getty)

Collage and photo by CSM.

      The war in China followed, then World War Two, first in Africa, then Italy, and most famously on a section of beach code-named “Omaha” near Colleville-sur-Mer in Normandy on June 6, 1944: the D-Day invasion.

       The photos Capa made that morning with his Contax II cameras are well known and documented. Every so often a new book is introduced, shedding more light on the man that created the Magnum Photo Agency and died in Indochina in 1954 at the age of 40, but none so far mention a tiny town in Iowa, two years after WWII where Robert Capa was on assignment for Ladies Home Journal, and de facto “Artist In Residence” in Carroll County. For a few days in that peaceful part of the United States he documented not the horror of war, but a story of peace, family, and a way of life many still hold dear in rural America.

      The story was in a memoir written by one of Capa’s bosses and long-time friends John G. Morris. Morris was the photo editor associated with 11 frames of Capa’s D-Day photos while he was working for LIFE magazine.

      After the war, Morris was also Capa’s boss when he moved over to Ladies Home Journal. “Robert Capa In Iowa” is taken from the part of Morris’ book that a reader might normally skip over in favor of the more exciting events, but one day I sat down and re-read Morris’ book for a second time.

      Let’s let Morris himself tell it…

“An unmarried and footloose Bob was okay by me, however...I was concocting for a worldwide picture series on family life—a “How the World Lives”...My working title: “People Are People the World Over”...I talked to Capa who saw “People Are People” as an ideal assignment for his new group of photographers to be named Magnum Photos. The idea intrigued the Goulds (Owners of Ladies Home Journal) and it wasn’t hard to persuade them that Capa and I would find a prototypical American family in their native Iowa.  Bob and I took off for Des Moines on a Saturday afternoon…”

       “The following morning we headed west on U.S. 30. We had not gone a hundred miles when we found just want we wanted, near the small town of Glidden: the family farm of Donald Pratt. Red barn, white farmhouse, tractor, cows and horses, two boys and two girls. Perfect. They were easily persuaded to cooperate. We agreed to start the following day...Leaving Capa behind in Iowa to do the story alone, I flew to Chicago…The Goulds were delighted with Bob’s pictures of the Pratts of Iowa. We agreed on a budget of approximately $15,000 to cover the rest of the world. I knew it would be tight so I rigidly prescribed the rudimentary picture situations that must be covered, In addition to making a family portrait, farming, cooking, eating, washing, bathing, studying, shopping, worshipping, relaxing at home, traveling, sleeping.


      Capa very naturally wanted to make the whole thing a Magnum project. Magnum’s photographers were going to loosely divide the world among themselves; George Rodger would cover Africa and the Middle East, Henri Cartier-Bresson would go to Asia, Capa and Chim would cover Europe...Worldwide shooting would begin in the summer of 1947 and would be completed by fall. In May [1948] the “People Are People” series began. I introduced the families in the first installment...the series made little stir at the time, but made me a lasting friend. Edward Steichen...and he borrowed the pictures to create Fifth Avenue window displays honoring the United Nations on it’s 1948 birthday. Steichen began to dream, sharing his hopes with me, or an exhibition he would eventually call “The Family of Man.” {Get the Picture: pages 114-116, 120, & 121}

       Now that I had the story, I wondered; “Are  Robert Capa’s tracks in Iowa still visible? Is the farm still there? The church? The school?

       I had tracked Capa all over Paris in the past two years. I had coffee in his “other office” at the Le Dome cafe. I made a pilgrimage to his studio twice, arriving shortly last September just before the Paris firefighters, when a smoke alarm in the building signaled a possible fire. I toured the office at Magnum and visited Gerda Taro’s grave in the cemetery in Pere Lachaise.

      Now instead of boarding a plane to France, I biked to the Hennepin County Library in downtown Minneapolis in search of the Ladies Home Journal and People Are People” series.

       It took me two trips to find the articles I am embarrassed to say. For all the research pre-internet I have had to do for my songs and ballads over the years, I was rusty, and underestimated the difficulty of the search. The good news was that the copies of the magazine were bound and available to anyone to turn to the exact pages. 

      As I was going to be on the road and close to Glidden, Iowa in the coming weeks, I first made some telephone calls to the Glidden Public Library, and a Bed & Breakfast which incidentally was located only two blocks from the Walgreens parking lot in Carroll, Iowa that once was the home of the Burke Hotel where Capa lived during his assignment. I also made valuable contacts at the Carroll County Museum, finding a kindred spirit in museum president  Barbara J. Hackfort.

      But every call I made to friendly people on the other end of the line, no one had heard of this story! Here was a farm family that represented not only their community but the entire nation FOR AN ENTIRE YEAR in a national magazine, and no one remembered it!

      I knew that once on the ground I had only 24 hours to pick up Capa’s trail in Iowa, and then I had to head to the next stop. Twenty-four hours! Not only to document by camera his whereabouts, but also to soak up people, places, and atmosphere to create the new song. A song about a person who had only known war. Twenty-four hours to imagine how it may have felt for him to be in the peaceful farm acres of Iowa. Twenty-four hours! Not very long if you also plan on driving around, talking to people, and eating and sleeping.

      Using Morris’ book, I found the town. Using photos from the magazine I found the school, and the church. The places Capa had walked, I walked! I focused my camera on the same things he did. My photos would provide some visual inspiration for my songwriting.

      I tried to include details like the shadows of flag poles, or sunlight over the church. I took pains to shoot things that did not make Capa’s magazine layout, but that he might have captured, such as the homemade Lincoln Highway markers made by the Boy Scouts of America to commemorate the first coast-to-coast highway in the United States.

      The farm itself was the main place where Capa spent most of his film. Where was it? I knew that the farm was between Carroll and Glidden, Iowa on the Lincoln Highway, US Route 30, but where? On what side of the road? Morris made no mention of the location, and there were no clues in the 12 issues of Ladies Home Journal that featured the Pratt family.

      After meeting with all the people I had talked to by phone and in person in Carroll (They did not know where the farm was either) my wife Linda and I decided to just get in the car in the car and start driving.

      It is six miles between Carroll and Glidden, and I knew (or guessed) that the farm lay somewhere in between. We headed east passing farm after farm depressingly new and modern, with no resemblance to a homestead that would have existed in 1946. Then up ahead; a grove of old trees…

      And there it was! Matching the barn hazily depicted in Capa’s photo with the barn I was looking at covered with ivy, was the Pratt farm. Intact! Almost as if it were waiting for another visit from a photographer.

      “Go up and knock on the door!” Linda said from behind the wheel. I was reluctant to do so because of all the people I had contacted, I had not known of the current owners of the Pratt farm. This would definitely be a “cold call” a knock on the door by a stranger, at dinnertime no less! II took a chance. I went up to the house and knocked.

      As I waited for someone to come to the door, I noticed a boot scraper installed by Donald Pratt, still firmly mounted on the step going into the house. I scrapped my boot as Capa might have done, in anticipation of meeting whoever was in the house.

      A young woman came to the door and I explained the reason for my visit in as few words as possible. She cut me off in mid-story by saying, “Oh yes, my husband and I know all about Robert Capa. There was a BBC crew here in 1999 doing the same thing you are doing.” I was shocked! Of all the people I had talked with, these owners of the Pratt property were the only people that knew the story!

      “Let’s go talk to my husband.” She said. “He’s out in the garden”.

      Not only was a crew there in 1999, they explained, but so were the Pratt children. There were three of them, not four as John Morris had written. We talked about the farm (they had purchased it from the Pratt children) and the film crew. The project had been to locate and film all of the families depicted for a full year in the “People Are People” series, but money and a series of tragic accidents involving film and airport X-ray machines doomed the project. The couple on the farm today said that they had been given a copy of the film shot on their farm, but as of this story, but it was lost.

      The last thing was to find the original owners of the farm, Don and Polly Pratt. With the help of county employees, I was given a cemetery map of where they were. Being someone what of an expert in finding people in cemeteries, I located the final resting place of Don and his wife. From their headstone, I looked east, and less than a quarter mile from their grave, clearly seen, was their old home. I marveled at how little people moved around 73-some years ago. I also thought of Robert Capa, who had never stayed in one place for very long. What a contrast.

      I’m looking forward to seeing Carroll County again celebrate the time when they represented the United States in a national magazine. The song is done, and I am returning to Carroll County to sing it. Singing it in a concert bookmarked with the lyrical stories of other working people I’ve written about in my career. For me it’s all about the unsung, but this time it’s also about the famous. It’s Robert Capa and one of the relatively few times he was in a peaceful place using his Contax II camera for a peacetime assignment. 


# # #

2 soldier.jpg

Falling Soldier/Moment of Death:

Photo: Robert Capa/International Institute of Photography.

3 books.jpg

Various biographies and books on Robert Capa’s work. Photo: CSM.

4 Life.jpg

LIFE magazine: June 19, 1944 in which Capa’s D-Day photos were published.

5 spread.jpg

LIFE magazine: June 19, 1944, photos by Robert Capa of D-Day. 

6 book.jpg

Get the Picture: A Personal History of Photojournalism by John G. Morris, 1998. Photo: CSM.

7 Le Dome.jpg

Le Dome, a cafe in Paris Capa frequented. Photo: CSM.

8 Capa studio.jpg

Capa’s studio (second floor) in Paris. The fire department showed up because of a fire in the building. Photo: CSM.

9 CSM at Magnum.jpg

Magnum Photos offices, Paris. Photo: LSK.

10 Taros grave.jpg

Grave of Gerda Taro, Paris. Photo: CSM.

11 article.jpg

Intro spread of Ladies Home Journal, May 1947.

12 Pratts.jpg

Portrait photo of the Pratt family. Photo: Robert Capa for Ladies Home Journal.

13 school.jpg

The school in Carroll Iowa, present day. Photo: CSM.

14 swings.jpg

School and Pratt children. Photo: Robert Capa for Ladies Home Journal.

15 church.jpg

Church present day. Photo: CSM.

16 church.jpg

Pratt family in church. Photo: Robert Capa for Ladies Home Journal.

17 lincoln hwy.jpg

Lincoln Highway markers. Photos: CSM.

18 lincoln hwy.jpg
19 barn.jpg

Pratt farm views from road and present day driveway. Photo: CSM.

20 farm.jpg
21 farm.jpg
22 Pratts car.jpg

Pratt family on farm going to town. Photo: Robert Capa for Ladies Home Journal.

23 house.jpg

Pratt farmhouse present day. Photo: CSM.

24 boot scraper.jpg

Pratt farmhouse boot scraper present day. Photo: CSM.

25 with owners.jpg

Talking to present day owners of Pratt farm. Photo: LSK.

27 camera.jpg

Contax II camera, similar to the one Capa used to photograph the Pratt family in 1946.

26 cemetery.jpg

Finding the grave of Donald and Pauline Pratt. Photo: LSK.

28 sketch.jpg

Charlie’s sketchbook of Contax II camera with notes from the trip to Carroll, Iowa.

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