On Luck & Trenches

In Influences, Pep Talks, Rants and Sermons, The Craft by David12 Comments


There’s a terrific recording of an excerpt from an interview with photographer Robert Capa (1913-1954) making the rounds right now. In it he describes the making of one of his most iconic photographs (above) and the role of luck in its creation. Capa says he raised the camera as the soldiers were climbing out of the trench to storm the enemy machine guns, and he made this one photograph without even looking in the viewfinder. He sent his films off to be developed and when he left the war, 3 months later, he found he’d become a famous photographer. In the end his interviewer says “there’s one condition you’ve got to create yourself, Bob, in order to get a lucky picture like that: you’ve got to spend a lot of time in trenches.”

There’s so much that lies outside our control – the light, the moment, the circumstances – and anyone that’s been doing this for long will tell you that at least once they’ve shown work to someone whose best comment was, “lucky shot.” It’s true. Luck. Good fortune. Some of our best work is done in collaboration with serendipity. Thank the gods for those times when the stars aligned. But a photograph made because the luck kicked in, is not the same as a photograph made only because of luck. I have yet to see one of those.

Some of the most compelling photographs were “lucky shots” that would never have been made without a photographer who put in his time in the trenches. Luck may be the context for a great photograph, but it’s rarely, if ever, made by a photographer who hasn’t put in the time, learned her craft, or made thousands of less-than-lucky shots in order to pave the way for the one. God help the photographer who relies on luck without honing the skill – and time – required to seize the moment when she shows up.


There’s been controversy over the first image, and Capa’s name can’t come up without someone charging the image of the Spanish soldier was set-up. Nothing I can say will add to that conversation, which in the light of Capa’s body of work, seems mostly irrelevant. You want to be lucky? You’ve got to show up, over and over again. If you’re not familiar with Capa’s life and work, he’s a fascinating man – look him up.


  1. Thanks for the link… I did give the full interview a listen and was left wishing for more… so I located his book “Slightly Out of Focus” at the local library and will spend some more time up close and personal with Endre Freidmann… learn something new every day… 🙂

  2. ” Some of the most compelling photographs were “lucky shots” “… I think Cartier Bresson said that his famous photo of the man jumping over a pool behind the ‘ Gare St. Lazare’ was made through a hole in a fence, without him looking trough the viewfinder. It became THE decisive moment photo!

  3. Hmmm… I find it a bit ironic, and sad at the same time to call this first shot “luck”. One man’s death as another man’s luck? In this regard, it wasn’t a lucky moment – at least not for the soldier.

    But yes, f/8 and be there still applies.

    And maybe Mr. Capa would agree if I assume that in all the fear and destruction, being there was indeed lucky for him (and that he himself survived was luck as well), while for the poor guy it was tragic of course.

  4. English photographer Lord Snowden once said, “The more I practice, the more luck I have.”

  5. “In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind.” — Louis Pasteur

    The discovery of pennicilin was an accident. Fleming had forgotten to close a petri dish. The thing is that he noticed there was something interesting going on, because he had thought about the problem for a long time. Hence Pasteur’s quote.

    I think Capra’s case is similar. Because of his experience, he was able to recognize when a great moment could happen and be ready. Whether or not that moment happened was out of his control, but his prepared mind must have greatly enhanced the odds of taking a powerful photograph.

  6. Great stuff, David. After taking Thanksgiving off, I’m ready to get back in the trenches. I think a lot of people don’t realize how many photos photographers toss or keep on an external drive just because they aren’t the best. Some of the best shots are the lucky ones!

  7. Mr. duChemin,

    Thank you for the link to the recording of Robert Capa. His voice and manner of speaking are close to what I had imagined learning about his history. I must return his biography, written by Richard Whelan, back to the library on Monday. I will also borrow several books with his photographs for a second view. I suspect I will see them differently now that I know more about the man who made them and something of the history he witnessed going on around him.

    Reading his biography, I come to appreciate how his personality played into getting the access to the places where he made his famous and iconic images. He convinced soldiers to give him a ride to the front, and charmed generals so well they insisted he stay.

    David Bergman, in an interview put on by Photo Shelter, spoke about a favorite image of President Obama pausing to meditate for a moment on the cement stairs before entering a baseball stadium. Bergman shows the photograph to illustrate his point on what it takes to get to the right spot at the right time. Anyone with the same camera and lens standing on the same stair could have made the same photograph of the President during his pause. However, there was only one person with the camera and lens on that cement stair looking down toward the President. It took Bergman years of assignment after assignment, job after job, portfolio after portfolio to become that one photographer allowed to proceed the President up the cement stairs on that day.

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  9. David, an interesting article – thank you. I have seen one example of a great photograph taken purely by chance: a very good friend of mine with no camera skills and a compact digital was aboard a small motor boat approaching a mega yacht owned by a very well know figure and he decided to take a picture of it. As he lined up the shot, a magnificent whale broached between him and the subject. It’s a shot that Steve Bloom would be proud of and it was pure luck!

  10. All I can add:

    Sometimes I do get to places just when God’s ready to have somebody click the shutter. ~Ansel Adams

    I’ve had it happen to me, more than once or twice, but as you said, you have to show up and not be sitting comfortably on the couch at home!

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