On D-day, June 6, 1944, Hungarian war photographer Robert Capa landed on the Normandy coast with American troops, part of the Allied forces that would advance through France to liberate Europe.
Capa was the only photographer among the 156,000 Allied troops that landed in the first wave at dawn, on a section of the coast code-named Omaha Beach. The pictures he shot with his Contax II captured the horror and the heroism as the troops confronted a wall of enemy fire which ultimately claimed 2000 of the 34,250 Americans that landed there.
“The men from my barge waded in the water. Waist-deep, with rifles ready to shoot, with the invasion obstacles and the smoking beach in the background, I began to take my first real picture of the invasion,” writes Capa in his autobiography, Slightly Out of Focus. “The boatswain, who was in an understandable hurry to get the hell out of there, mistook my picture-taking attitude for explicable hesitation, and helped me make up my mind with a well-aimed kick in the rear. The bullets tore holes in the water around me, and I made for the nearest steel obstacle.”
Capa was carrying with him two Contax II cameras, a 50mm lens and several rolls of film to capture 106 photographs of the first hours of the invasion. However when the film was processed back in London, a darkroom assistant made a mistake in drying the film too quickly, effectively erasing all but 11 images of the landing. And yet those images of the first touchdown of Allied forces in Europe went on to define the war, and the practice of conflict photojournalism ever since.
The Contax II, made by legendary optics company Zeiss Ikon, was a robust work-horse considered by many not only to be an alternative to the Leica, but the professional 35mm system of its time because of its easier and faster film loading system, the faster top shutter speed of 1/1250 second and a longer rangefinder which Zeiss claimed made for more accurate focusing.
Perhaps appropriately for the camera belonging to the world’s most famous war photographer, the Contax II ceased production with the German surrender in 1945.