Who the #@$% is Martin Munkácsi?

the last warm rays of sunshine, ca. 1929 © Joan Munkacsi

Lovely autumn: the last warm rays of sunshine, ca. 1929 © Joan Munkacsi

In part due to a comment I read in another blog on “good work rising to the top” and the proliferation of galleries and museums showing the work of over-celebrated photographers, I’ve decided to add a feature, celebrating somewhat lesser-known, forgotten, or obscure photographers. Now obviously I don’t have time to research deep into the vaults of photographic obscurity, because this is already cutting into my personal shooting time as it is, but I hope that the photographers I find will serve as inspirational and cautionary tales. I realize that those of you living in vast metropolises may have seen all this before, so bear with me, perhaps I should rename this category “photographers of whom I was previously unaware,” but this list would be so vast and filled with such famous names that it would be embarrassing. Ignorance is bliss et al.

My first installation of the series is dedicated to Martin Munkácsi, who I discovered through one photo in the page of Conde Nast Traveler, but who is fortunately having a little revival now thanks to retrospectives at the ICP (in 2004) and currently at SF MOMA.

This from the source of all things internet verite, Wikipedia:

Munkácsi was a newspaper writer and photographer in Hungary, specializing in sports. At the time, sports action photography could only be done in bright light outdoors. Munkácsi’s innovation was to make sports photographs as meticulously composed action photographs, which required both artistic and technical skill.

More than just sports and fashion, he photographed Berliners, rich and poor, in all their activities. He traveled to Turkey, Sicily, Egypt, London, New York, and famously Liberia, for photo spreads in the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung.

The speed of the modern age and the excitement of new photographic viewpoints enthralled him, especially flying. There are aerial photographs; there are air-to-air photographs of a flying school for women; there are photographs from a Zeppelin, including the ones on his trip to Brazil, where he crosses over a boat whose passengers wave to the airship above.

On March 21, 1933, he photographed the fateful “Day of Potsdam”, where the aged President Paul von Hindenburg handed Germany over to Adolf Hitler. On assignment for the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, he photographed Hitler’s inner circle, ironically because he was a Jew and a foreigner.

In 1934, the Nazis nationalized the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, fired its Jewish editor-in-chief, Kurt Korff, and replaced its innovative photography with pictures of German troops.

Munkácsi left for New York, where he signed on, for a substantial $100,000, with Harper’s Bazaar, a top fashion magazine. Innovatively, he often left the studio to shoot outdoors, on the beach, on farms and fields, at an airport. He produced one of the first articles illustrated with nude photographs in a popular magazine.

Martin Munkacsi, photographing for Harper’s Bazzar in Long Island, taking an angle shot of a diver, 1935 © Joan Munkacsi

Martin Munkacsi, photographing for Harper’s Bazzar in Long Island, taking an angle shot of a diver, 1935 © Joan Munkacsi

His portraits include Katharine Hepburn, Leslie Howard, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, Jane Russell, Louis Armstrong, and the definitive dance photograph of Fred Astaire.

Munkácsi died in poverty and controversy. Several universities and museums declined to accept his archives, and they were scattered around the world.

Berlin’s Ullstein Archives and Hamburg’s F. C. Gundlach collection are home to two of the largest collections of Munkácsi’s work.

In 1932, the young Henri Cartier-Bresson, at the time an undirected photographer who catalogued his travels and his friends, saw the Munkácsi photograph Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika, taken on a beach in Liberia. Cartier-Bresson later said, “For me this photograph was the spark that ignited my enthusiasm. I suddenly realized that, by capturing the moment, photography was able to achieve eternity. It is the only photograph to have influenced me. This picture has such intensity, such joie de vivre, such a sense of wonder that it continues to fascinate me to this day.” He paraphrased this many times during his life, including the quotation, “I suddenly understood that photography can fix eternity in a moment. It is the only photo that influenced me. There is such intensity in this image, such spontaneity, such joie de vivre, such miraculousness, that even today it still bowls me over.”

Richard Avedon said of Munkácsi, “He brought a taste for happiness and honesty and a love of women to what was, before him, a joyless, loveless, lying art. Today the world of what is called fashion is peopled with Munkácsi’s babies, his heirs…. The art of Munkácsi lay in what he wanted life to be, and he wanted it to be splendid. And it was.”

In 2007, the International Center of Photography mounted an exhibit of Munkácsi’s photography titled, Martin Munkácsi: Think While You Shoot! in conjunction with the show Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Scrapbook: Photographs, 1932-46.

Fred Astaire on his Toes, 1936 © Joan Munkacsi

Fred Astaire on his Toes, 1936 © Joan Munkacsi

I don’t know how one could burn through $100000 in the 1930’s, but I am inspired on many levels: to shoot some black and white, to up the savings in my retirement account, and to finish up this blog post to go out and shoot.


One thought on “Who the #@$% is Martin Munkácsi?

  1. Martin Munkacsi’s amazing daughter, Joan, died yesterday of cancer. She was a dear friend of mine. She taught me many things, not the least of which is the story of her father and his amazing legacy.


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