"to see in a thousandth of a second that which the ordinary person passes without notice - this is the theory of photo reporting. And to photograph what we see during the next thousandth of a second - that is the practical side of photo reporting."
|"Peignoir in Soft Breeze," 1936|
|"Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera," 1933|
|"Eva Szaplone in Rumbleseat," 1932|
|"Katherine Hepburn," 1935|
|"Tibor von Halmay and Vera Mahlke," ca. 1931|
Martin Munkácsi Obituray from Obit-Mag.com by Phyllis Tuchman
|"Woman on Electrical Productions Building,|
World's Fair, New York," 1938
For most of his life, Martin Munkacsi was a madcap adventurer, Candide with a camera. In pursuit of great pictures during the 1930s and ’40s, the Hungarian-born photographer traveled from his home in Berlin and, later, New York to such far-flung places as London, Liberia, Rio de Janeiro, Hawaii, Turkey, Seville and San Francisco. To this day, Munkacsi’s prints of sporting events, leisure activities, fashion, portraiture and political events remain unrivaled for their energy and flair. Using a 4x5 reflex camera by Adams of London for portraits and a 4x5 speed graphic camera for the outdoors, he combined formal inventiveness with a crack reporter’s nose for a good story. His admirers included colleagues as different as photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson and Richard Avedon, the fashion photographer.
Munkacsi’s mantra could not have been simpler. “My trick,” he wrote in 1935, “consists [of] discarding all tricks.” To be sure, his pictures of car races, amusement park rides and bathers in the surf as well as starlets like Greta Garbo, Leni Riefenstahl and Katherine Hepburn project an air of informality. “Never,” Munkacsi advised, “pose your subjects, Let them move about naturally.” At the height of the Depression he declared, “All great photographs today are snapshots.”
Munkacsi is in the news with a batch of fresh gelatin prints, currently on view at New York’s International Center of Photography as part of the Extremely Hungary festival. They were developed from the photographer’s recently discovered lost glass negatives, which no one expected to see again. After Munkacsi died from a heart attack in 1963 at the age of 67, his archive was offered to several museums and universities. There were no takers. Two years ago, when the ICP mounted a 150-print retrospective of the Hungarian’s work, only 300 images were tracked down. After the New York show, more than 4,000 glass negatives spanning Munkacsi’s entire career turned up on eBay. They were in Connecticut filed in small boxes that collectively weighed more than 300 pounds. The ICP negotiated a price and bought them.
Morton Mermelstein was born on May 18, 1896, in Transylvania. His father, a house painter and part-time magician who had experienced anti-Semitism, changed the family name, working a twist on Munkacs, a Hungarian village. The fourth of seven children, the future photographer loved sports, particularly soccer, and was clever enough to make his own pair of ice skates. As an adult, he retained his playful character. According to his daughter Joan, he “would never simply throw a piece of paper in a wastebasket. He would toss it first in the air, butt it with his head, bounce it off his elbow and kick it backward with his foot into the basket.”
At 11, Munkacsi started running away from home. He left for good when he was 16. Initially, he painted houses in Budapest. A year later, he joined Az Est
, a daily sports journal, as a reporter assigned to cover soccer matches and car races. The precocious teenager also became an interviewer for two weekly publications. After war broke out, he also took photographs with a homemade camera for Az Est
as well as a theater weekly.
In 1923, as he was riding a trolley to an out-of-town assignment, Munkacsi photographed street scenes with his latest camera. When he returned to Budapest a week later, he discovered he had unwittingly made a record of an explosive event. His snapshots proved that an old man accused of murdering one of the Kaiser’s soldiers had acted in self-defense. In 1966, after the opening of Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow-Up
, which chronicles a photographer’s discovery of a murder, Joan Munkacsi’s mother said, “They stole your father’s plot!”
In 1927, at 31, Munkacsi moved to Berlin. He signed a contract with a large publishing house and a year later began taking photographs for Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung
, a picture magazine with two million subscribers. His cover shots included one aloft in the dining room of the dirigible Graf Zeppelin; another with Greta Garbo’s legs appearing beneath a large, striped beach umbrella; and a third of Leni Riefenstahl on skies when she was acting in mountain-themed movies.
During his Berlin period, Munkacsi’s ebullient print of three naked boys running into the foam-crested waters of Liberia’s Lake Tanganyika caught the attention of Henri Cartier-Bresson, then a painter. In a flash, the Frenchman changed careers. “It is only that one photograph which influenced me,” he later said. “There is in that image such intensity, spontaneity, such a joy of life, such a prodigy…” The joyful scene seems typical of what Cartier-Bresson famously termed the decisive moment. Ironically, the negatives in Munkacsi’s lost archive now reveal that the Hungarian’s decisive moments were the result of cropping masterfully and setting the right scene.
On March 21, 1933, Munkacsi photographed the president of Germany turning over the government to Adolph Hitler in Potsdam. Munkacsi saw the writing on the wall. Within three months, he hightailed it to New York, where his future lay in fashion photography.
At Harpers Bazaar
, Carmen Snow, the legendary — then fledgling — editor-in-chief hired him. The charming Hungarian with a great sense of humor treated fashion shoots as if they were sports events, bringing his models outdoors and setting them in motion. Early on, he photographed a beautiful woman in a flowing peignoir beside a large tree. Another print featured an elegant Manhattanite in a tweed suit and cloche hat, holding an umbrella and leaping across a puddle. With his penchant for animated, dynamic images, Munkacsi found Fred Astaire dancing to be his ideal celebrity subject. Heeding his own advice, the photographer would “pick unexpected angles. Lie down on [my] back.”
With Kurt Safranski, a fellow émigré, Munkacsi created a mock-up for an American photo weekly based on Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung
. After William Randolph Hearst turned down the idea, the two men went to Henry Luce, who bought it. Safranksi became the first managing editor of Life
magazine and Munkacsi a staff photographer.
By the 1940s, Munkacsi was a celebrity in his own right. He boasted of his big contracts, his penthouse triplex in Tudor City, his extravagant house in Sands Point on Long Island’s North Shore. A heart attack he suffered in 1943 was the start of a slow decline. Though he’d been earning as much as $4,000 a month from Ladies Home Journal
for a series devoted to “How America Lives” — between 1940-46, he shot 65 of its 78 features — he did not adapt to working in color when the magazine was redesigned after WWII. His contract wasn’t renewed, and a year later Harper’s Bazaar
dropped him as well.
Munkacsi got by on freelance work, from Reynolds Aluminum, Ford and Kings Features, among others. At this point, his life sounds like a cross between Funny Face, the film that’s a veiled portrait of Richard Avedon, and this year’s The Wrestler
, which depicts a down-on-his-luck legend. Munkacsi even sold his cameras to make ends meet. He was practically destitute and all but forgotten at the time of his death.
Avedon eulogized his predecessor in Harpers Bazaar
, remembering the Munkacsi pictures that had inspired him. He praised the Hungarian who “brought a taste for happiness and honesty and a love of women to what was before him a joyless, loveless, lying art…. He wanted his world a certain way and what a way!”