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Martin Munkácsi: Photographer stopped the moment

In the 1930’s a photographer named Martin Munkácsi who had come to America to escape the Nazis, was highly respected through his work in Harper’s Baazar and was the highest paid photographer in history. He never worked indoors and always in black and white.

He always used large format cameras and changed fashion photography. Dynamic pictures in new settings and women who seemed happy about the fact of being free.

His knowledge of composition, -his father was a painter who worked as a magician to earn some money on Sundays- made him the “man who liberated women”. His images possess a new dimension and the models stopped looking languid and gloomy. Instead they looked sporty, cheerful and attractive.

For most of his life he was an adventurer and began the search for good pictures during the 1930’s and 40’s. From Berlin, the young Hungarian travelled to New York, London, Liberia, Rio de Janeiro, Hawaii, Turkey, Seville and San Francisco, looking for stories to shoot.

In all his images, from sport event and reporting to photos of starlets like Greta Garbo, Katherine Hepburn and Leni Riefenstahl, he projects an air of informality. He always refused anything other than the natural “all the great photographs today are snapshots” he would say.

Henri Cartier-Bresson confessed that the photo that touched him most in his life and made him to go out on the street with his first Leica was a picture taken by Munkácsi in 1932 on a beach in Liberia, in which some children are entering the water. That picture stopped beauty for a moment.His camera also shot a volatile Fred Astaire on white background and the strong descent on skis of a young Leni Riefenstahl; but apart from motion he printed poetry to a scene of a naked woman hidden behind a parasol. The images were an idea: “Think while you shoot”.

When he died of a heart attack in 1963 at age 67, his archives was offered to several museums and universities. No one was interested. Until five years ago the world knew of only 300 of his images, until one day on eBay 4000 glass negatives appeared that had been found in Connecticut. The ICP (International Center of Photography in New York) negotiated a price and bought it all.

The lost Munkácsi negatives now reveal that the decisive moments were but a long history of successful, masterfully cultivated staging.

He was the photographer that on March 21, 1933, photographed the president of Germany handing over the government to Adolf Hitler in Potsdam. After taking that picture he knew he had to emigrate.

The legendary editor in chief Carmel Snow at Harper’s Bazaar hired him. His first picture was that of a beautiful woman in a flowing robe next to a large tree. With his passion for moving and dynamic images Munkácsi got “unexpected angles”.

With Kurt Safranski, who also had emigrated, Munkácsi created a model of a weekly magazine based on the Berliner Zeitung Illustrirte. William Randolph Hearst rejected that idea, but Henry Luce bought it. It was the unforgettable magazine “Life” in which they both worked and made it the most successful photographic magazine in history.

In the 1940s Munkacsi was a successful celebrity in his own right. A heart attack in 1943 marked the beginning of a slow decline.

His collapse came just as quickly as his fame. At the time of his death he lived practically penniless.

Today, he is considered a genius of fashion photography and he advanced a model of women that still survives.


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