Ernst Haas

Ernst Haas was a photojournalist and a pioneering color photographer. During his 40-year career, the Austrian-born artist bridged the gap between photojournalism and the use of photography as a medium for expression and creativity. In addition to his prolific coverage of events around the globe after World War II, Haas was an early innovator in color photography. His images were widely disseminated by magazines like Life and Vogue and, in 1962, were the subject of the first single-artist exhibition of color photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. He served as president of the cooperative Magnum Photos, and his book The Creation (1971) was one of the most successful photography books ever, selling 350,000 copies.

Haas was born in Vienna, Austria, on March 2, 1921. He was the son of Ernst Haas, a high-level civil servant, and Frederike Haas-Zipser. His older brother was named Fritz. Haas was raised in the grand cultural climate of Vienna before World War II. His parents, who placed great value upon education and the arts, encouraged his creative pursuits from an early age. His father enjoyed music and photography, his mother wrote poetry and aspired to be an artist. Haas became so proficient in painting and drawing that eventually his teachers had him act as a judge, rather than a participant, in artistic competitions among his peers. As a painter, he had particular interest in an artwork’s formal qualities, and developed a refined sense of composition and perspective.

From 1935 to 1938, Haas attended LEH Grinzing, a private school in Vienna, where he studied art, literature, poetry, philosophy, and science. World War II interrupted his formal education in 1938, when the school was closed following Germany’s invasion of Austria. The following year, Haas received his diploma from Rainier Gymnasium. Haas was sent to a labor camp of the German army, working six hours a day in exchange for two daily hours of school attendance. He managed to leave the service in 1940 and returned to Vienna to study medicine. Haas was only able to complete one year of medical school before laws changed and he was forced out as a result of his Jewish ancestry.

Haas was uninterested in learning photography as a child, though his father an avid amateur tried to share his interest. Upon his father’s death in 1940, however, Haas first entered the darkroom, learning to print old family negatives. His interest grew, and he soon began to take his own photographs.

Though his formal education was complicated by the war, Haas was an autodidact and worked tirelessly to learn the medium. In 1941 as the school photographer of the Max Reinhardt Film Seminar, he managed to attend technical classes and developed a lifelong interest in filmmaking. Haas also took advantage of his family’s extensive library, as well as museums and libraries in Vienna. He studied philosophy and poetry, in particular, both of which informed his beliefs about the creative potential for photography.

A Poet’s Camera (1949), which combined poetry with metaphoric imagery by artists like Edward Weston, was particularly important to Haas’s early development. Many of his first extant photographs close-ups of plants, water, and natural forms reflect its influence. Unsure of his career path, Haas realized that photography could provide both a means of support and a vehicle for communicating his ideas. He obtained his first camera in 1946, at the age of 25, trading a 20-pound block of margarine for a Rolleiflex on the Vienna black market. Of the decision, he later said:

I never really wanted to be a photographer. It slowly grew out of the compromise of a boy who desired to combine two goals explorer or painter. I wanted to travel, see and experience. What better profession could there be than the one of a photographer, almost a painter in a hurry, overwhelmed by too many constantly changing impressions? But all my inspirational influences came much more from all the arts than from photo magazines.

In 1947 Haas presented his first exhibition at the American Red Cross in Vienna, where he had a part-time position teaching photography to soldiers. Taking a portfolio of his work to Zurich, he drew the interest of Arnold Kübler, an editor for the magazine du. After reviewing his photographs, Kübler introduced Haas to Swiss photographer Werner Bischof’s images of Berlin after the war. Bischof’s work was a revelation; inspired by its example, Haas began to consider how an image could simultaneously tell a story and function as an autonomous work of art. When Haas returned home, he similarly documented the war’s effects in Vienna, approaching the city as a serious reporter with a keen but empathetic eye. His photographs show the endurance of the human spirit despite the devastated urban environment.

Haas’s photographic output matured rapidly. He earned assignments from magazines like Heute, often working with fellow correspondent Inge Morath. In 1947, while scouting locations for a fashion shoot, Haas and Morath witnessed prisoners of war disembarking a train and began documenting their arrival. Haas’s images show the anticipation and grief of people searching for their lost relatives among the survivors. The resulting photo essay, Homecoming, was published in both Heute and Life magazine.

Warren Trabant showed Robert Capa, the war photographer, Haas’s Homecoming photographs before they were published. Upon reviewing his work, Capa invited the young photographer to travel to Paris and join the international photographic cooperative Magnum Photos, then two years old. Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger, David Chim Seymour, Werner Bischof, and William Vandivert were already members. At the same time, Haas was offered a staff photographer position at Life. Forced to choose between two opportunities, he decided he did not want to be limited by Life’s restrictive scope. As a Magnum photographer, Haas would have autonomy over the stories he decided to tell and where he traveled. Describing his decision in a letter to Life editor Wilson Hicks, Haas wrote: What I want is to stay free, so that I can carry out my ideas... I don’t think there are many editors who could give me the assignments I give myself...

After carrying out assignments in Vienna and London, Haas conceived of an extensive project about America. Visas to the United States were difficult to obtain, but in 1950 Robert Capa appointed him Magnum’s U.S. Vice President. With this position, Haas was able to obtain the proper documentation, and he arrived in New York in May of that year. The first images Haas took in the United States showed fellow immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. They showed people in transition, coming to an unfamiliar place and beginning a new life.

By the time of Haas’ arrival, the streets of New York had already become a popular subject for photographers who sought to document all aspects of life. His approach was less direct and confrontational than that of such contemporaneous colleagues as Lisette Model or William Klein. Wrote critic A.D. Coleman: Haas was a lyric poet pursuing a photographic equivalent of gestural drawing, utilizing such photographic effects as softness of focus, selective depth of field, and overexposure to telling effect. While Haas would continue traveling the world for his work, he lived for the rest of his life in New York City.

In 1952 Haas hitchhiked across the United States to White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, planning to photograph Native Americans. He was enchanted by the landscape and its unusual colors, different than anything he had experienced before. Working with the vast area’s changing light and clouds, Haas also photographed symbols, local details, and tourist oddities. His finished photo essay, published by Life as Land of Enchantment in a six-page spread, was well received by readers and prompted the magazine to invite another project. According to writer (and early Magnum employee) Inge Bondi, Haas’ Western chronicle was the first major story he created based on his own instinct and at his own financial risk.

Once back in New York, Haas purchased color film to begin a new project in the city. He had experimented with color as early as 1949, but this would be his first opportunity to work seriously with what was still a scarce and expensive medium. Haas spent two months photographing New York, and in 1953 Life published his vivid images. Titled Images of a Magic City, the sprawling 24-page story spanned two issues. According to critic Andy Grundberg, these images brought photography into the precincts of abstract expressionism.

Though Haas continued to use black-and-white film for much of his career, color film and visual experimentalism became integral to his photography. He frequently employed techniques like shallow depth of field, selective focus, and blurred motion to create evocative, metaphorical works. He became interested in, as he put it, "transforming an object from what it is to what you want it to be. Beyond the physical place, person, or object he depicted, Haas hoped to reflect the joy of looking and of human experience.

Haas supported his adventurous personal work with commercially viable photojournalism, advertising, and motion picture stills photography. While on such assignments, he would make his own photographs, translating his passion for poetry, music, painting, and adventure into color imagery. His reputation on the rise, Haas traveled the world, photographing the U.S., Europe, South Africa, and Southeast Asia in expressionistic color.

In the late 1940s, Haas switched from his medium format Rolleiflex to the smaller 35mm Leica rangefinder camera, which he used consistently for the rest of his career. Once he began working in color, he most often used Kodachrome, known for its rich, saturated colors. To print his color work, Haas used the dye transfer process whenever possible. An expensive, complex process most frequently used at the time for advertising, dye transfer allowed for great control over color hue and saturation.

As the technology of color photography evolved and improved during this period, audience interest in color imagery increased. Many of the magazines that published Haas’ work, such as Life, improved the quality of their color reproduction, and increasingly sought to include his work in the medium. Despite this progress, many photographers, curators, and historians were initially reluctant to consider color photography as art, given the technology’s commercial origins.

In 1962 the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) presented a ten-year survey of Haas’s color photography. Titled Ernst Haas: Color Photography, the exhibition marked MoMA’s first solo-artist retrospective exhibition dedicated to color work, and took place during Edward Steichen’s final year as director of the museum's Department of Photography. It was realized by Steichen’s successor John Szarkowski, and consisted of about 80 prints including Haas’s motion studies and color essays. Of Haas’ revelatory color imagery, Steichen has said: He is a free spirit, untrammelled by tradition and theory, who has gone out and found beauty unparalleled in photography. No exhibition catalogue was produced at the time, but the original prints exist, allowing a much later re-creation of the exhibition.

Before his solo exhibition at MoMA, Haas had been included in Steichen’s exhibition The Family of Man, which premiered in 1955 and traveled to 38 countries. Haas was a respected stills photographer for many films, including The Misfits, Little Big Man, Moby Dick, Hello Dolly, West Side Story, and Heaven's Gate. John Huston employed Haas as a second-unit director for his 1966 film The Bible: In the Beginning (a.k.a. The Bible), to visualize the section devoted to creation.

In addition to editorial journalism and unit stills work, Haas was also highly regarded for advertising photography, contributing groundbreaking campaigns for Volkswagen automobiles and Marlboro cigarettes, among other clients. In the early 1970s Haas became interested in creating audiovisual slideshows long sequences of projected imagery with accompanying soundtracks, dissolving from one image into the next. I love music, he explained, and with my audiovisual presentation I can combine music and photography.

After suffering a stroke in December 1985, Haas concentrated on layouts for two books he wanted to publish, one featuring his black and white photographs, the other his color. At the time of his death from a stroke on September 12, 1986, he had been preparing to write his autobiography.

Over his 40-year career, Haas established a remarkable legacy. His abstract aesthetic, use of color, and innovative use of technology remain vital and influential. In 1958, Haas was listed as one of the 10 greatest photographers in the world by Popular Photography magazine, along with Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Eisenstadt, Philippe Halsman, Yousuf Karsh, Gjon Mili, Irving Penn, and W. Eugene Smith. His importance to photography was underscored in 1986, when he won the Hasselblad Award just before his death.

A number of awards have been created in Haas’s honor, including the Ernst Haas Award for Creative Photography by the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP); and the Ernst Haas Photographers Grant, funded by Kodak, at the Maine Photographic Workshops. In 1998 the Ernst Haas Studio archive was sent to London to be housed at the Hulton Getty Picture Library as part of a licensing agreement with Getty Images. In 1999 the Ernst Haas Memorial Collection was established at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine.

The Ernst Haas Estate is operated by his children, Alexander Haas and Victoria Haas.
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