Dreaming With Open Eyes: Ernst Haas

“You become things, you become an atmosphere, and if you become it, which means you incorporate it within you, you can also give it back. You can put this feeling into a picture. A painter can do it. And a musician can do it and I think a photographer can do that too and that I would call the dreaming with open eyes.” – Ernst Haas

In all of the Spotlights I have written, I have never come across a photographer so respected by his peers as was Ernst Haas. He was one of the most celebrated photographers of the 20th century as well as one of the pioneers of color photography. Artists such as Cartier-Bresson, Cornell Capa, and Elliott Erwitt counted Haas as one of the greats. Ansel Adams expressed his admiration of him in a letter, saying, “I am very happy you exist. Photography is a better art because you exist. Can I say more? No!” Jay Maisel has said, “It is rare that the man equals the artist: Ernst did… His work was awesome, not just to me, but to an entire generation of photographers. The depth and breadth of it will emerge for years to come. I think it will be a startling revelation because he was as prolific as he was sensitive. He had a different head. It wasn’t overly crammed with photography; it was full of music, art, philosophy, and history. In short, he was a rarity, a well-educated man without cynicism, in love with the work around him.”

Haas had a gift which is obvious to anyone who sees his work. He was prolific in commercial photography, celebrity photography, and photojournalism, but where he excelled was his personal work. It was almost as if he were able to write poetry through his camera. He had an uncanny ability to see light and shadows, colors and lines, textures and movement in a way that most people simply don’t. He could turn pieces of torn magazines or even a tossed-aside pair of underwear into something incredible.

Ernst Haas was born in Austria in 1921. A Jew coming of age during the ascent of Hitler, he saw his homeland go through a tremendous amount of hardship and suffering. Growing up with very artistic parents (his mother wrote poetry and loved art and his father was an avid amateur photographer), he had always had an affinity for art and painting. When it came time for university, however, he abandoned his promising painting career and decided to pursue medicine, hoping to help alleviate some of the horrors taking place around him. Unfortunately, after one short year he was prohibited from finishing his studies due to his Jewish ancestry. This was just the turning point he needed – he got a job at a photo studio and began studying photography. It was during this time that he started looking at work by Edward Weston, whose pictures made him realize that photography could be used to create art. It didn’t have to be just a moment captured in time, but could be whatever the photographer wanted it to be.

He bought his first camera in 1946 – actually, it wasn’t so much bought as it was traded for. He had received 10 kilos of margarine for his 25th birthday and he proceeded to go to the black market to trade it for a 35mm Rollieflex. “I never really wanted to be a photographer,” he said. “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.”

With the camera in his hands he was able to get a job working for the Austrian magazine, Heute, doing landscape and pastoral type scenes which he found fairly dull. He suggested to the editor that they do something more relevant to the city of Vienna, so he was assigned to do a fashion shoot. While on his way there he saw dozens of people waiting at the train station. When he found out they were waiting for loved ones, POWs returning from the war, he completely skipped out on his assignment to shoot the scene that was unfolding in front of him. This series, called Homecoming Prisoners, encompassed so much feeling and empathy and it was the turning point in his career. They were published in Heute and seen by the editor of LIFE who offered him a job as a staff photographer. The editor later said, “…When I saw that first set of pictures, I knew I had stumbled upon a genius and I felt a chill up and down my spine.”

The editor at LIFE was not the only one who was impressed. Magnum founder Robert Capa also saw the images and asked Haas to join Magnum as a photojournalist; it was the first invitation issued from the newly formed agency. Haas chose to accept Capa’s invitation over the one from LIFE. He was very independent and working for Magnum he would be able to focus on his own projects rather than be assigned things to work on. He lived in Paris for a time, traveling around Europe, shooting self-imposed projects, but he soon got weary of the oppressive atmosphere. Europe was tired and having a difficult time recovering during the post-war years, so he made the move to New York in 1951.

He had only recently begun experimenting with color photography at the time and in New York he was able to capture the excitement that he believed would not have been possible in black and white. “I loved its pulse. I loved the directness of its people. I loved all races living together, or at least trying…,” he said. “There is very little that is obvious in this city, only its constant change going on day by day, forming, transforming, construction, destruction.” He was inspired and used that inspiration to create new and vibrant images in color. He thought of this shift from black and white to color as a metaphor for what he saw happening around him. He saw the war years in Europe and the few years following “as the black and white ones, or even better, the gray years. The gray times were over. As at the beginning of a new spring, I wanted to celebrate in color the new times, filled with new hope.”

He took photographs of city streets, reflections in windows and puddles; he brought the world of photography into abstract expressionism. LIFE magazine took notice once again and gave him an unheard-of layout of 24 pages, across two issues, calling it “Magic Images of a City”. It was the first ever complete color story for the magazine. These color photographs changed the course of photography. It helped overcome the resistance to color photography as an art form and popularized abstraction as not just an artistic style, but a photographic style.

Haas, however, moved on. He was always pushing himself and experimenting. He started using slow shutter speeds to create impressionistic blurs. “To express dynamic motion through a static moment became for me limited and unsatisfactory,” he said. “The basic idea was to liberate myself from this old concept and arrive at an image in which the spectator could feel the beauty of a fourth dimension, which lies much more between moments than within a moment. In music one remembers never on tone, but a melody, a theme, a movement. In dance, never a moment, but again the beauty of a movement in time and space.” Using this new-found technique, he created an award-winning color essay on bullfighting. LIFE picked this essay up as well and critics called it “painting with the camera”.

It was during this same year, 1958, that Haas was chosen as one of the world’s 10 Greatest Photographers by Popular Photography. He was among greats such as Cartier-Bresson, Yousuf Karsh, and Richard Avedon. Haas knew, however, that this fame did not automatically translate into money. Most of his personal projects were done in between commercial jobs. He worked for companies such as Volkswagen and Marlboro doing advertising photography  – he was the one behind the camera shooting the Marlboro Man. He was also a stills photographer on several different movies such as Hello, Dolly! and The Misfits. He never wasted his time, though; he constantly took advantage of breaks to shoot for himself.

In 1962, Edward Steichen put together a ten-year retrospective of Haas’ color work at MoMA. It was the first solo color exhibit held there and it was a breakthrough for color photographers. Steichen said, “In my estimation we have experienced an epoch in photography. Here is a free spirit, untrammeled by tradition and theory, who has gone out and found beauty unparalleled in photography.” His work turned the most trivial of subjects into amazing abstract works of art. “A picture is the expression of an impression. If the beautiful were not in us, how would we ever recognize it?” Haas said.

Haas took inspiration from the world around him, whether it was music, literature, painting, or people. In 1964, he was hired to direct the Creation sequence for the John Huston film, The Bible. It was during the filming that he was inspired to work on a new project he called The Creation, where he took a selection of his photographs from different places around the world and arranged them to illustrate the story of creation based on his interpretation of Genesis. This was later published as his first book, but it was soon followed by another one he called In America, which he considered a love letter to his adopted country for its bicentennial year.

In his later years, Haas started experimenting with audiovisual presentations – combining music and poetry with his images. He was a pioneer, always ahead of his time in terms of technology, and believed that a series of images seen together added up to more than the sum of their parts. He was continuously trying to find new ways to express himself – pushing the limits of what his camera could do and what he could do with it. In 1986, after a 40-year career, Ernst Haas died of a stroke, but not before winning the Hasselblad Award for his contribution to the world of photography. People have said that before Haas there was no color photography, only colored photographs. He wrote, “Important is the end result of your work: the opus. Therefore, I want to be remembered much more by a total vision than a few perfect single pictures.”


Ernst Haas
Ernst Haas on Pinterest

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The Creation
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