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"Martin Munkacsi: Think While You Shoot!" International Center of Photography, New York.

"Martin Munkacsi: Think While You Shoot!" International Center of Photography, New York. January 19, 2007-April 29, 2007

In the early 1930S, the photographer Martin Munkacsi (the family name was Mermelstein) rescued the genre of fashion photography from the prevailing preference for artifice. The photographer Richard Avedon paid tribute to Munkacsi's naturalistic style with Carmen (Homage to Munkacsi (1957), a remake of Munkacsi's iconic photograph of a well-dressed woman, umbrella in one hand, handbag in the other, captured gracefully mid-leap. Avedon later thanked Munkacsi for bringing "a taste for happiness and honesty and a love of women to what was, before him, a joyless, loveless, lying art."

Munkacsi's reportage also caught the eye of the young Henri Cartier-Bresson, who in 1932 was struck by the photo Boys Running into the Surf at Lake Tanganyika. Cartier-Bresson asserted that after viewing it, he knew immediately that "photography could reach eternity through the moment" and thus took his cameras to the street.

This juxtaposition of whimsical fashion and pictorial journalism is brought into high relief at the current International Center of Photography retrospective, "Martin Munkacsi: Think While You Shoot!" The exhibition coincides with "Henri Cartier-Bresson's Scrapbook: Photographs, 1932-1946," and both shows capture the "decisive moment."

Born in Hungary in 1896, Munkacsi achieved early fame with his journalistic work in Budapest, then spent the 1920S and 1930s in Berlin, working at the illustrated news journal Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung and elsewhere. His photos of the Day of Potsdam and Adolf Hitler are visually arresting, no less so because the photographer himself was Jewish. His daring often knew no bounds. His vantage point included aerials, sports, military pageantry, fashion, and portraiture. Supple and turbulent, the images resonate with a frenzied movement, captured in fine gradations of gray and the detailed observations from his large format camera. Munkacsi scorned the 35mm cameras employed by so many journalists of the day; the smallest format he used was 9 x 12 cm.

When Munkacsi was thirty-five, his work was included among the hundred best photographs in the world. While Man Ray and the Hungarians Andre Kertesz and Brassai were in Paris, Munkacsi was at the center of Berlin's cultural heyday. Technology had changed the way the world was perceived: "New Objectivity" and the "New Photography" movement dictated a sharp-focus documentary style where poetry had once prevailed. Munkasci, himself a motion junkie, quickly developed a signature style. As F. C. Gundlach put it, his gift was "to gauge movement, get a feel for fleeting compositions, be in the right place at the right time, and release the shutter."

While visiting New York in 1933, Munkacsi shot a fashion spread for Harper's Bazaar at the request of Carmel Snow, the magazine's managing editor. His photograph of the model skipping along a Long Island beach, published in the December issue, captured the essence of the modern woman--sporty, smart, and independent. After an escape from Germany, Munkacsi returned to the United States and won high-paying contracts at Harper's Bazaar and, later, Ladies' Home Journal.

His love of women is evident in The Dancer Margo on a Beach Vacation (1934), and even in the sweaty visage of The Skiing Leni Riefenstahl (1936) at the Olympic Winter Games. The abstraction of Footprint (1932) is reminiscent of the angles and perspectives of Alexander Rodchenko. Greta Garbo on Vacation (c. 1932), with two pairs of legs and a giant beach umbrella in the sand, and Munkacsi's definitive dance photograph Fred Astaire on His Toes (1936) exude style. In Peignoir in a Light Breeze (1936), a hidden thread holds the gossamer gown in midair, and Munkacsi's nudes are subtle studies of shadow and light.

Despite a lucrative career, Munkacsi's fame diminished. His third marriage, to Helen Lazar, lasted thirteen years. Munkacsi remarked to their daughter, Joan, that Helen left him sixteen times and came back fifteen. He published two volumes of poetry, in Hungary, and Fool's Apprentice, his novel, was not a big success.

In 1946, Ladies' Home Journal dropped him from their roster, and the following year Harper's let him go. His estimation of himself as the world's "greatest photographer, author, storyteller, girlwatcher, and art expert" must have made his fall seem all the more unjust. He spent his final years in compromised circumstances, and in the end he pawned his cameras. At a 1963 football match on Randall's Island, Munkacsi leapt up (with, uncharacteristically; a Leica in hand), snapped a photo, then collapsed, having suffered a second heart attack. He died at Metropolitan Hospital after being turned away from a Bronx hospital because he was a Manhattan resident. His life was a series of contrasts, but, in his work, beauty prevailed. As Avedon remarks: "The art of Munkacsi lay in what he wanted life to be, and he wanted it to be splendid. And it was."
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Title Annotation:Exhibition notes
Author:Tully, Nola
Publication:New Criterion
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Apr 1, 2007
Words:799
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