a quote by Martin Munkacsi.
In 1932 the young Henri Cartier-Bresson, lately returned from Africa, saw a photograph of African children charging into waves on a beach. “I must say that it is that very photograph which was for me the spark that set fire to fireworks,” he recalled years later. “I couldn’t believe such a thing could be caught with the camera. He said, ‘Damn it,’ took his camera and went out into the street.” What Cartier-Bresson produced during the next few years, as the curator Peter Galassi once wrote, became “one of the great, concentrated episodes in modern art.”
How much the African photograph actually shaped this work is debatable, but it struck a chord. It epitomized the combination of serendipity and joie de vivre that Cartier-Bresson admired: three naked boys, their silhouettes against white spray and sun-drenched water, making a perfect geometry.
The man who shot the picture was Martin Munkacsi.
Munkacsi was then one of the most celebrated photojournalists. He reached a pinnacle of fame and fortune in New York later that decade, claiming to be the highest-paid photographer in the world (he was notoriously self-mythologizing), revolutionizing the American fashion magazine under Carmel Snow and Alexey Brodovitch at Harper’s Bazaar. He photographed athletes and dancers in action, freed fashion photography from the confines of the studio, and set the static medium of photography in motion. Martin Munkácsi (1896-1963) is regarded as the most important pioneer of modern photojournalism.
That his name now rings few bells, even in photo circles — and would ring fewer still save for Cartier-Bresson’s nod to his influence — speaks to history’s ruthlessness, but also to a swift decline that left Munkacsi in the hallway of Harper’s offices, cadging for assignments, finally having to pawn his cameras. By his death in 1963, at 67, he was virtually forgotten. Captured by the Nazis at the start of the war, he had been presumed dead when Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, husband and wife photo curators at the Modern, planned his retrospective. Then he turned up alive, having escaped from prison camp (three times) and served with the Resistance. The “posthumous” exhibition opened, with him in attendance, in 1947.
Cartier-Bresson took playfulness and graphic pizzazz from Munkacsi , and added layer upon layer of visual complexity, held together by the most rigorous form, an inheritance of his training as a painter. Munkacsi, by contrast, was self-taught, a creature of his own devising. Unlike Cartier-Bresson he used a box camera to capture spontaneity.
He was born Marton Mermelstein in 1896. As a teenager in Budapest, he wrote gossip, news and poems for local newspapers and magazines, and to illustrate them picked up a camera. By the mid-1920s he had become a prominent photographer in Hungary.
He favored scenes of daily life, absorbing avant-garde ideas about odd angles and abstract compositions. His sports photographs epitomized his special gift for action and movement: capturing a soccer ball just as it neared a goalie’s outstretched hands or a motorcyclist at the instant he splashed through a pool of water.
He celebrated Leni Riefenstahl, flushed and sweaty, dashing down the ski slopes, and his version of a puddle-jumper became a classic. At the time pictures of athletic girls strolling the beach in sexy bathing suits or carrying striped umbrellas looked startling; respectable magazines didn’t show women with their knees apart.
Munkacsi was a stylist, and he made catchy images the only way he knew how, in a modernist mode. Shortly after that he left for the United States. On a trip to New York near the end of 1933 he was hired by Carmel Snow for a Harper’s Bazaar assignment. His picture of the socialite model Lucile Brokaw running down a Long Island beach in a bathing suit and cape introduced a whole new vocabulary of vigor and action to American fashion.
The next year Snow signed him to a contract. He became a celebrity in America. He photographed Fred Astaire dancing and Joan Crawford poolside. In Brodovitch’s jazzy layouts, the work looked brilliant.
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
More to the point, he may have done all he could with photography. A pioneer in the 20s and 30s, he invented a universe that was glamorous, yet limited. His show was grand but became repetitious . His serious work was never tremendously deep. But he passed on to fashion photographers like Richard Avedon a way of packaging beauty. In Harper’s Bazaar, Avedon paid one of the few tributes when Munkacsi died. He “brought a taste for happiness and honesty and a love of women to what was, before him, a joyless, loveless, lying art,” Avedon wrote. “Today the world of what is called fashion is peopled with Munkacsi’s babies, his heirs.” He ended: “The art of Munkacsi lay in what he wanted life to be, and he wanted it to be splendid. And it was.”