Boys Running Into the Surf at Lake Tanganyika," from around 1930, is
Innovator and Master, Side by Side
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. I said, ‘Damn it,’ took my 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. Hungarian-born, a star of Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, the leading illustrated German newsmagazine, 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.
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. Today the International Center of Photography is opening two shows, one devoted to him, the other to Cartier-Bresson. Both men might have appreciated the coincidence. In the end Munkacsi was no Cartier-Bresson, but at his best he was magnificent and the shows complement each other, highlighting modernism at its peak between the world wars.
First things first: “Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Scrapbook: Photographs, 1932-46,” arrived by way of the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris, has more than 300 of the prints he glued into a picture album during the mid-1940s. The album summed up what he considered his best work to date, making it a kind of autobiography. He toted the book from Paris to New York in 1946 for curators at the Museum of Modern Art to cull.
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.
Thereafter he squirreled the scrapbook away, first in an old suitcase, then half-hidden in a bookcase, for years telling his wife, the photographer Martine Franck, that it was his most precious possession and had to be preserved at all costs, until she discovered him one day, late in life, removing photos from the disintegrating pages.
The current exhibition reconstructs as best as possible the layout of the scrapbook as he originally organized the pictures, and it also has a few (strangely poor) enlargements from the 1947 MoMA show. It’s an eye-straining affair (bring a magnifying glass), and not all the pictures are great, but as a window onto Cartier-Bresson’s operating methods, it surveys the revolutionary work he shot in Spain, Italy, Mexico, Britain and France before he helped form the Magnum agency and embarked on a fresh chapter in life. It’s curious for what he left out of the album, although in general he was an astonishingly perspicacious judge of himself.
Here are the familiar, and, more interestingly, some less familiar, shots of crowds in Hyde Park in London at George VI’s coronation, of picnickers on the banks of the Marne in France and whores in Valencia, Spain. Here are the Mexican street urchins from Juchitán and the beggars in Mexico City; the portraits of Matisse in bed in Nice (still glued to a now-restored scrapbook page) and of Bonnard, a fragile bird, stooped and wrapped in a scarf at Le Cannet.
The Gare St. Lazare puddle-jumper photograph is here too, uncropped and a little hard to decipher on a scale barely larger than a postage stamp. Cartier-Bresson rarely cropped pictures, but in this case it made the difference between another variation on a clichéd subject and a landmark in the history of photography.
The picture of a bicyclist zooming past the bottom of a winding staircase in Hyères, near Marseilles, is also here, its symmetry of coiled vectors, like nearly everything he did, caught as if miraculously on the fly. The world was full of eloquent rhymes and mysterious patterns, if you had the eyes to notice them. That was his message, and you see in the scrapbook how he tested one angle, then another, looking for a picture that, in a sense, he already had in his mind’s eye, then composing, in an instant, what finally materialized.
His taste for uncanny detail linked him to Surrealism and Surrealist wit, but unlike many Surrealists, he remained committed to human values. Boys mug at his camera. Prostitutes swan. Their gazes equalize them with us.
From Munkacsi he took a playfulness and graphic pizzazz, 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. “Martin Munkacsi: Think While You Shoot!” (the title borrows from an article he wrote in 1935 for Harper’s Bazaar) is not the first Munkacsi show. “Style in Motion” at the International Center of Photography in 1979, a couple of gallery shows by the dealers Daniel Wolf and Howard Greenberg, and a survey at the Fashion Institute of Technology in the early 90’s somehow didn’t revive his name.
This is the most complete retrospective, with a thick catalog (not too well researched) and dozens of vintage prints from the 1920s through the early ’60s. It relies on a collection painstakingly amassed over the years by F. C. Gundlach (he also edited the catalog) and on archives from Ullstein, the German publisher. Joan Munkacsi, the photographer’s daughter, has shared what she could about a father who died when she was young. Many of Munkacsi’s archives have been lost or scattered to the winds, so this may be the best overview we’re likely to get.
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.
In 1928 he moved to Berlin, where the opportunities were better, and traveled the world on assignment for Ullstein, not just to Africa but also to Brazil, Algeria and Egypt. He made bird’s-eye views from zeppelins above the ocean and close-ups of mosquitoes carrying yellow fever in Rio de Janeiro.
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.
The Nazis were already identifying Jewish photographers and Jewish-run publishers like Ullstein when Munkacsi did a spread on Hitler and Goebbels in Potsdam, showing an immaculate column of Nazi soldiers on the march. He clearly wasn’t political, or especially clairvoyant, and an argument in the catalog that these pictures slyly criticized Hitler ignores plain sight.
Munkacsi was a stylist, and he made catchy images the only way he knew how, in a modernist mode, which, being an opportunistic form, could serve any master. 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.
So what went wrong? Munkacsi suffered a constellation of misfortunes. A daughter died. He separated from his second wife. He moved to Ladies’ Home Journal, where his work suffered. Then he had a heart attack and had to cut back on assignments. His contract at Ladies’ Home Journal wasn’t renewed. He tried screenplays and film. He began his own version of a scrapbook, an autobiography of recycled pictures he hoped to publish but never finished called “The Fabulous World of Munkacsi.”
After another divorce, alimony payments piled up while he squandered his fortune. When he died there was only a half-eaten can of spaghetti, with a fork still in it, in his refrigerator.
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. In the show you can see him become repetitious and run out of ideas. 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.”
“Martin Munkacsi: Think While You Shoot!” and “Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Scrapbook: Photographs, 1932-46” continue through April 29 at the International Center of Photography, 1133 Avenue of the Americas, at 43rd Street, (212) 857-0000, icp.org.