Martin Munkácsi: father of fashion photography.
He was the Hungarian photographer who played a pivotal role in fashion imagery – asking his models to exchange their posed positions for the movement and life now considered customary – and yet Martin Munkácsi (1896 – 1963) is relatively – and unjustifiably –unknown outside of his field.
In 1933, Harper’s Bazaar’s editor in chief, Carmel Snow brought photojournalist Martin Munkacsi to a windswept beach to shoot a swimwear spread.
As the model ran toward the camera, Munkacsi took the picture that made fashion-magazine history.
Until that moment, nearly all fashion was carefully staged on mannequin-like models in a studio.
Morton Mermelstein was born on May 18, 1896, in Transylvania.
His father, a house painter and part-time magician who had experienced anti-Semitism, changed the family name, working a twist on Munkacs, a Hungarian village.
At 11, Munkacsi started running away from home. He left for good when he was 16. Initially, he painted houses in Budapest. A year later, he joined Az Est, a daily sports journal, as a reporter assigned to cover soccer matches and car races. The precocious teenager also became an interviewer for two weekly publications. After war broke out, he also took photographs with a homemade camera for Az Est as well as a theater weekly.
In 1923, as he was riding a trolley to an out-of-town assignment, Munkacsi photographed street scenes with his latest camera.
When he returned to Budapest a week later, he discovered he had unwittingly made a record of an explosive event. His snapshots proved that an old man accused of murdering one of the Kaiser’s soldiers had acted in self-defense.
In 1927, at 31, Munkacsi moved to Berlin.
He signed a contract with a large publishing house and a year later began taking photographs for Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, a picture magazine with two million subscribers. His cover shots included one aloft in the dining room of the dirigible Graf Zeppelin; another with Greta Garbo’s legs appearing beneath a large, striped beach umbrella; and a third of Leni Riefenstahl on skies when she was acting in mountain-themed movies.
During his Berlin period, Munkacsi’s ebullient print of three naked boys running into the foam-crested waters of Liberia’s Lake Tanganyika caught the attention of Henri Cartier-Bresson, then a painter. In a flash, the Frenchman changed careers. “It is only that one photograph which influenced me,” he later said. “There is in that image such intensity, spontaneity, such a joy of life, such a prodigy…” The joyful scene seems typical of what Cartier-Bresson famously termed the decisive moment. Ironically, the negatives in Munkacsi’s lost archive now reveal that the Hungarian’s decisive moments were the result of cropping masterfully and setting the right scene.
On March 21, 1933, Munkacsi photographed the president of Germany turning over the government to Adolph Hitler in Potsdam. Munkacsi saw the writing on the wall. Within three months, he hightailed it to New York, where his future lay in fashion photography.
At Harpers Bazaar, Carmen Snow, the legendary — then fledgling — editor-in-chief hired him.
The charming Hungarian with a great sense of humor treated fashion shoots as if they were sports events, bringing his models outdoors and setting them in motion. Early on, he photographed a beautiful woman in a flowing peignoir beside a large tree. Another print featured an elegant Manhattanite in a tweed suit and cloche hat, holding an umbrella and leaping across a puddle. With his penchant for animated, dynamic images, Munkacsi found Fred Astaire dancing to be his ideal celebrity subject. Heeding his own advice, the photographer would “pick unexpected angles. Lie down on [my] back.”
With Kurt Safranski, a fellow émigré, Munkacsi created a mock-up for an American photo weekly based on Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung. After William Randolph Hearst turned down the idea, the two men went to Henry Luce, who bought it. Safranksi became the first managing editor of Life magazine and Munkacsi a staff photographer.
By the 1940s, Munkacsi was a celebrity in his own right.
He revolutionized his art with a combination of extreme angles, unusual situations, and surprising locations. His photo of Lucile Brokaw running on the beach featured in Harper’s Bazaar (December 1933) and his photos of Leni Riefenstahl on ski-slopes, which appeared in Vanity Fair on January 1934, cemented his reputation as the “kinetic man” of photography.
When he signed $100,000 contract (equivalent to $1.5 million today) with Bazaar, he is one of the highest paid photographers in 1940.
He boasted of his big contracts, his penthouse triplex in Tudor City, his extravagant house in Sands Point on Long Island’s North Shore.
A heart attack he suffered in 1943 was the start of a slow decline. Though he’d been earning as much as $4,000 a month from Ladies Home Journal for a series devoted to “How America Lives” — between 1940-46, he shot 65 of its 78 features — he did not adapt to working in color when the magazine was redesigned after WWII. His contract wasn’t renewed, and a year later Harper’s Bazaar dropped him as well.
Munkacsi got by on freelance work, from Reynolds Aluminum, Ford and Kings Features, among others. At this point, his life sounds like a cross between Funny Face, the film that’s a veiled portrait of Richard Avedon, and this year’s The Wrestler, which depicts a down-on-his-luck legend. Munkacsi even sold his cameras to make ends meet. He was practically destitute and all but forgotten at the time of his death.
Avedon eulogized his predecessor in Harper’s Bazaar, remembering the Munkacsi pictures that had inspired him. He praised the Hungarian who “brought a taste for happiness and honesty and a love of women to what was before him a joyless, loveless, lying art…. He wanted his world a certain way and what a way!”
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