He made his way from a local newspaper writer and sports photographer, to a stylistic pioneer of action photography, to the most famous and well-paid fashion and celebrity photographer in the world. And yet, only dedicated photography fans remember Martin Munkacsi, who died in 1963 in poverty, 30 years after he escaped Nazi Germany via a $100,000 annual contract from Harper’s Bazaar. How he came to be forgotten, and lost the career that made him famous, has never been satisfactorily explained. On his death, his negatives were lost, and his ex-wife found his apartment nearly empty, barring a half-eaten tin of spaghetti, the fork still in the can.
Munkacsi’s career got a boost from a murder; he witnessed a street fight, camera in hand, and the published photos helped convict the killer. This new use for photography made him famous, although he’d already made a name for himself in Hungary, shooting motorcycle races (like the Hungarian TT) and car races, boxing matches, and other sporting events. He claimed, “My trick consists of discarding all tricks,” and his work emphasized plein-air naturalness throughout his career, even in 1930s fashion photography, which was notoriously static before he began shooting models outdoors with natural light. It was how he learned to shoot, after all, using a 4×5″ Graflex camera at sporting events, where strong natural light was required. His trick, though he denied it, was an innate genius for composition, with his best photos – even spontaneously shot – looking perfectly structured, with a balance of light and dark, but full of energy and motion. As one critic put it, ‘his work should come with a soundtrack.’
After the ‘murder photo’ spread his name in 1928, Munkacsi was called to Europe’s thriving capitol, Berlin, to work for the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung (Berlin Illustrated Times). His first published photo was a motorcycle splashing through water, and while he was ever attracted to machines in motion, his big paycheck came from the fashion world, where he un-crossed the legs of proper ladies, and photographed them running through nature in beautiful clothes, which nobody had ever done. He followed the muse of the latest type of image-making, the snapshot, saying “All great photographs today are snapshots.” What would he think of the ubiquitous iPhone selfie?
His fashion work for Die Dame (The Lady) made him internationally famous, and allowed him to travel globally, capturing people in Turkey, Sicily, Egypt, London, and Liberia, sending back amazing photo stories for the Zeitung. These photos were profoundly influential to a younger generation of photographers, and Henri Cartier-Bresson, on seeing the photograph ‘Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika’, said “For me this photograph was the spark that ignited my enthusiasm. I suddenly realized that, by capturing the moment, photography was able to achieve eternity. It is the only photograph to have influenced me. This picture has such intensity, such joie de vivre, such a sense of wonder that it continues to fascinate me to this day.”
On March 21, 1933, Munkacsi photographed ‘the Day of Potsdam’, when German President Paul von Hindenburg relinquished power to Adolf Hitler. The following year, the Jewish-owned Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung was nationalized, and published only photos of soldiers henceforth. Munkacsi was himself Jewish, born Márton Mermelstein, and his father had changed the family name to avoid the anti-Semitism prevalent in all of Europe at the time. But a name change wasn’t shield enough from the Nazis, and Munkacsi left for New York City in 1934, where he landed that job at Harper’s Bazaar. His outdoor shoots transformed fashion photography in the USA, and soon led to a thriving celebrity portrait career, using the same style of impromptu yet brilliantly choreographed photos capturing movie stars in their home (or fantasy) worlds. His shots of Katherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Louis Armstrong, and Fred Astaire are legendary, and sometimes definitive; the typical glamour shots of movie stars of the day are hazy and static, but Munkacsi brought their energy to the page.
For whatever reason, several museums and universities declined the offer of his archives in the early 1960s, and on Munkacsi’s death in 1963, his life’s work was considered lost. Amazingly though, his archive turned up on eBay. That’s where the chief curator of New York’s International Center for Photography, Brian Wallis, spotted it for sale for $1Million (it’s always a Million Dollars!), and the collection was right across the river, in Connecticut. A personal visit, some fundraising, and 300lbs of cardboard boxes filled with glass negatives later, and thousands of Munkacsi’s photographs are in the collection of ICP, who held an exhibition of the work in 2007, as ‘Munkacsi’s Lost Archive’. It was the first push towards a revival of his reputation, which had nearly vanished into obscurity; his work deserves a better fate.