Life & Culture

Ernst Haas: the Mad Men's favourite photographer

He created an advertising icon - the Marlboro Man - while his images captured the energy of '50s and '60s America


Ernst Haas was a maverick. He used his camera almost as an antidote to the hardships he had suffered in Nazi Vienna. With only sporadic training, he turned to photography after being kicked out of medical school for being Jewish, forced into hard labour and seeing his father die, heartbroken, at being stripped of his position in the Austrian government. Yet by the 1950s, Haas was recognised as one of the world's best photographers.

When he moved to America to join Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson and the other founders at Magnum photo co-operative, he avoided workaday photojournalism, preferring to focus on his own projects, whether exploring the streets of New York, Icelandic volcanos or the Buddhist monks of Tibet. "He was always an independent thinker, from a child. It was his way or no way. The struggle during the war made his independence even stronger. He thought: 'I'm not going to jeopardise my beliefs for anyone'," says his son, Alex Haas.

Rejecting the prevailing black-and-white aesthetic, Haas embraced colour as early as 1949, which earned him the honour of becoming the first photographer to have a solo show of colour work at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York in 1962. He even explored the visual effects of movement, blurring the colours to look like they had been applied with paint.

"Haas was an experimental artist who worked with the DNA of still and moving pictures, the precursor to today's multimedia and time-based works," says Roxana Marcoci, curator of photography at MOMA.

His non-judgmental objectivity shaped the world's image of post-war America. According to Lou Proud, head of photographs at auction house Phillips de Pury & Company: "His famous image of Route 66 has got everything - the cars, the skyscrapers, even the neon ads for Conoco and Kentucky Fried Chicken. It's vibrant, exciting and fast moving - bringing to light what you think of as the quintessential image of America."

He even shot that symbol of American culture - the Marlboro Man. This and other lucrative advertisements for all-American companies such as Chrysler and Mobil financed his personal projects and far-flung travels.

According to his son, Haas's European Jewish roots influenced this sensibility. "He had an admiration of America without a sense of judgment. He took it in without thinking. He was grateful that America saved his life and wanted to express it in his photos," he says.

Now a selection of Haas's abstract colour work is published for the first time in Color Correction, re-emphasising how avant-garde his work remains with its vibrant colour contrasts, superimposed layers, shimmering reflections and poetic detail such as torn posters, fractured buildings or crumbling

His versatility remains unprecedented. "I can't imagine Henri Cartier-Bresson shooting colour and being so successful," says Proud, who formerly worked with Cartier-Bresson on his 90th birthday exhibitions.

Judah Passow, one of today's leading photojournalists, agrees: "Haas reinvented himself many times. It is hugely difficult, but he did it successfully each time. You can divide his work into distinct piles and quite easily think it is three different photographers - for example, the black-and-white post-war European work, the glossy landscapes and the highly abstract colour works."

Born in 1921, Haas turned to photography after the war to earn a living. Inspired by his father, an amateur photographer, he bought his first camera on the black market, in exchange for a lump of margarine. His impromptu photographs capturing a group of Austrian women anxiously waiting for their men to return from Russian PoW camps were a sensation. The series, Homecoming Prisoners, which famously included one distressed mother holding up a photo of her son to a smiling soldier who ignored her, was snapped up by the popular European picture magazines. The emotionally wrenching shots caught the eye of Robert Capa, who invited him to New York to join his newly formed Magnum alongside Cartier-Bresson and other eminent founders.

Inge Bondi, who worked with Haas at Magnum New York from his first day in 1951, recalled: "Ernst spoke a little English. He was in his twenties and the youngest of the group. He dressed in a custom-made corduroy suit, no buttons, zippers and pockets so that he could get at his rolls of film quickly. It was elegantly made and it said quite a bit about Ernst - different, practical and innovative."

A popular colleague, he was elected the agency's president in 1959. "He had a Jewish sense of humour. He loved life, women, a good time and to eat. My father loved any excuse to laugh and saw it as the best way to break the ice in life and work. He had suffered a lot in Austria, so he was happy to be alive. Having fun was very important," says Alex Haas.

His humour relaxed his subjects. "He captured the unguarded moments that others did not, such as his image of Alfred Einstein in his study, trying to remember where he had put a book about a German philosopher," says Ben Burdett, director of Atlas Gallery, which is showing Haas's work from next month.

Haas's contribution to photography was cemented in 1986, winning the prestigious Hasselblad Award just before his death. Yet his legacy lingers, reshaping photography as his abstract aesthetic, conceptual design and innovative use of technology remains as contemporary and exciting today as it did in the 1950s.

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