How Pioneering Photographer Ernst Haas Changed the Photo World with a Burst of Color

“Color is joy. One does not think joy. Learn by doing or even better unlearn by doing.” – Ernst Haas

Ernst Haas was a pioneering photographer who broke through the black-and-white glass ceiling with his superb color photography. He changed the way color was thought of and how it was used. And the change began in 1953 when his color work burst on the scene after Life magazine published Haas’ stunning color essay about New York titled “Images of a Magic City.”

Dozens of gorgeous color images unfolded over 24 pages and sprawled across two issues. It was the largest color feature ever published and validated the use of color as a storytelling medium and established Haas as the color photographer of the 1950s.

He followed this success in 1962 when he was given the first exhibition of color photographs to be shown at New York’s prestigious Museum of Modern Art. Originally trained as a painter he must have taken special pleasure in having his work displayed in an art museum.

©Ernst Haas Estate

Beginnings

Ernst Haas was born in Vienna, Austria in 1921, the second son of a government civil servant and growing up in a privileged upper middle class home he was surrounded by art and culture. His father was an amateur photographer and also played music, his mother wrote poetry. However despite his father’s encouragement the young Ernst showed no interest in photography. Instead, he dreamed of becoming an artist; a painter. In school he excelled in his art classes and his teachers held great hope for his artistic future.

But the German invasion of Austria in 1938 ended that dream for Haas. He was drafted into the military and spent two years working in an army labor camp. After his service he returned to Vienna and entered medical school hoping to become a doctor. But after only a year of study he was forced to leave school because of his Jewish ancestry. Haas’ father’s died in 1940 and although Ernst had had no interest in photography before, he began to print some of his father’s family negatives. He enjoyed the darkroom work and soon started to take his own photographs. Very much an autodidact, he taught himself the technical aspects of photography and developed an appreciation for the medium’s creative potential.

At end of the Second World War, Vienna was an occupied city in ruins. In that chaos, people survived however they could. Often they resorted to picking through rubble for things to sell on the black market. It was on the black market that Haas obtained his first camera, a twin-lens Rolleiflex that he got it in trade for a 20-pound block of margarine.

“I never really wanted to be a photographer,” he said. “It slowly grew out of the compromise of a boy who desired to combine two goals—explorer or painter.”

©Ernst Haas Estate

Becoming a “Serious Photographer”

Haas soon discovered the work of Swiss photographer Werner Bishchof and realized that photographs could both tell stories and be works of art too. He started thinking of himself as a serious photographer and began creating assignments for himself. His goal was to document how the Viennese were enduring and rebuilding their lives and one of these essays was about Austrian prisoners of war returning home. Called “Homecoming,” it was first published in a Viennese magazine and then republished in Life.

Robert Capa saw Haas’ “Homecoming” photographs and invited the young man to join the newly formed Magnum photo agency. At this same time, Life also offered Haas a position and Haas had to choose between the two. He chose Magnum and wrote to the editor at Life that, “What I want is to stay free, so that I can carry out my ideas... I don’t think there are many editors who could give me the assignments I give myself...”

Meeting Capa in Paris, Haas said that he wanted to move to America but was having difficulty getting a visa. Capa offered to help and his solution was simple. He named Haas Magnum’s U.S. vice president and pulled a few strings to get him his visa. Haas arrived at Ellis Island and because he had a job was able to settle in New York where he lived until his death in 1986.

“The most important lens you have is your legs.” – Ernst Haas

©Ernst Haas Estate

Words and Wisdom

I met Haas in 1969. With his rugged good looks and “gentlemanly” European manners he was fascinating. What struck me the most about this famous groundbreaking photographer was his simplicity and kindness. He took pleasure in meeting people and talking. And he loved telling humorous stories.

Once when talking about assignment work he recalled that one day his agent rang him up with a possible job. The agent was unsure if the great photojournalist would take the assignment. It involved shooting an annual report for a large potato chip company and the agent thought Haas would find it dull. Haas grinned and said that he told his agent, "Dull? Never. All my life I have wondered how potato chips are made."

Around this time Robert Capa’s brother, Cornell, was beginning his efforts to create the International Center for Photography. He was holding photojournalism seminars in association with New York University and he asked Haas to present some of his work at one. Haas agreed and came to the seminar with a slide tray full of pictures.

He said that these photographs were the basis of a book he was planning but he was unsure how the audience would receive them as they were all in color. There were murmurs in the audience. Remember it was the 1960s and most “serious” photographers, especially photojournalists, saw the world only in black and white and they liked it that way

Haas explained that this book project began when one of his assistants approached him with a collection of images. Gathered from the thousands of images he had taken over his years of travel and assignment work, his assistant had seen something new in them. Haas was surprised at first because many of these landscapes, animal shots and urban photographs had been filed away as unsuitable for publication or stock files. Some were blurred, some were off-color, some simply were unsharp. But Haas looked at them and soon saw what the assistant meant. Now he wanted to show them to us.

The lights went turned off, the projector lit up and the first slide appeared. It was an image of horses running across a prairie and it was startling because both the animals and background were blurred. It was the kind of photograph most photographers and editors in those days would have simply tossed out. The audience began to fidget unsure of how to react. More images appeared and slowly everyone quieted down, mesmerized by what they were seeing. In the stillness and the dark, these images were very cinematic and full of energy when shown together.

When the slideshow ended the audience was hushed. Then Capa rose and began applauding; others followed him. Haas lowered his head in a small bow to acknowledge their approval.

©Ernst Haas Estate

The Creation

These images and more were published as Haas’ first book, The Creation in 1971. It sold over 350,000 copies making it one of the best selling photography books of all time. Haas would go on to author three other books In America (1975), In Germany (1976), and Himalayan Pilgrimage (1978) but none ever reached the popularity – or had the impact – of The Creation.

Ernst Haas’ color photography sets a very high bar for photographers. He demonstrated that color could be as expressive and as powerful as black and white and as “serious.” His images, most made over a 50-year-period, look fresh and modern; their visual impact undiminished by time.

©Ernst Haas Estate

Throughout his career, Haas (who passed away in 1986) was an explorer with a photographer’s eye and a painter’s sensibility. After his first Rolleiflex he used many different cameras and when asked about them, Haas always responded that the camera itself was beside the point.

“The camera doesn’t make a bit of difference. All of them can record what you are seeing. But, you have to SEE,” he once said.

To see more of Ernst Haas' work, visit his website: http://ernst-haas.com/