© Ernst Haas
To all the ships at sea,
It’s Monday. You know what Monday is. When you look at Monday in Webster’s unabashed dictionary, you find out that everything that can go wrong will go wrong! I just completed a magnificent blog on the life and times of Ernst Haas, who relocated to the darkroom in the sky thirty years ago in September. Ernst truly motivated me and helped me find my voice. I genuinely believe whether you’re a photographer, a painter, a musician, a baseball player, or a writer, you are molded by all of your predecessors. Whether you know it or not, they affect what you do and how you do it. W. Eugene Smith taught me the power of black and white and what a true picture story is. John Zimmerman taught me, “Experiment. There are new photos out there, you have to find them and record them.” John Dominis taught me, “Less is more. You don’t have to machine gun whatever you are photographing to make a great photograph.” (John also told me, “If you ever use a 15mm lens on an assignment again, you’ll hear the words, ‘You’ll never work for this magazine again.'” – he was referring to Sports Illustrated.) I had the pleasure of working with all of these great photographers, and also assisting Smith. Which brings me to Ernst Haas, whom unfortunately I never had the pleasure of meeting. Early in my career his work thoroughly impressed me. He taught me that there are shutter speeds other than 1/1000 of a second and there are different ways of approaching action and motion photography. My friend Sam Garcia reminded me that the thirtieth anniversary of Ernst’s death was this past month. Here are a few words from Sam Garcia and Jay Maisel on the life and times of Ernst Haas. I’m working with a young photographer and decided to gift him a copy of The Creation by Ernst Haas in hopes that it would help him in his career.
Sam Garcia was a Pro Markets Tech Rep for an international camera company for 37 years. Garcia has attended most major U.S. and international sporting events, including eight Olympics, and in cooperation with NASA has participated in training America’s space shuttle and International Space Station astronauts in the use of digital still camera equipment.
As a photographer, Sam worked on eight of the Day In The Life book projects, including the New York Times bestseller A Day In The Life Of America and the medically themed The Power To Heal. Assignments have taken him from the magnetic North Pole in the to the depths of a Spanish coal mine, with his work appearing in magazines as varied as Yankee, German GEO, Paris Match, and college textbooks. Garcia is an author and lecturer on photographic subjects, is qualified as an expert witness in photography at the federal-court level, and has participated in photo programs with most major educational facilities in the U.S. and locations as far afield as Moscow University.
One day I paid $35 for a photography book.
You need to put that money in perspective. I was living in a $15-a-week room in mid-town Los Angeles in the early 1970s. I had a $60-a week-job, and my pay went directly for rent, bus fare, and food. My entertainment was the Los Angeles County Art Museum free exhibits. I’d usually save the bus fare and walk the 30 minutes or so from my place.
And then one day I spent two weeks rent for a book.
I had looked through it the previous weekend and discovered what I thought were some of the most beautiful color photographs I’d ever seen, and I wanted to own it. The book, as you have probably guessed, was The Creation by Ernst Haas.
It’s not true Haas invented color photography; it just seems no one really noticed it until his moody, evocative essays on New York, and later, Venice, appeared in LIFE magazine in the 1950s. Suddenly color was as thought provoking as black and white. Maybe better. Real, but ignored until Haas rubbed our eyes in it. Not the postcard colors of yellow vs. red vs. green vs. blue. Haas’ color crept out of Venetian shadows and stole through morning fog. Color that danced off the bright-work of Manhattan buildings in late afternoon. Color that delineated shape, and caressed texture, and gave substance to mood. Color so saturated you wanted to turn the page over to see if it had soaked through. His was color from the best dreams and memories.
I suppose I convinced myself buying The Creation was an educational investment. I’d feast on the photographs and then dutifully glean the technical information from the pages in the back so I’d know exactly which lens and film to use to help me become a great photographer. It was an education, just not the one I’d expected. I learned about emotion, and feeling, and that somehow there was alchemy in the world that allowed its transmutation into a color photograph. Sure, I learned his tools, the cameras, and Kodachrome. But anybody can buy a magician’s top hat. It’s getting the rabbit out of it that’s hard to do.
Jump forward about 15 years, and to my own surprise I did in fact manage to move into, and along within, the photo business. And that journey had taken me across country to New York, where I had managed to become friends with several of the photographers, including Ernst, whose work I’d admired and envied those many years ago when I was trying to find a path forward.
The Creation was at that point a photographic book icon of sorts. It set sales records and redefined the nature of photography in the arts, while also earning impressive credits for the quality of the printing. It was a defining work, and in the late 1980s was rewarded for that success by having a new, revised version reprinted to the same level of quality as the first edition.
One afternoon in May of 1986, I was visiting Ernst in his New York City apartment. We were doing that casual catching up that you do with friends when you haven’t seen them in a while. One of us mentioned the new printing, and I remember congratulating him on the accomplishment. Ernst rather suddenly sprang up from his seat, walked to a close bookshelf, and pulled out a copy of the new Creation. He then, while continuing to talk, sat back down, opened the book to one of the first pages, and started to sign it for me. I felt guilty. Had I been talking about the new printing in a way that seemed like I was asking for a copy? I would be horrified if that was the case. It’s simply not something I would ever do.
“Ernst, you don’t have to do that,” I said, probably a bit too forcefully. “You know I have a copy of the first edition,” I reminded him.
He looked at me slightly sideways, and asked in a clearly mock-hurt voice, “You don’t want it…?”
Of course I took it. I may have my ethical standards, but I’m not stupid.
Ernst knew I was a genuine fan of his work, and it was, I realized, a simply spontaneous gesture of generosity.
A bit later that summer, in August, I had one of the few great ideas I’ve ever had in my life. I’d been to the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “Vienna, 1900,” which featured Vienna’s designs, the city buildings, private homes, the city infrastructure, the style of that era, and additionally, in a connected exhibit space, a couple of its well known artists, Egon Schiele, and a personal favorite, Gustav Klimt.
I was so delighted by the exhibition that I wanted immediately to share it, so I invited Ernst, who was born in Vienna, and mutual friend Jay Maisel to go back with me. (I saw echoes of Ernst’s passion and elegance of vision in the paintings of Klimt particularly. I wanted to return, if only in a small way, some of the pleasure he had given me with his photographs over the years.)
I gleefully pointed out to Jay that this was not entirely selfless. “I think it will be great. We’ll walk around the museum with Ernst and let him tell us stories about Vienna from his childhood. What a great tour guide, with great art, I can’t wait.” And Jay agreed instantly to go — he knew a good plan when he heard one.
Ernst died of a stroke the day before we were to meet.
At the funeral home, when Jay saw me arrive, he came over, and the first thing he said to me was, “We should be at the museum.”
It was a nice service, and eventually there were eulogies, and articles, despair at the loss, discussions of his imagery, and his place in photographic history. But I’m not sure anyone has ever been able to express the uniqueness of a man whose art was the seamless blend of his life and his work.
I suggest, perhaps the longer lasting testament to his talent might even now be taking place in a bookstore, or a museum shop. I’d like to think somewhere out there another beauty-hungry kid is spending his or her rent money on The Creation and dreaming their Kodachrome dreams.
After studying painting and graphic design at Cooper Union and Yale, Jay Maisel began his career in photography in 1954. While his portfolio includes the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Miles Davis, he is perhaps best known for capturing the light, color, and gesture found in every day life. This unique vision kept him busy for over 40 years shooting annual reports, magazine covers, jazz albums, advertising and more for an array of clients worldwide. Some of his commercial accomplishments include five Sports Illustrated swimsuit covers, the first two covers of New York Magazine, the cover of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue (the best-selling jazz album of all time), twelve years of advertising with United Technologies, and a litany of awards from such organizations as ICP, ASMP, ADC, PPA, and Cooper Union.
Since he stopped taking on commercial work in the late ’90s, Jay has continued to focus on his personal work. He has developed a reputation as a giving and inspiring teacher as a result of extensive lecturing and photography workshops throughout the country. He also continues to sell prints, which can be found in private, corporate, and museum collections.
Ernst was very much of an enigma—friendly, warm, and giving, yet private and solitary. He was, to me, a mysterious entity. Full of love for all humanity, yet a little part of himself seemed impervious to examination or inspection. And that was all well and good.
I looked upon him with great awe. He was, out of all of us, the one guy who inspired.
I was tickled by his complete innocence on every business level. When I discussed him with other photographers, I found that they too were astonished with his work and amazed at his cavalier attitude toward business or money. The phrase that kept coming up was, “Thank god that god takes care of Ernst.”
He would ask me business questions the way I would ask him photographic questions. At one point in a discussion about a difficult client, I asked him, “Well what does the paperwork say?” And god bless him, he looked at me with that sweet innocence he had and said, “Paperwork? I have no paperwork.” I was vexed and said, “You must have some paperwork, how else would you get paid?”
He said very seriously and quietly, “When I need money, I tell them and they send me a check.”
I asked a client of mine why they didn’t use Ernst more often. He said, “I’m afraid he might see a butterfly on the way to the assignment. That would be the end of my job.”
This was unfair because Ernst was very professional in his commercial work. One day we were talking about a job he just finished and I said, “Did you shoot stuff your way, for yourself?”
He didn’t actually do it, but I kind of felt him patting me on the head like a child, and he said, “No, I find if I do it my way, they always like their way better.”
The enigma of Ernst was that he was so damn good and you could never figure it out. What was the secret? How did he do it? I spoke to people who had gone to his lectures and taken his classes and they were unanimous in their praise.
“You’ll never be the same.”
But what did he say?
Nobody could be articulate and specific about what he said. So I went to his lecture up in Maine (I always fall asleep at lectures). I listened and dozed intermittently. Ernst noticed my closed eyes. (Did I mention that he had a wicked sense of humor?) He started directing questions at me, and my wife, L.A., would dig an elbow into my ribs and I’d wake up and start playing catch-up ball.
I totally regret that I never took a class with him, but I went to a number of his talks. To this day I’m inarticulate in remembering any specifics. But this I know—he was inspiring.
He never spoke of anything technical. He spoke of warmth and love and humanity. He was profound and poetic. He was completely honest and was modest.
He was the mentor I never had and like everyone else, I loved him.”