Ernst Haas was born in Austria on March 2nd 1921. His parents were educated and he studied in a private school from 1935 to 1938. His education was interrupted by the invasion of Austria by the Nazis and World War II.
After the war, feeling he wanted to help people, he went to medical school but dropped out after a year. He realised he had an interest in art. He spent a lot of time reading and going to museums.
Photography was not a vocation but it allowed him to combine the two things he wanted to do with his life : travel and paint. He coined the term “painter in a hurry” to describe the interest he found in photography.
It must be added that the idea of photography came from his father, who loved photography and who had encouraged him in his earlier years to try.
He acquired his first camera in 1940 : A Rolleiflex TLR. He then went on to smaller 24×36 Leica cameras : a Leica M3 rangefinder with 50mm and 135mm lenses, then a Leicaflex (reflex camera) with 28mm, 50mm and 90mm lenses.
His first photoshoot was in 1947 at the age of 26. He photographed a series of photos that turned into a photoessay : The return of prisoners of war from Russia. This body of work was a bit of an accident. He enjoyed photographing the area around Vienna, but a friend told him he should concentrate on something more realistic. He was on his was to a fashion shoot when he noticed the station was unusually busy. He forgot about his shoot and went to explore. He came back with many now famous photos of prisoners of war returning home. It was his first published work in the magasine Heute.
He went on to Paris in 1949 to join Magnum and then to New York.
He picked up some colour Kodachrome film and showed his work to Life magasine. It became the first complete photo essay that Life published in colour, “The Magic of the City”
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) showed his work in 1962 with a show nearly entirely in colour. It received favorable press and good criticisms.
He made an almost full transition to colour photography, favouring dye transfer for his prints. This method allow for very rich colour, without getting gaudy. It is very labour intensive but allows for a lot of possible interpretations of the negative. Nevertheless, he always enjoyed black and white photography.
He went on to photograph film sets, like West Side Story, Little Big Man and the Misfits, to name a few. He was a confident photographer on set, very discrete with the stars and enjoyed friendships with many that lasted throughout his life. He carried on his personal work during the downtimes on set, famously renting a jeep while he was working on the Misfits, and photographing horses. This series of photos is still well known today.
He also did commercial work and advertising. It was a challenge he gladly accepted and a way to help pay the bills.
Ernst Haas is a difficult photographer to place in a particular genre, this is a reason many people probably don’t know about him today. He shows us that it is possible to master many techniques and explore many facets of photography.
For example, he has many photos with blurred motion, made with slow shutter speeds.
He also enjoyed abstract photography, which took him back to painting. I gather this was his favourite kind of photography, a genre he developed a lot in his later life.
To conclude, Ernst Haas is an artist who turned his creativity towards photography. It is interesting to look at what he focuses on in his photos, his use of depth of field, his interpretation of motion and his use of colour. He is very good in his abstract work in picking an object and transforming it into what he wants it to be. He allows us, like in poetry, to build a relation with what we see.