Martin Munkácsi

Martin Munkácsi left Berlin in 1934. A photojournalist from Hungary, he had worked there for six years, rising to become one of the principal photographers for the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, until the worsening political situation compelled him to emigrate to the US. There he gained new renown, this time as a fashion photographer. Munkácsi advanced to become the best-paid photographer of his time, rising as quickly as he would later, ultimately, be forgotten. When he died in 1963, Richard Avedon was nearly alone among his colleagues in paying tribute to the former prince of photography.

The Deichtorhallen retrospective, organized by F. C. Gundlach, does an impressive job of presenting Munkácsi’s complete oeuvre. Old prints and new, original submissions retouched by photo editors, unfinished book plans, magazines, and enlarged scans show not just the multilayered work of this once-sought-after photographer but also the broader transition from Germany’s leadership in photographic innovation before the Nazi period to America’s predominance after. But before Munkácsi abandoned Berlin, he caught the regime change on film, rendering Hitler’s meeting with President Hindenburg on March 21, 1933, as the very image of a sinister, threatening, and uncompromising show of force.

Munkácsi was a quick learner, and he made it his selling point. From Germany, South America, and other locales, he brought back what he thought would slake the media’s curiosity and thirst for knowledge. Portraits, scenes of the exotic, or glimpses of daily life and leisure filled the gaps between more pressing events. In the process, Munkácsi hardly acted as a neutral observer. He was not above staging his photographs, arranging his human subjects in unnatural positions, or, for instance, posing children lying in a field in an allover pattern. Early on, both in Budapest and in Berlin, Munkácsi also made his name as a sports photographer. He had a knack for capturing both movement and the “decisive moment” in a single image: a goalie’s fumble right in front of the posts or a driver’s fall in a motorcycle race. In other fields, too—in reportage on performers, actors, or dancers, for instance—movement becomes the central focus, often with the dynamic of the body deployed as an upward-pointing diagonal.

The luck of the moment brought the émigré to Harper’s Bazaar, where his lack of experience in fashion photography allowed him to approach its conventions with unprecedented liberty. A 1933 shoot of a bathing-suit collection, with the model Lucile Brokaw running freely on the beach, ensured his fame for many years. Munkácsi had an active hand in the creation of the image of the young, ambitious, and self-assured American woman, and he pio- neered a new genre, fashion reportage. The assignments came pouring in and his fame grew to the point where he himself became an object of media interest. Later, Munkácsi returned to photojournalism in work like the Ladies Home Journal series “How America Lives” (1940–46), but he was no longer challenging himself as a creative photographer and his work went into a decline. This retrospective, reuniting the pieces of a scattered, in parts almost forgotten oeuvre, should help revive interest at least in Munkácsi’s more vital early work.

Wolf Jahn

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.