Special Report: Remembering Ernst Haas

By Eric Meola   Wednesday September 14, 2016

“I have always felt better taking a risk than an easier route for what I believe in,” said photographer Ernst Haas, who died 30 years ago, in September, 1986. All this week we have been paying tribute to Haas, whose color work revolutionized photography and whose teaching influenced a generation of artists. Throughout the past summer photographer Eric Meola collected reminiscences of many of the people whose lives Haas affected. Today we hear from four of them, photographer and former tech rep Sam Garcia, photographer Jay Maisel, writer and editor Jim Hughes, and Nancy Leigh, who once studied with Haas. Go here  for Monday's edition. Go here  for Tuesday's edition.

Sam Garcia

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.

Jay Maisel

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.

“He’s wonderful.”

“He’s inspiring.”

“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.

Jim Hughes

In 1980, Jim Hughes conceived and edited the original Camera Arts magazine. In 1982, Hughes and Camera Arts received the National Magazine Award for General Excellence, and in 1983 he was named Editor of the Year by the National Press Photographers Association. Previously, after working in newspaper and magazine journalism, Hughes served as editor of Camera 35, from 1967 until 1975, and the Popular Photography Annuals, from 1975 to 1986.

His published books include the biography W. Eugene Smith: Shadow & Substance (1989), Ernst Haas in Black and White (1992) and The Birth of a Century: Early Color Photographs of America (1994). Hughes is a co-founder and past president of the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund, which administers the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography and the Howard Chapnick Grant for the Advancement of Photojournalism. Hughes currently resides in Maine with his wife Evelyn, who did much of the research for the Smith biography. They established The W. Eugene Smith/Jim and Evelyn Hughes Research Archive at ICP in 2009. Included in that donation was a box full of research for his  Haas in Black and White  book.

My friendship with Ernst Haas spanned decades, filled with disparate events that seem in retrospect to have twisted together in a sort of Gordian knot.

I first learned about Haas from a 1958 issue of Popular Photography, which had named him one of the "world's ten greatest photographers." Following college, after stints in Connecticut as a daily newspaper reporter/photographer in New Haven and a low-level editor of industrial trade magazines in Stamford, I moved to New York City to make my mark, as they say. For a period of time in 1962/63, I remember being inexorably drawn to the tiny 13-inch screen of an orange plastic Panasonic television to watch that self-same Ernst Haas, a transplanted Austrian with a musical accent and dancing hands, host a four-part public-television series on New York's Channel 13, broadcast in black and white, of course, and appropriately titled The Art of Seeing.

Yes, I had been fascinated by photography since childhood, and I watched in order to learn. But more, as the show unfolded, I became increasingly impressed by the depth of this man's curiosity and intellect. Here I was, still walking around the lower east side snapping bums and misfits with my pawn shop Retina folder, all the while hearing Ernst's voice in my head talking about the sources of Art. He began to reshape how I thought about photography, which I'd already decided would be my life's work.

Years later, in the early 1970s, while I was still earning my stripes as the upstart editor of Camera 35, I was asked by a small New York book publisher if I would be willing to approach Ernst Haas about the possibility of doing a Haas monograph under the publisher's imprint. Why not, I thought? By then, I had gotten to know Ernst a little, liked him a lot, and loved his photography. So I made a call. To my surprise, Ernst already had a book in mind: his early black-and-white photographs, which even then had been pushed into the background by his burgeoning, and pioneering, color work. We met at his apartment, surrounded by his books (tellingly, more history, poetry, art and philosophy than photography). He showed me prints, primarily a series from war-torn Vienna that had made his early reputation. I knew there was more, buried in files no doubt, but I had a full-time job and was merely there as a go-between. So I introduced Ernst to the publisher, gave everyone my blessing, and went on my way.

When I later inquired, I learned that no deal had been struck. An opportunity lost, I thought at the time.

Much time would pass. Ernst died, too soon, too young, in 1986. In the early 1990s, his son, Alexander, who had just read my biography of W. Eugene Smith (Shadow & Substance), called and asked if I'd be interested in editing the photographs and writing the introduction for a book of his father's long-neglected black and white. Alexander had no way of knowing about the earlier connection. Kismet, I thought. Of course, I jumped at the chance. Thus, the 1992 Bulfinch book Ernst Haas in Black and White  was born. Or rather, reborn. Rummaging through the old marked-up contact sheets and prints, plus Magnum's bound caption sheets, and Ernst's own meticulously hand-drawn layout sketches and notes, Alexander and I eventually covered every wall in Ernst's elegant old New York apartment (now occupied by his son and, when she was in town, his daughter Victoria), with new work prints made in Ernst's resurrected old darkroom from his original negatives. My not-so-simple objective was to attempt to recreate the vision of this artist (a term he adamantly refused to apply to himself, by the way). For me, those six or so months proved to be the experience of a lifetime.

But all my experiences with Ernst were, in one way or another, memorable. In 1979, for example, I was between magazine editing jobs, so during a hot summer in Maine while fixing up our "new" and very rustic camp on a pond, David Lyman, director of the nearby Maine Photographic Workshops, asked if I'd be willing to judge a contest. Sure, just tell me when, I said. Months went by. Then one day I saw a public notice for "Summer," a theme exhibit sponsored by the Workshops, to be held at an unnamed New York City gallery. I was listed as chairman of the "jury committee." Well, okay, I thought, I had agreed to something like that.

More months passed. Back in Brooklyn, I received a call from David in Maine. Come on up for Thanksgiving, he said. This must have been in 1980 (forgive me if my dates aren't quite exact; it was a long time ago, and my brain refuses to stop aging...).  So up we drove, from a mild fall in New York to the harsh beginnings of a Maine winter. When we arrived at David's old Victorian mansion, Ernst was already there, along with a number of other friends from Maine. First came the turkey dinner and lots of good wine. All went swimmingly. Then came Friday, the beginning of a full weekend of judging the photographs that had been submitted to the long-delayed contest. Turns out the last day for submissions was coincidentally the first day of judging, and Ernst Haas and I were to be the jury. Unopened fiberboard cases and ubiquitous yellow and orange print-boxes were stacked against every available post. Ernst and I, still stuffed with stuffing, were mostly left to our own devices as, in a generally unheated Union Hall, we unpacked and sorted through the visions of summer represented by 1,688 images from 515 photographers. We finally decided on the spread-them-out-and-make-little-piles system (pretty much the same system I later used for winnowing the work-prints for Ernst's black-and-white book).

After a couple days, Ernst and I realized that we agreed a lot more than we disagreed, and came to our conclusions in a surprisingly painless manner. In the process, while we looked and considered until our eyes blurred over, we talked, seemingly endlessly, about creativity and process. I can't speak for Ernst, but I learned a lot. I'd never before been given such intense access to a mind as unbound by convention as Ernst's.

The results — 210 pieces from 150 photographers — were indeed exhibited, at the Foto Gallery in Soho in New York, in January 1981. And a selection from same was published in the summer of that same year in my latest, and it turned out, final, magazine gig, Camera Arts.

But please bear with me one more time as I digress, again back to, I think, 1979. That was also the summer when David Lyman one day suggested to a few gathered friends that we take out his sailboat for a little island hopping in Penobscot Bay. Both David and his companion Kate Carter were experienced sailors. It was a perfect day. Ernst, who I believe was about to teach a workshop, was there, as was his friend Marina, and his two children, Alexander and Victoria, who were I think on summer vacation. And of course, Evelyn and I were along as well, although neither of us had much experience on the water.

After much tacking and jibbing, or whatever the hell it is you do to keep moving on a seemingly endless sea, David dropped anchor off an island that had a beach full of smooth round black stones. He called them brimstones. The kids and I think Marina jumped in for a swim, as I remember. Not in a million years would I do that; even in summer, the waters off the coast of Maine are freezing. Those of us who remained on the boat stretched back to bask in the sun. After a few minutes of such bliss, David the sailor (he is a licensed Captain) suddenly spied in the distance, off a nearby rocky outcropping, a small sailboat occupied by two waving people. The little boat seemed to be listing, which probably explains the waving. Correctly sensing trouble, David yelled to shore, where the intrepid swimmers were now exploring the rocky beach, that we were leaving to check on the other boat, and would be back in a little while to pick them up.

When we got there, we discovered an inexperienced young couple who had grounded their keel on a rock hidden just beneath the surface. The boat was stuck. Not only that, but the tide was still going out, the sail was still deployed, and in David's judgment the two people on board would never be able to pull it down given the precarious list. So he put the flat-bottomed dinghy into the water and asked Ernst, who instantly grabbed his camera, to get in as well. So off they rowed. I'll spare you the details of the rescue at sea, but suffice it to say that David got the sail down, tied Ernst to the mast to act as movable ballast so the little boat wouldn't slide off into oblivion unattended, and rowed back to his much larger vessel with the scared but relieved couple safely aboard. Then we returned to the beach to retrieve the rest of our party, after which we sailed back to the little boat to watch Ernst happily photographing glistening reflections in the afternoon light.

When the tide finally rose enough to free the stuck keel, David rowed back to put a line on the now-bobbing boat. He offered to bring Ernst back aboard, but Ernst declined. The little boat he was on rode closer to the water, it was just him and nature, and after a day at sea he expected to keep seeing all kinds of wonderful new pictures under the setting sun.

Nancy Leigh

Nancy Leigh studied photojournalism at the Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse University. For over 40 years, she has pursued a personal photographic journey. Nancy is a Managing Director at RR Donnelley and resides in New York City.

“Okay everybody! Let’s put on our rain suits. We’re going out into the rain like little ducks to photograph.”

The year was 1984. Ernst was teaching a photography workshop in Japan. On the first day, there was a torrential downpour in Tokyo — sheets and buckets of rain unleashing their fury. There we were — Ernst’s students in the pouring rain like little ducks faithfully following the Papa duck. “Slowly we go.” One of many of Ernst’s expressions.

It was an eye opening-experience. I never thought about photographing in this kind of weather before. Once I embraced it, I saw things a bit differently. That’s exactly what Ernst wanted for us, “to see things new.”

Rewind to when I first learned of Ernst’s work. I was a student at Syracuse University majoring in photography. I remember looking at his work in the photo lab and thinking: “so THIS is photography.”  I had been learning the history and the disciplines of black and white photography. When I saw Ernst’s work, his masterful, artistic exploration of color, it felt like I had left the black-and-white world of Kansas and entered the colorful Land of Oz. It was a turning point for me. Ernst became my idol. I became entranced with this innovative explorer of our visual world.

Years later, after I had graduated college, I learned that Ernst was leading a workshop in Japan. At this point, I had saved nearly every penny I had ever earned. When I read about the opportunity to take Ernst’s workshop, I did not hesitate for a moment – 60 percent of my net worth – count me in.

Nothing prepared me for meeting and experiencing this adventure with Ernst. He was a gentle soul with a great sense of humor. He was a giggler. The humbleness of this great man was endearing. I would watch him wrap his lenses in worn, irregular shaped chamois and carry his equipment in a nondescript knapsack. He always wore navy – simple and understated.

He shared his favorite, secret, off-the-beaten-track places with us. He wanted us to feel the culture of Japan, so we visited many Buddhist and Shinto shrines. I think he felt that if we entrenched ourselves in the Japanese culture, our photographs would reach a deeper, more meaningful level. We stayed in a monastery, met the bowing deer of Nara, went to a rice planting ceremony in Kyoto, walked along a secluded beach (I suspect one of his favorite places to think), witnessed the chaos of an early morning fish market, and visited beautiful gardens with the azaleas in full bloom.

The first night we were in Tokyo, Ernst took us to a Noh play that was held outdoors. We scattered to the edges of the audience and set up our tripods far apart from one another. We shot film and chrome back then — quietly, one thoughtfully composed frame at a time. Ernst stopped by to see each of us while we photographed. I nearly lost my breath when Ernst came over to me. He noted my settings and looked through my lens. He turned to me and said: “You’ll see – you will get something you like.”

The next morning, when our processed work came back from the lab, Ernst was the first one to open our little boxes of chromes. He looked at the first few slides from each of our takes the night before. When he got to mine, he looked at a few frames and said: “I was standing behind the girl who shot this – and then he searched the room and looked straight at me. Then he grinned and said: “I told you would get something you liked.” I was flushed with excitement. A nod from my mentor.

Ernst was wonderful about spending special time with each of us. One day, Ernst sat next to me on the bus. He told me: “Nancy, you must go to New Zealand in May and Venice in October.”  Ten years later, I did exactly what he suggested. The light in Venice was magical and it was the peak of autumn color in New Zealand.

When we left to say goodbye in Japan, he gave us each a t-shirt. On the back, there was a Japanese character. “Light.”  So appropriate, so Haas.

Many years later, I went to an exhibit in New York City showcasing Ernst’s work in black and white. Ernst’s work in black and white was as equally evocative as his work in color. I remember standing in front of one of his photographs, transfixed for a very long time. It was taken in 1952 of a car driving through the White Sands Desert in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The light – oh the light! Other-worldly, celestial light. Once I saw this photograph, I knew I had to go to the White Sands Desert. When I visited in 1993, by a stroke of good fortune, that night the moon was rising in the east at the same time the sun was setting in the west. The blue hues from the east sky in front of me as the pinks of the setting sun were washing the white sand from behind me. Ernst.

He once told me that irises were his favorite flower. One of my personal tributes to Ernst – I planted irises in my garden many years ago and always think of him every spring when they bloom.
At top: "Torn Poster 1, NYC 1968," by Ernst Haas
All photographs ©The Estate of Ernst Haas/Getty Images, used with permission. Additional information about Ernst Haas, as well as licensing his images, is available at


No comments yet.

Sign in to leave a comment. Don't have an account? Join Now

Pro Photo Daily