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Special Report: Remembering Ernst Haas

By Eric Meola   Thursday September 15, 2016


“I believe in the end-success of a man’s work...aware of the connection in life between our earth and the cosmos; a person able to understand the mistakes, and to admire the achievements, of other people,” wrote photographer Ernst Haas in 1949. This week we have been paying tribute to Haas, who died 30 years ago, in September 1986. Over the past few months, photographer Eric Meola has been gathering reminiscences of Haas by some of the people whose lives were changed by him. Today we hear from photo editor Amla Sanghvi, former magazine editor Sean Callahan, and photographers Sam Abell and Barbara Goodbody. Go here  for Monday's edition; go here  for Tuesday's; and here  for Wednesday's.


Amla Sanghvi

Amla Sanghvi has worked as photo editor for many publishers, including Stewart, Tabori  & Chang and Scholastic Inc., with which she has been associated since 1993. She has a master’s degree in photography from Syracuse University, where she had an assistantship on the Margaret Bourke-White Collection. She has taught photography, Indian fusion cooking and English in New York, Quito and Mumbai. Amla is an incorporator of the Manhattan Land Trust and has worked as a gardener at the New York Botanical Gardens. She lives in Inwood, Northern Manhattan.


Ernst Haas is acknowledged as one of the pioneers in color photography—an audacious experimenter who brought new techniques and insights to the medium.  “In my estimation we have experienced an epoch in photography,” said Edward Steichen said about his images.

For me, Haas’s photographs are like a dream. I recall his photograph of an oil slick—as a teenager in Mumbai, I had seen that ephemeral rainbow on the street during monsoons, but I had never seen a photograph of it like his. To quote Warren Trabant, who published Haas’s early photos in Heute: “I knew I had stumbled upon genius and I felt a chill up and down my spine.” He had captured all the whispers and dreams of color. As Cornell Capa said, “Nobody photographed oil slicks in the rain, torn posters, reflections. [Haas’s photographs] have opened a great many minds to a certain kind of photography.”

His lyrical photos inspired me before I was old enough to be concerned about authorship.  His photographs capturing motion in swirls of color mesmerized me.  “Haas pioneered the use of the deliberate blur,” said Arthur Rothstein, FSA and Look magazine photographer, when he granted me an interview for my master’s thesis on Haas as part of my graduate program at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications.

Then, another kind of dream came true for me. I found myself sitting in Haas’s living room.  “Can you close the door? She is taping,”  Haas requested of his assistants, Marina and Marilyn, who worked with him in his photo library.  Considerate and thoughtful, the gentle, gracious giant of color photography sat opposite me on his sofa. I learned about his life, and how his dream of traveling, exploring and making pictures came true—before the tourist boom!

“Wherever you went, you were the only one to arrive…that was the time when you brought back pictures which no one else could see. Today everyone has seen everything by traveling and movies and television.”

That was Haas speaking, before Instagram!

Describing the evolution of photography, Haas said “At first we learned to stutter, and we were uttering ‘tree’ and ‘beggar’ and then everything became very banal and commonplace…”  From this he went on to discuss abstracts and compositions, describing them as “real character tests. You can find your own feelings in them, your joy or your gloom, moments plucked like flowers and brought home in a bouquet. Tomorrow they will be different or gone, just as you yourself will be different or gone.”

Haas was a warm, generous person, whose conversation was a pleasure.  As Henri Cartier-Bresson wrote to me about him, “I enjoy the subtility [sic] and the wit of his conversation enormously, and his fantasy and kindness. But as far as I remember I do not think we ever talked about photography.” The filter of fantasy and kindness are what continue to fascinate me about Haas’s photographs. My signed copy of his book The Creation  remains one of my prized possessions.


Sam Abell

Sam Abell was a contract and staff photographer for National Geographic from 1970-2001. Today he maintains careers as a teacher, writer and artist.


I Make Ernst Laugh:

In the summer of 1978 Ernst Haas and I were first-time instructors at the Maine Photography Workshop in Rockport. We taught separate but concurrent classes the same week. Perfect. On top of that we were staying in the same large house outside of town. I was upstairs, Haas and his girlfriend were downstairs next to the kitchen.

I was excited but also intent on making a good impression. Haas was a legend. That I was comparatively unknown didn't bother me. I was there to teach but also to humbly be under the spell of one of the greatest photographers of our time, Ernst Haas.

But I was also a working photographer on assignment for National Geographic. In fact I'd left my assignment ("Long Island's Quiet Side") for a week to be in Rockport. Before leaving L.l., l'd carefully made an appointment with an air charter company to fly to Maine mid-week, pick me up, fly back to Long Island for aerial images of the year‘s big regatta, then return me to Maine — all on the same morning. Complicated and expensive, but worth it. Maine and Long Island weren't that far apart in air miles. And the arrangement would allow me to teach and still do my job.

On the appointed morning I awoke in a fright. I'd completely forgotten the charter! And now my class of a dozen photographers was gathering. We were going on a shoot. I couldn't fly anywhere! What should I do? Call the air charter company and cancel. Right! But tell them what exactly? That I'd forgotten? No! And wasn't it already too late? Wasn't the plane in the air? I had to call and call NOW!

But the only phone in the house was in the kitchen next to Haas‘ bedroom door. He'd hear me make the call! Impossible! Precious seconds were passing. The pressure built. I had to make that call! But Haas was still in the house. Or maybe not. So I waited, intently listening for his departure. Had he left? I couldn't tell. I waited in silence at the top of the stairs. I thought I heard the sounds of someone stirring, then silence. Did that mean he'd left? Yes!

I crept into the kitchen, dialed the number and said, "Hello. This is Steve Abell, Sam Abell’s brother. Sam wanted me to call and tell you
that he's sick and won’t ..."

It was then that I heard a snicker come from the bedroom. It was a muffled, snorting sound but unmistakably Haas. Then an almost suppressed titter. His girlfriend. Then Haas's outright laugh. Then hers. Now both of them laughing together. Raucous, rolling laughter. Contagious, convulsive, side-splitting hilarity that grew in volume. They buried their heads in the pillows and still the laughter poured out unstoppably.

On the phone I stammered through the rest of my lame excuse with the sound track of their laughter in the background. Finally I hung up and slunk away. The charter was cancelled.

Haas never mentioned the episode. Later in the week he saw my work, briefly praised it and, with his index finger tapping my chest, offered two pieces of advice. One, beware of reflections. They were too easy. And two, "You and I must be very careful with the assignments we choose. There's less time left than we think."

We never met again. But for almost 40 years I've remembered his advice and our encounter. He treated me as an equal even though I was not one.

And, of course, I remember his laughter. Like him, it was memorably rich and humane. Haas had overheard me, but he understood. Laughter was the right, and even beautifully best, reaction. For that, and for his pioneering, intelligent and heartfelt photographs, I love the memory of him. When I think of him now there's a smile on my face and tears in my eyes.

Sean Callahan

Sean Callahan became the founding editor of American Photographer. He left the magazine after 10 years to go into digital media and retired from Time Warner Cable in 2002 as VP, Executive Producer of Broadband Programming. He has since taught photo history at the New School and Syracuse University and written or edited 14 books about the medium. He lives in Brunswick, ME, where he raises dwarf conifers.


I spent one Christmas Eve clinging to Ernst Haas's legs.

We were on the helipad at the top of the then-named Pan Am (now Met Life) building which had only a slim, thigh-high guard rail. One of my jobs that night in 1971 was to brace myself against the rail securing both of us while Ernst leaned into a considerable wind to photograph the city skyline — and also to prevent us from becoming a tabloid tragedy on the front page of the next morning's New York Daily News.

Ernst was oblivious to our precarious situation. He was enthralled by the city lights made more luminous by the celebration of the season seen through the bitingly cold clear air and brisk wind. He must have spent an hour or more shooting not just the Manhattan skyline but the views across the Hudson to New Jersey and off to the east to Brooklyn and Queens.

He hadn't asked for my assistance at the rail and, in fact, probably didn't need it having spent some of his student days climbing and skiing the Austrian Tyrol. By comparison, what was 59 stories above midtown? He probably never felt my presence. He was in the moment, stimulated by the light and color and their transcendent beauty that he was compelled to record.

Haas rarely used assistants in his work, preferring to travel simply and to follow his own muse. To have a young editor from LIFE magazine in tow that night was unusual. But so were the circumstances. We were shooting a photo essay tentatively to be called "Christmas in New York" that was intended to run as the centerpiece of LIFE's year-end issue at the end of December 1972.

As deputy to the Director of Photography at LIFE, one of my jobs, like junior editors across all the magazine's departments, was to be the reporter — Sherpa would be a more accurate job description – on major stories to set up appointments, take captions, interview subjects and generally be responsible for all those nettlesome words that photographers found mostly unnecessary.

Being close to the center of the decision making on the choice of photographers, I had another mission, even if it was self-assigned: bring back to the magazine some of the photographers that had helped define LIFE as America's magazine. Haas was on my list. His poetic, long-form color essays, starting in 1953, gave color photography the visual gravitas that previously only black and white had achieved in magazine photojournalism.

As a business enterprise, LIFE, once Time Inc's (and magazine publishing's) biggest moneymaker, was hemorrhaging money in 1971. In recent years TV had gone to color, incorporated satellite technology to bring live events into America's living rooms and was producing shows and covering events that drew audiences greater than LIFE's seven-million peak circulation. TV, with its mass audiences, was becoming a more effective advertising buy for consumer products than a general-interest picture magazine and the magazine's main revenue stream was drying up.

Thus, the idea that the magazine needed to get back to its roots as a picture magazine that wasn't following TV's lead on news, sports, popular culture, etc., but, rather, doing things with still photography that TV couldn't, was what put me on the roof with Ernst Haas that night.

When I got approval for the story that fall I started working on the shooting script, namely the possible quintessential NYC holiday events and situations to be shot — Fifth Avenue store windows, midnight mass at St. Patrick's, but also less obvious things like the turkey dinner served by Mennonite volunteers to the homeless at the Bowery Mission and ethnic celebrations in the boroughs.

When I finished the list it was three pages long with probably fifty possible photo opportunities. Around Thanksgiving, when the city was getting into its holiday garb, I took it up to Haas' floor-through apartment on Seventh Avenue to get his reaction, anxious to see which things appealed to him. He was quiet as he read and, even though I prefaced the conversation with the usual disclaimer of these being merely some suggestions and that we wanted his vision, I was anxious that I had overstepped my role.

After all, this was the guy who was offered a coveted staff position at the magazine twenty years prior but had turned them down saying that the editors couldn't dream up better assignments for him than he could himself. And in the interval, in a career that had broadened to include advertising, motion picture stills and film production, he had proven his point.

"Fine," he said, breaking the silence. "When do you want to start? Tomorrow?"

I don't know how many situations he photographed over the next several weeks. I only accompanied him when the magazine's credential would smooth access but by the end of Christmas Day I was pretty burned out. I was half his age but that shouldn't mean he had twice my stamina.

In time he turned in sheets of edited Kodachromes that contained all the makings of another memorable Haas essay: abstractions, touchingly intimate documents in low light (hand-held interiors shot on Kodachome 25!), street photography where the color matched the dynamic of the street, impressionistic blurs that always contained a root element of reality to hold a narrative thread. Classic Haas.

He was a very classy guy. I think I first met Ernst Haas at a dinner party that our mutual friend, Elliott Erwitt, had at his spacious Central Park West apartment where one could meet an astonishing variety of Manhattan power brokers, writers, actors, editors and surprise guests like Elliott's Russian-born father, Boris, who was an ordained Zen Buddhist monk. But there were only a few photographers at these soirées, usually those who, like Erwitt, were part of the first generation of shooters Robert Capa recruited to Magnum which included, for a time, Haas.

As I got to know him I discovered that Ernst was not a guy given to the Manhattan party scene — when he was in New York, which was not often. He and Erwitt shared an immigrant's bond of being comfortable with their success in this new world but still rooted in their old-world traditions and aloof from the city's madding in crowd. They were bemused observers of the scene, the perfect stance for a photographer.

Socially, Haas was old school. Viennese. Well educated, he was comfortable in any situation — he could talk as intelligently about color theory as about the Austrian modernist poet Rainer Maria Rilke — but he refrained from leading such discussions, always deferring to others who usually knew less. He was gracious to all and never wanted to offend.

When I once asked him why he quit Magnum, hoping to hear another juicy anecdote about that dysfunctional family of photographers that somehow has existed for 70 years, he smiled and said only that he "got tired of holding hands and dancing in a circle."

When he did speak about art or photography it was always in deceptively simple phrases or aphorisms that some of his students have, since his death, interpreted as mystic koans. I think he would have felt this kind of veneration misplaced or his words misinterpreted and would respond to the situation with little more than a bemused smile.

He spoke simply and acted accordingly. He was, simply, a gracious man.

Postscript:

Haas' Christmas essay for LIFE never ran. On December 8, 1972, Time Inc announced that the magazine was ceasing publication at the end of the month. The year-end issue became a wrap-up of the year in pictures with a cover of all text — essentially headlines from the year's news stories. In the lower corner of the collage, an art director slipped in "Good Bye."

Later, when I returned all his originals to him with my apologies, he dismissed them. It didn't matter, he said. He was more concerned with what was to happen to me now. I told him I had been working on a new kind of photography magazine that was to be about photography, not cameras. He approved. "If you ever need anything, just call. Anytime."

I did. Several times over the next 15 years and he was always true to his word. Did I mention that he was gracious?


Barbara Goodbody

Barbara Goodbody began her photo career at the Maine Photographic Workshops in 1986. Ernst Haas gave the opening Presentation at the MPW Congress that summer and passed away six weeks later. Goodbody continued her studies at MPW and has had had several traveling exhibitions; she has also published two books. Her exhibition “Barbara Goodbody: 30 years of Photography” has been on view at the Glickman Library at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, Maine.

After David Lyman stepped down as director of the Maine Photographic Workshops, Goodbody became one of the Rockport Six Board of Directors, which turned MPW into the non-profit Maine Media Workshops and College. She is a Trustee Emeritus of MMW and C. She was also a trustee of the Santa Fe Photo Workshops. She says she continues to be an "amateur" photographer.


Spring 1986:  In June 1986 I turned 50 years old. My children had left the "nest" and I felt a deep need for change in my life.  That spring I had sought counseling with Bruce St. Thomas. He asked me, "Is there anything creative you like to do?”  "Like what?” I asked. He replied,  “Cooking? Gardening? Writing?” I answered: "Well, I have always wanted to be a better photographer but I could never photograph like ‘them’ — all those National Geographic & Life Photographers."  At that time I was completely drained of all self-confidence. He replied: "Is there any reason why you cannot try?" "I've heard of the Maine Photographic Workshops in Rockport, perhaps I could start there,” I replied.

For my 50th birthday I gave myself two weeks with Craig Stevens, a brilliant instructor and photographer at MPW as a present! It was harder emotionally for me to purchase a single lens camera than it would have been to spend more money on a dress!  Yet,  I took a leap of faith and off I went to Rockport.

In August of 1986, the Maine Photographic Workshops hosted the MPW Congress, gathering professionals from the world of photography in Rockport. Ernst gave the opening remarks, and I attended.

I had LOVED my workshop with Craig Stevens, and Ernst Haas in his remarks that evening sealed my future in photography. In his opening remarks Haas said:  "I want you all to know that I AM NOT a PROFESSIONAL PHOTOGRAPHER.  NO!  I AM AN AMATEUR,”  pronouncing amateur in a loving Austrian accent!  “You know the root of amateur is AMA…AMOUR, to LOVE. I LOVE photography, I shall ALWAYS BE an AMATEUR!" At that moment I understood. I could be an amateur and simply...LOVE... photography in all it's ramifications.

I have taken Workshops in Rockport and in Santa Fe with Reid Callanan and traveled the world with my camera. The PROFESSIONAL photographers who taught the courses shared their love (amateur) for the visual world, talents and inspiring vision.  

In gratitude to Ernst Haas, I created the "Ernst Haas Memorial Collection" at the Portland Museum of Art. His children Alexander and Victoria Haas have become great friends. When David Lyman stepped down from the Maine Photographic Workshops, I was one of six (The Rockport Six) to take over MPW and turn it into The Maine Media Workshops and College in Rockport, Maine, continuing David's legacy.

In Ernst Haas' brilliant thee-projector photo presentation that amazing evening in 1986, he blended his photographs into a magical presentation.  I shall never forget the last image. It was a clock, with no hands. ”STAY THE MOMENT, IT'S SO FINE,” expressed and captured by photography! Six weeks later Ernst Haas passed away.

Addendum: In June, 2016, I celebrate my 30 years in photography with an exhibition of my work at the Glickman Library, at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, Maine. I am deeply grateful to the many wonderful people that have enriched my life and given generously of their talents, opening windows into our souls.
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At top: "Lights of New York City, 1972" by Ernst Haas; above, from left to right: International Center of Photography founder Cornell Capa, printer and entrepreneur Ken Lieberman, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and Haas at an opening for an exhibition of Haas's photographs in the early 1980s. Photograph courtesy of Ken Lieberman.

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 http://www.ernst-haas.com.

2 Comments

  1. monica suder commented on: September 21, 2016 at 6:08 a.m.
    Thanks,Eric,for remembering Ernst Haas! I was a friend of Ernst's since my Magnum days and was happy to find the perfect assignment for him while director of photography at the first big travel magazine in the US. Ernst did a beautiful piece on Calabria - landscapes like paintings, like meditations on nature. When I lived in S.F., years later, Ernst came to do a slide show entitled "Death in Venice" with music by Mahler. It was a very poetic symphony of images and sound that I never forgot. On my visits to NYC, I would sit in his kitchen, while Ernst was regaling us - his girlfriend Gisela and Marina, his office manager, about his travels to the Himalayas. A book resulted later, co-produced with Gisela.
  1. commented on: September 22, 2016 at midnight
    I feel very fortunate to have had the great opportunity to have spent quality time with Ernst. He first came to Honolulu to shoot stills for the movie Big Wednesday and his girlfriend at that time introduced us and asked me to help Ernst around town since he had no driver’s license. I also visited him in NYC and spent hours with him discussing his life and photography. A fascinating man. He called me after my son Zak was born and when I told him what a good looking boy he was Ernst replied” Of course he is, all kids have to be cute otherwise people would not look after them” Ernst gave me one of his paintings of a blackbird in flight and to this day it hangs proudly in my studio.

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