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Special Report: Remembering Ernst Haas

By Eric Meola   Friday September 16, 2016


“In discussions about Haas there is always a constant — an acknowledged point in the universe where time stops, and beyond which light will not pass. There is an audible drop in the voice, a reverence to the name ‘Ernst,’ and it is silly, because if anything, Ernst would be embarrassed and have nothing of it.” So writes photographer Eric Meola of the influential photographer Ernst Haas, who died 30 years ago. Meola has spent several months collecting reminiscences from people who knew and were touched by Haas, which we have been featuring this week. We conclude with the thoughts of photographers Stewart Halperin, Todd Weinstein, Fritz Simak and Helen Marcus


Stewart Halperin

Stewart Halperin assisted Ernst Haas between 1980 right up until he died in September of 1986.

His own career in photography started in the jungles of Tanzania and the mountains of Rwanda back in 1970. It was there, working with both Dr. Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey, that his passion for photography was born and nurtured. He quickly transitioned  from more scientific work to being a full-time photographer. Now some five decades later his cameras have taken him to well over 100 countries, from major world capitals to the most remote parts of the globe. For the past 20 years he has developed a loyal following on photo trips that cover the world. In addition, he exhibits both in America and in Europe. He is most proud of the permanent photo workshops that now are part of the Shaw Nature Reserve in Grey Summit, Missouri —  developed by Stewart in honor of the first photo workshops he conducted there with Ernst Haas in 1979. Since then such notables as Jay Maisel, Jim Brandenburg, Sam Abell and Arthur Meyerson have been keynote speakers at the Reserve. He lives in St. Louis with Susan, his wife of 43 years, but admits that New York City, where his daughter and granddaughter live, is difficult to stay away from.


In 1978 I was on an assignment in the northern Thailand — while on the plane ride there I read an article about a Swiss painter, Theo Meier, a modern-day Gauguin who had worked for years painting in Bali, Indonesia. The paintings in the magazine were astounding. When the Japanese invaded, Theo left his beloved Bali and settled in the hills of Northern Thailand. What caught my eye in the article was that people like Charlie Chaplin, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ernst Haas and even James Michener made pilgrimages to visit Theo and his exotic work and lifestyle. After finishing my assignment, I was able through the help of my Thai guide to visit Theo north of Chiang Mai. Theo was so cordial that I ended up spending two days with him.

As a young 30-year-old photographer, I was already familiar with the two notable photo names mentioned in the article. Theo laid out a host of prints taken by both Haas and Cartier-Bresson. Ernst’s images of Theo his Balinese wives, children and life in Bali were particularly striking. On my return to St. Louis I decided to do an article on Theo and called Ernst’s studio in New York — a cold call. Ernst answered, and I briefly told him that I had just returned from Thailand after spending time with Theo Meier. One could hear the gasp over the phone. In his thick Austrian accent he said, “My, my, Theo is still alive and living in Thailand. Stewart you must come to New York and look through the hundreds of images I have of that fabulous time in Bali. Make sure you bring your images; I want to see his new Thai wives!”  It appears Theo had a number of wives in Bali when Ernst was there.

I went off to New York in early 1979 to meet an idol, an icon, the creator of The Creation, a revolutionary in color imaging. I was nervous to say the least. Went to his place on Seventh Avenue and 57th Street, which was to become a sort of second home for me right up until his death in September of 1986.

We spent hours going over Theo-related images. He was so excited that this larger-than-life character that he spent time with in Bali in the late 1940s was still painting and thriving decades later in Thailand. Somehow that meeting opened up a connection — a connection that led to us working together on a very regular basis for the next seven years, right up until his passing.

Travel assignments, workshops, lectures, and exhibits. He became an undefined mentor and friend. We traveled the world together.

With Ernst, everything was always understated. His true greatness, I realized, was this characteristic. He was a cultured European gentleman, and while spending much of his adult life in the USA and specifically New York, he was a Renaissance man of Europe.

Stories that come to mind are just too numerous to even consider. One I would like to convey bespeaks his gentle, calm attitude. In early1980 we were on an assignment together in Mexico — three weeks of shooting for the Mexican Tourist Board. I had made all the arrangements, and as sometimes happens not everything was moving as smoothly as I wanted. We were in the Chiapas area, not far from the ancient ruins of Palenque.

One evening we were sleeping outside, not far from the border with Guatemala. Both of us sleeping in hammocks — well, Ernst sleeping soundly and me trying to sleep! We started hearing gunshots coming from across the river. That would mean from Guatemala, and we had been told that there were insurgents there, but to not worry about them! I was already stirring. Ernst woke up and he noticed that I was nervous about what to do. He leaned over towards me and in the calmest way possible said, “Don’t worry Stewart — the worse it may seem now, the better the stories become the further you are removed from that moment. If we survive.”  He followed up with a quick laugh. He went back to sleep and the night passed into the next day. Ernst had been through World War II. He had done assignments in which he captured the best and worst of humanity. A few gunshots in the night in the jungles of Mexico were nothing to lose sleep over.

Ernst was the rare photographer who was poetic in both his images and his words. If you spent real time with Ernst you quickly discovered he was a man that did not indulge in any trivial  conversation. It just was not part of his world. Sometimes we would have hours of silence on trips. Other times deep and lengthy discussions of music, art, literature and even occasionally photography! He was not someone who wasted words!

As I write this today and think back over the time with Ernst, my admiration for him only grows. He was part of the evolution of color photography. We may even consider him a true revolutionary in that regards. Over six decades ago his bold experiments and sensitivities in the use of color broke new ground, and we admire that work even today.

He died too young. We often talked about all the things he wanted to do once he slowed down from shooting. It never happened, for Ernst was always looking for the next image. He was never content with just the great images that he had already taken. The images yet to be found were his passion.

With his death I was thrown out into the world on my own. While his death left me with a deep sadness — one I still feel — he passed on to me so much that is part of my photo life as well as my outlook on life in general. How luck was I to be touched by this amazing gentleman.


Todd Weinstein

Todd Weinstein became Ernst Haas’s studio manager in 1972 and continued to assist Haas at the Maine Photographic workshop in Rockport, Maine, from 1973 up until Haas’s death in 1986. Weinstein assisted Haas with his workshop teachings, audio/visual projects, and commercial assignments.

Weinstein’s own photography spans a wide range of genres, from documentary and street photography to abstract and commercial work. A native of Detroit, he has been based in New York City since the early 1970s. Weinstein is known for his street photography depicting the ups and downs of life, particularly in New York, and for his abstract images using Jewish lore to explore universal themes of suffering and redemption. A selection of Weinstein’s street photography was published in 1991 in the book Personal Journalism: A Decade of Color Photography, 1980-1990. His work documenting the resurgence of Jewish life in Germany has been exhibited in the U.S. and abroad, and his series “The 36 Unknown,” a group of abstract images based on a Jewish legend of redemption, has been exhibited around the world to much critical acclaim. Most recently, Weinstein has been working on a series of abstract images that explore Biblical themes and Jewish lore.

Weinstein’s photographs have been exhibited at such venues as The Detroit Institute of Arts, the Holocaust Memorial Center in Detroit, the National Humanities Center in North Carolina, the New York Public Library, as well as New York’s Howard Greenberg Gallery, Midtown Y Photography Gallery, Pace/MacGill Gallery, and Yeshiva University Museum. Weinstein’s work has been acquired by 12 major collections, including the Museum of the City of New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and La Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris. His photos have also been published in numerous magazines, among them Blind Spot, Forbes, German Life, Popular Photography, TIME and LIFE.

Weinstein has over four decades of experience as a commercial photographer. His client list includes American Express, AT&T, Canon Calendar, The Detroit Institute of Arts, IBM, NBC, New York Telephone, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, the Trisha Brown Dance Company, W.R. Grace and Company, Western Electric, the YMCA, and more than a dozen design firms.


Ernst Haas my teacher, mentor, and friend.

How I met Ernst Haas:

Back in 1970, I was living in my hometown of Detroit, attending art school and working for the famous car photographer Dick James. They then started a lottery draft for the Vietnam War. I received a very high number and I knew that it was time for me to leave Detroit.

I was 19 years of age on my arrival in New York City, and I found that very few photographers would hire somebody that young. A good friend of mine was the manager of the famous folk club The Gaslight Cafe, so I worked there at night, got up early and started to make the rounds to meet photographers during the day. Jay Maisel was one of the first photographers who gave me a chance to assist.

I worked for him for only one day in his unbelievable studio on the Bowery. As I recall, he was shooting the “Diamonds are Forever” advertisement campaign. I expressed my interest in wanting to travel and see the world and not just to photograph in a studio. He recommended I go to see his friend Gene Moses at 55th Street and Seventh Avenue.

When I met Gene, who was a still-life photographer, he looked at my work and said that I should go across the hall and ring the bell. It was 8:30 am when Ernst Haas himself, in his underwear, opened the door. He asked me to go get a coffee and come back in 20 minutes. This was the beginning of my association with the Ernst Haas Studio, which started in 1970 and lasted up until Ernst’s death in 1986. Since his death, I still help the family with his estate.

Some of the important people who also gave me confidence to continue my photographic interest were photographers Dwight Carter, Mel Dixon, Peter B. Kaplan, Maureen Lambray and Harvey Lloyd. They all gave me a chance to become an assistant in New York.

Story 1:

One story I love happened very early on, back in 1973. Ernst was just starting to teach at the Maine photographic workshop in Rockport, Maine. He asked me to assist him in the workshop. I remember the first assignment from Ernst: to photograph a flower called Queen Anne's lace. I was very surprised to hear the assignment “Flowers” – an unusual subject matter.

So we all got into our cars and drove about 1⁄2 mile away from Rockport and turned a corner. All of a sudden, there was a field of hundreds of these Queen Anne's lace flowers. I had never noticed this flower before. As I remember, the photograph I took was of the Queen Anne's lace in the foreground and in the background a blurred car passing on the road; I needed to have something manmade in the photo. From that moment on, I have seen this Queen Anne's lace flower in many parts of the world, just beside the road as I’m driving by. I have been photographing flowers ever since that day.

Ernst had a way of teaching you how to see the world around you. “To see is to be” was something Ernst would say all the time. In his teaching, if you would just let yourself follow your interest, your photography would develop into your own voice.

Story 2:

In spring of 1986, Ernst was asked to photograph people running and having fun on the beach for an ad campaign in Santa Barbara, California, for Chrysler. So I rented a whole inn for the crew, and we did all the prepping for the shoot there. One of my best childhood friends lived in Santa Barbara at that time. His son came to the casting and was picked by Ernst to be one of the main models.

One afternoon, my friend picked me up to go to lunch and, as we were parking the car, I saw a used book shop in the corner of my eye and expressed a need to go into the shop. My friend was making fun of my wish to go into the bookshop. “You won’t find anything there,” he said.

I went in anyway, found the area for photography books, and started looking through them. I came upon a book that had photographs and poems, with images of some of the great photographers of the time and well-known poets. The book that I found was called The Poet’s Camera. It was printed in 1946 and Bryan Holme was the editor of the photographs. The printing was beautiful and I paid $3.00 for the book.

As I returned to the inn with the book, Ernst was just stepping out of his room, and he said to me, “I was just thinking about that book.” I was amazed by what he had just said. These kinds of coincidences between us happened many times over the years.

He explained to me that The Poet’s Camera  had turned him on to photography while he was living in Vienna just after World War II and during the occupation. Ernst would visit the American quarter where there was a very nice library. And that is where he discovered The Poet’s Camera.

“If you look at the first few pages of the book,” Ernst said, “you will find the first words of Genesis: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’... you’ll see the photographs of the nebula in the Orion galaxy, the total eclipse of the sun.” This was the spark that hooked Ernst on becoming a photographer.

The amazing thing was that, some 25 years later, when Ernst produced his famous book The Creation, the same Bryan Holme worked with him on it. The Creation  sold over 350,000 copies.

Story 3:

One other story that comes to mind happened back in 1986, just after Ernst had his heart attack. The studio got him to slow down and take a real break and he agreed to spend all of August in his home up in Rockport, Maine. He had been traveling the world nonstop since the 1950s.

While up in Rockport, he started writing about the possibilities of poetry in photography. Ernst would say, “I believe that poetry exists in painting, writing, music and in many of the art forms.” He hoped to give a talk on poetry and photography for the Norton Lectures at Harvard University. At the same time, Smith Schumeman and Bill Moriarty started a documentary on Ernst’s ideas on poetry and photography, following the audio-visual presentation on Ernst’s “To Dream with Open Eyes.” We also did our annual Maine photography workshop, which took place the last week of August. I realized Ernst could not stop working.

As we were driving back to New York City on September 8, I remember telling Ernst how beautifully green the trees were. He looked up from his notebook and did not say a word. I was thinking that he had seen so much in his life at that point, that there was no need for a comment, but thinking back now about that moment, he may have been having a mini-stroke.

As we reached The Bronx, Ernst asked if I would turn on the radio, for it was 5:00 pm – the time when Austrian music hour was on. We were driving into New York City with Austrian marching-band music. He always had a knack for being right in tune for making even a car ride a magical experience. You can’t make it up.

The next morning Ernst had a stroke; he died at the hospital on September 12, 1986. I used to call Ernst the “North Star,” for he was the brightest star amongst all other stars and would never take away from any other star in the universe.


Fritz Simak

Fritz Stamak was born 1955 in Vienna, Austria. He studied  art history at the University of Vienna, working on his thesis about Ernst Haas during a study visit at Haas’s studio in New York City. He is considered a pioneer of conceptional photography in Austria and since 1971 has been active in collecting photographs with different focuses as well as curating several exhibitions and publishing catalogs and illustrated books.


When I went to New York in 1985 to work on my thesis on Ernst Haas. Ernst let me stay in his studio and allowed me to do and see everything I wanted with regard to his work. This was wonderful, as was the fact that his office assistant at the time, Marina Ospina, and his photography assistant, Todd Weinstein, and I went to all the parties (Time/LIFE, Magnum, MoMA, etc.) to which Ernst had been invited but could not attend because he was usually traveling.  I also learned to print at Motel Fine Arts/Todd Watts Studio.

In September 1985 I showed up at a workshop Ernst was giving in Rockport, Maine, and also got to know Dr. Durrer, a Swiss dentist who was working in New York. One day I saw one of his bills in Ernst's studio: $32,000… an unbelievable amount of money for an Austrian student.

A few weeks later I lost a tooth; I had student insurance but was not sure if it would cover this. When I told Ernst about my problem, he said, “Just go to Dr. Durrer and tell him I sent you. He’ll help you.”

I went to the address he gave me and I realized it was in Rockefeller Center! I rode the elevator up to the 21st floor with my heart beating like crazy. I was wondering, “How am I going to pay this doctor?”

At his office I had to fill out four pages about who I was, who was going to pay, what credit card I had, whether my parents were wealthy, and on and on. It all completely threw me for a loop! I was almost never scared in New York, even though I rode the subway day and night, but now I was.

Then the moment came for me to go into Dr. Durrer’s examination room.

Fortunately, he recognized me. I told him I had student insurance, and that I was from the Ernst Haas Studio. He remembered that we had met at the workshop in Maine, called the insurance company and found out that the dental problem was not covered.

Then he started working on my teeth. I asked him how much I would have to pay. He said, “You’re a student from Austria doing research on Ernst Haas. I will do it for free.”

Very happy and relieved, I returned to the Ernst Haas Studio and immediately told my story to Ernst, who laughed and said, “Great, next time I will say I know Fritz Simak.”


Helen Marcus

Helen Marcus is a well-known freelance photographer based in New York, specializing in portraiture, travel world-wide and annual reports. Her work appears in publications ranging from The New York Times to Food & Wine to American Express annual reports. She has photographed many literary, film and  television personalities including Anne Tyler, Norman Mailer, John Barth, Kitty Carlisle, Merv Griffin and Cliff Robertson. Her photograph of author Toni Morrison was used for the etching on the Swedish Post Office stamp honoring Ms. Morrison as the Nobel Laureate in Literature in 1993. She has juried work and selected photographs for exhibitions and awards, including the ASMP Awards and the W. Eugene Smith Grant and Howard Chapnick Grant. She is president emerita of the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund, Inc; past president of the American Society of Media Photographers and founder of the New York Chapter of the ASMP.


Many nice memories… but one that stands out for me:

When we started the NY Chapter of ASMP, in 1982, I hadn’t met Ernst yet. Since the National ASMP wouldn’t give us any money to have a viable chapter, we knew we needed money. The mailing we sent out to start the New York chapter asked local photographers for $25 to join, and we got about 200 responses. What to do for those who joined? At the time, I was first co-president, and we decided to give a party. We thought, who were our most illustrious members? Ernst’s name and Ruth Orkin’s came up. Ruth I knew, but not Ernst. I knew he was teaching at the New School then…I just went without calling to I met him there and told him our predicament. He was fabulous, immediately said he’d be thrilled, there was a carousel of both their work playing though out the evening. The goodwill engendered was wonderful. Thanks to Ernst and Ruth. Then during the years I taught at the Maine Photographic Workshop, I got to know him… a lovely friend and mentor.
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At top: "Japan, 1984" by Ernst Haas; above: "Reflection, Revolving Door, New York 1975" by 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 http://www.ernst-haas.com.

3 Comments

  1. David Lyman commented on: September 16, 2016 at 11:56 a.m.
    Thanks guys for pulling this together. Wonderfull to read and ponder all the various voices. There are so many other memories of Ernst floating around the universe. And, thanks to those who contributed. Loved reading it all. Maybe something will come of this . . . David
  1. commented on: September 16, 2016 at 12:35 p.m.
    A tip of the hat to Eric Meola for putting this week together. A tremendous amount of time and effort that is greatly appreciated. Hopefully, many who knew Ernst will be reminded of how special he really was and, more importantly, a new younger audience will have been reached and learn more about the man who touched so many, not only photographically, but also personally.
  1. monica suder commented on: September 21, 2016 at 7:39 a.m.
    There is one more story about Ernst's influence I would love to bring up here - a story that changed one young man's life: His name was John Blaustein, who was a river guide on the Colorado River at the time, when Ernst got an assignment to cover a rafting story. (It could have been Time-Life who sent him...) John was so impressed with Ernst, his charisma, his knowledge and his photography, that he vowed he would become a photographer. I met John while photo Editor at Outside Magazine in San Francisco in 1977. John published a beautiful book on the Colorado River entitled The Hidden Canyon - a River Journey.

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