Friday, January 11, 2013

The Skinny: Martin Munkasci

I had planned to write about Richard Avedon. I will, someday. But today is all about the man who inspired Avedon, Martin Munkasci.
"Woman on boulder with bicycle", 1936

Multiple sources cite him as "the father of fashion photography." I had never heard of him before today. It turns out that a lot of people have never heard of him. In fact, after his death in 1963, his archives were offered to multiple museums. Nobody wanted them.
1940s Harper's Bazaar

He was a Hungarian Jew (actually born in Transylvania) who got his start as a sports photographer in his native country for a newspaper called Az Est. He was an adventurer, often called "Crazy Angle" by his colleagues. Instead of standing behind the fence to photograph the races, he would be on his knees in a puddle on the side of the track. One source claims that he strapped himself to the side of a race car in order to photograph it in motion around the track.
Munkasci, on a car

European motorcyclist, 1920s

Martin moved to Berlin, where photography was booming, and ended up working for several German publications in the late 1920s and early 1930s. He even photographed Hitler (no small feat for an Eastern European Jew in Nazi days). When the atmosphere in Germany started to get a little rough for people of Munkasci's roots, he took an overseas assignment in America for Biz, one of his German magazines. While in New York, he agreed to do a photo shoot for Carmel Snow, budding editor for Harper's Bazaar, and that was the day he made history. Not only was it the first outdoor fashion shoot, it was the first motion fashion shoot. Until then, models were posed and primped on carefully regulated sets in carefully regulated studios. With Carmel Snow, Martin Munkasci shot his model on the beach. He didn't speak English, and his interpreter was having a difficult time of it, but the model, Lucile Brokaw, understood perfectly. He wanted her to run. To move around. To splash. Looking at the photographs, you would never know that the day was actually miserably cold and damp, the model shivering.
Lucile Brokaw, Harper's Bazaar 1933

The shoot was such a success that Carmel Snow offered him a job. The next year, he moved to America to become one of the most groundbreaking photographers of the time. He was one of the first photographers to put nudes in a mainstream magazine (tastefully, of course).
Harper's Bazaar, 1935

 He continued to pioneer the art of motion photography for Harper's Bazaar, Life, and Ladies Home Journal before turning his eye to Hollywood. His work gave us one of the most well-known pictures of Fred Astaire in motion. At his peak in the mid-1930s, his annual salary was $100,000. He lived in a Long Island estate with art from the Masters on his walls.
Fred Astaire; Life, 1936

Katharine Hepburn

In 1939, his luck took a hike. His wife (the second of three) divorced him. He lost a lot of money. Then, his daughter died of cancer. While he was still in mourning, Ladies Home Journal gave him a cross-country series assignment called "How America Lives." The stress of driving from city to city, day after day, caught up with him, and his pictures weren't good anymore. They fired him. He had  a heart attack. Another wife, and another divorce, led him to poverty. He was finally reduced to loitering in the hall outside Harper's Bazaar, hoping for some work. He finally had to pawn all of his camera equipment. His last published photograph was for that magazine, in July of 1962. A year later, he died of a heart attack. The only food in his refrigerator was an open can of spaghetti with a fork sticking out of it.
1936, "Peignoir in Soft Breeze"

New York World's Fair, Harper's Bazaar 1938
People finally came around, and several decades later, interest in his work renewed. Someone discovered a series of undeveloped negatives, and an exhibit of "lost" photos was born. A few books were written, with quotes from photographers that Munkasci inspired, including Henri Cartier-Bresson and Richard Avedon. I think my favorite is Avedon's remembrance of his 11-year old self discovering  Munkasci magazine cover and gluing it to his bedroom ceiling: "His women [strode] parallel to the sea, unconcerned with his camera, freed by his dream of them, leaping straight-kneed across my bed."

The Puddle Jumper

Bathing Beauties

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