“Bored with obvious reality, I find my fascination in transforming it into a subjective point of view. Without touching my subject I want to come to the moment when, through pure concentration of seeing, the composed picture becomes more made than taken. Without a descriptive caption to justify its existence, it will speak for itself – less descriptive, more creative; less informative, more suggestive; less prose, more poetry.”
— Ernst Haas from ‘About Color Photography’, in DU, 1961

The Christophe Guye Galerie in Zurich has mounted a small but inspiring exhibition of previously undiscovered color images by Ernst Haas. The exhibition follows the publication of a recently released book about Haas, called Color Correction. (The first printing by Steidl is already sold out.)

Most commonly associated with vibrant color photography, Haas was famed for his commercial work. (He was the first to photography a Marlboro Man.) However, his other, private work really illuminates the power of his sensibility and his true mastery.

Unfortunately this side of his creative output had been kept private during the photographer's life.

“These images are of great sophistication, and rival (and sometimes surpass) the best of his colleagues”, says Ewing, revealing works “far more edgy, loose, enigmatic, and ambiguous than his celebrated work.”

It was in 1962 that the first ever color photography exhibition, Ernst Haas Color Photography, was held at the prestigious MoMA in New York, and not until fourteen years later would color photography be given another show at the museum with Color Photography by William Eggleston.

Sidelined by Szarkowski

Though introducing Haas’ work to a large audience and a major milestone in the history of the medium it would not come to have the same effect on the development of the artist’s career. On the contrary: an exhibition planned by Edward Steichen, renowned photographer and curator of MoMA at the time, it was in the end his predecessor John Szarkowski who would actually see it realized. With this shift in curatorial visionary, Szarkowski would enforce a different taste. Having the duty to complete Steichen’s idea, but keen to champion his own and dissimilar ideas, Szarkowski’s enthusiasm regarding the artist and the exhibition Ernst Haas Color Photography was meek, the praise in his accompanying texts all but faint.

Steichen, once in favor of pictorial ism, thus a subjective photography, valued Haas’ profound use of the camera, while Szarkowski on the other hand chose to favor a less embellished sentiment; a more hard edge modernist inspired American approach. It was this disregard and clashing of personal agendas that would ultimately and erroneously see Haas excluded from the canon of color photography; his indisputable talent became the victim of the cyclical debate of what art photography should be.

Making his first color photographs in 1949, Haas was a member of the prestigious Magnum agency. Known mainly for his commissioned work, whereby he created influential imagery such as iconic Marlboro Man advertisements long before other artists were commissioned to do so, Haas’ work would come to have great influence on later artists, such as Richard Prince, Marc Quinn or Robert Longo. Using color also for his personal work, with a pictorial language recalling at times the works by painter Edward Hopper, Haas has been described as a poet photographer. Haas cropped and abstracted, photographed against the light and out of focus, and used reflections and close-ups to mystify the visible. Interested in the everyday,as well, some of his personal photographs remind of the likes of Lee Friedlander or Stephan Shore.

Haas’ formal language echoes decades past while being extremely contemporary at once. Often shooting inches away from the subject at acute and unexpected angles, Haas work was visionary. Lyrical, evocative, and expressive, while at the same time exact, the artist moved away from obvious reality, finding fascination in transforming it into a subjective point of view.

Early on, Steichen wrote:

“In my estimation we have experienced an epoch in photography. Here is a free spirit, untrammeled by tradition and theory, who has gone out and found beauty unparalleled in photography.”

Short biography:

Ernst Haas was born on March 2, 1921 in Vienna, Austria, second son of Ernst Haas, a high official in the Austrian government, and, Frederika, who continued to encourage him from early childhood to pursue his creative endeavors. 1946 Haas acquired his first camera, a Rolleiflex, on the black market in exchange for 10 kilograms of margarine received for his 25th birthday. Less than ten years later – and then still fairly new to the profession – Haas was elected to be included in the epical exhibition Family of Man. Considered the pinnacle of his career, Edward Steichen embraced an accessible and even nostalgic style of photography: the tour of Family of Man lasted five years, ending in 1961, a year before Ernst Haas Color Photography opened at the MoMA. Haas worked with magazines such as DU, Heute and later publishing major photographic essays in LIFE – for which in 1953 Haas published the first ever color photo essay in the history of the magazine, Images of a Magic City – while developing close associations with Werner Bischof, Henri Cartier Bresson, and Robert Capa. The latter encouraging him to pursue his own vision, Haas begins shooting with a Leica, and experimenting with the first color films in 1949. 1959 he was elected president of Magnum, while publishing many books and receiving numerous awards during his lifetime, such as the Hasselblad Foundation International Award and the Goldenes Verdienstkreuz des Landes Wien, both in 1986 shortly before his death. This more recently discovered work was displayed first in 2010 during the Rencontres d'Arles in France.