Here is something not to be missed for photography lovers: Ernst Haas – The Art of Seeing at WestLicht Gallery in Vienna. I actually went to the exhibition opening last year, but am only now getting around to processing my photos from the event and writing about this great master photographer. But I wanted to put something up before it finishes, which is all too soon.
I am almost embarrassed to admit that I discovered Ernst Haas only relatively recently, in the exhibition “Augenblick: Street Photography in Vienna” at the Wien Museum MUSA in early 2022. Among other things, some photos from Haas’ series “Homecoming Prisoners” from 1947 were exhibited there, and these pictures never let me go. They were what brought him to instant fame. Haas focused his photographic gaze on the women who were waiting for the last train that would bring POWs home from Russian camps. There are very strong emotions in the faces of the waiting women, and the images are deeply haunting.
Haas left Vienna shortly after making this series and initially worked in Paris as a Magnum photographer and later in New York, even becoming the head of the Magnum office there for a while. He spent his whole professional life in America, his dream country, but travelled widely around the world, becoming a highly sought after photographer for magazines and in Hollywood for set photography.
He portrayed famous actors as well as people on the street, often in candid situations, always with a certain sensitivity. In addition to commissioned photography, he also made pictures for his own pleasure throughout his life, in which the abstraction of forms, lines, surfaces, colour contrasts/harmonies, and special light/shadow situations were evidently important to him.
One of his achievements is his pioneering work in colour, especially in reportage at a time when this was not yet “done”. He also loved taking abstract images and often used stylistic elements such as reflections and motion blur to achieve artistic effects, techniques that are so popular today and that he refined and integrated into all of his photography at a time when it was new and rather unusual.
Of course, it wasn’t just his early use of colour film (made possible by advances in film technology) that was inspiring to his contemporaries and later photographers, but also his special perspective. “The art of seeing” is an apt title for this exhibition, because Haas truly had an eye any photographer could wish for. Many of his colour photographs are so special because they provide a glimpse of interesting details. Apart from his urban views and street photography, Ernst Haas was also very enthusiastic about nature and repeatedly captured interesting details, special light and color moods in the landscape. In fact his contributions to colour photography were considered so important that in 1962 the first colour photography exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art paid tribute to his work.
“A few words about the question of whether photography is art or not: I never understood the question.”Ernst Haas
The diversity of Ernst Haas’ work is amazing. For me he is a kind of universal genius of photography. In some circles on social platforms today there are passionate, even hostile, discussions about whether someone is a street photographer or documentary or whatever. Such categories are to some degree meaningless. One may gravitate towards one type of photography more than the other, if one photographs long enough one will (hopefully) develop a style of ones’ own, and if one is lucky one will come up with creative ideas that will seem interesting, ‘fashionable’ or unique to others for some time. But if one is a photographer with heart and soul, if one prefers to look at the world through the camera’s viewfinder, then I don’t think one wants to necessarily limit oneself to a specific genre. At least that’s how it seems to me.
And that’s probably how it was for Ernst Haas. If one is as brilliant as Ernst Haas, one will be admired and copied many times, but one will certainly not be put into a categorical drawer.
A must-see for anyone interested in seeing one of the great masters who have influenced so much of what is popular today in photography, one who was a pioneer of it all! Do not miss it, only on for another week or so.
P.S. The Western Skies Motel image is one of my favourites, but in the final picture above I focused on the visitor. A view of the original image can be found in the “New Color Collection” on the Ernst Haas Estate website.
(Sources: WestLicht Gallery website, exhibition captions, “Ernst Haas” Photofile by Virginie Chardin, Ernst Haas Estate website )
Ernst Haas, The Art of Seeing at Westlicht Gallery
Until 12 February 2022
daily 11 am–9 pm
3 thoughts on “Ernst Haas – The Art of Seeing”
Thank you for sharing this experience, Karin. I had never heard of Ernst Haas and enjoyed learning about his wide-ranging interest and photography. I can only imagine what those waiting women must have felt after not having seen their husbands, brothers, and sons for years of a horrible war.
Thank you, Tanja. Yes, the images of the waiting women are heart-wrenching, there are many more that I did not put into the article. Imagine, hoping for the best, fearing the worst. Are they coming back, or are they not?
As for his later colour photography, I am totally in love with it, and it has influenced many photographers after him.
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It’s easy to see why. His technique is very appealing.