The Current:
Spring 2007
Weimar, Woman, War, and the Photographer
Joyce Hau
Martin Munkacsi - "Think While You Shoot!"
"Henri Cartier-Bresson's Scrapbook: Photographs 1932-46"
"Louise Brooks and the 'New Woman' in Weimar Cinema"
International Center for Photography
Through April 29, 2007

Living in the thick of the infor­mation age, one might take for granted the immediate access to information and images from around the world. The sophisticated print culture that exists today grew out of the print and photographic revolutions of the 1920s. It was at this time that the circulation of magazines and newspapers, along with technologies of air travel, allowed anyone to explore places previously limited to the imagination. Several themes dominated the pages of these magazines: travel (and with it, a fascination with the exotic), fashion, the burgeoning film industry, and the inevitable warfare and political turmoil that marked the middle of the century.

Three exhibits now on display at the In­ternational Center of Photography (ICP) ex­amine the changing visual culture of a mod­ernizing Europe through the lens of two great masters, Hungarian-German émigré Martin Munkacsi and the internationally renowned Frenchman Henri Cartier-Bresson. The bet­ter-known of the two, Cartier-Bresson (who passed away at the age of 96 in 2004) made his name as a photojournalist, documenting some of the watershed historical moments in the latter half of the twentieth century. His singular "Scrapbook," a conglomeration of over 300 pictures he put together in 1947, was last on display for his first solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in the same year. Sixty years later, the images have been reas­sembled for the current exhibition, on loan from the Foundation Henri-Cartier-Bresson in Paris. Cartier-Bresson is duly recognized as a photographer of incredible originality, yet during his life, he attributed his skills to those he learned from. One of these influ­ences was the lesser-known Munkacsi, who at the height of his career in the early forties was one of the highest paid photographers in New York. Unfortunately, a propensity to live beyond his means, several failed mar­riages, and ill health all contributed to his un­timely demise in 1963 when he died alone, impoverished, and forgotten. Now this ex­hibit, "Think While You Shoot!", organized by curators in Germany and the U.S., reveals just how influential Munkacsi was as an in­novator and master of his medium. Anoth­er smaller exhibit, "Louise Brooks and the 'New Woman' in Weimar Cinema," portrays one aspect of modernity's effect on women as it was captured on film. All three exhibits give visitors glimpses into various aspects of the exciting and tumultuous events of mid-century Europe.

Munkacsi's photos from the late twenties to the forties capture the ephemeral dynamic of modernity by pushing the artistic limits of photography. This exhibition's collection of some 125 vintage photo prints presents both the overlooked master's delightful and exhil­arating take on interwar Germany's obses­sion with exoticism and body culture, along with the innovative fashion photographs he took for Harper's Bazaar after he emigrated to New York in 1934. Cartier-Bresson and Richard Avedon were professed admirers of his work, the former claiming that Munkac­si's picture of three African boys running gleefully into the surf made him "suddenly realize that photography could reach eter­nity through the moment." Cartier-Bresson said, "The only thing which completely was an amazement to me and brought me to photography was the work of Munkac­si." Three Boys Running Into the Surf at Lake Tangasyika of 1930 is displayed here, along with many other captivating and influential photographs that span the entire oeuvre of Munkacsi's career.

Before Munkacsi emigrated from his na­tive Hungary to Berlin in 1928, he had cut his photojournalistic teeth mainly in sports photography. He honed his skills in the mar­vels of timing; his soccer players fly through air, expressions comically taut as they butt heads, straining for the ball. Munkacsi al­ways took his pictures with bulky, large format 9 x 12 reflex cameras, making the sharpness and impeccable timing of his photos all the more remarkable. One par­ticularly astounding photograph captures a goalkeeper seemingly suspended above the ground as he reaches out, skidding over the grassy field. Munkacsi believed that photo­graphing movement required mathematical precision. "In sport photographs and all exciting action snaps, you have to anticipate the motion," he wrote in Harper's Bazaar. He was fanatically insistent about photograph­ing at high speeds, all before the invention of high-speed film and more compact cam­eras made such rapid-movement photogra­phy commonly accessible.

Munkacsi eventually tired of the relative­ly paltry artistic opportunities in Budapest and headed west to one of Europe's most booming metropolises of the 1920s: Berlin. Berlin of the Weimar era was a hub of wide­ly-circulating new media aimed at the mass­es, most notable of which were illustrated magazines published by Ullstein Verlag, Die Dame (The Lady) and Berliner Illustrirte Zei­tung (Berlin Illustrated Newspaper), or the BIZ. Hired by Ullstein immediately after his arrival to Berlin, Munkacsi put his tal­ents to use by feeding the BIZ readership's demand for travel, fashion, and sports pho­tography.

Munkacsi had a sharp eye for patterns and natural composition. In his work for the BIZ, he often shot from bird's-eye-view angles, rendering an image of children sprawled out on a field into a quilt-like pat­tern of limbs and faces (A Field Full of Chil­dren, Kissingen, Germany 1929). Like his contemporary and fellow Hungarian László Moholy-Nagy, Munkacsi sought to use his artistic medium to discover the "optical un­conscious," the set of things not normally perceptible to the naked eye but that the camera lens could perceive. Woman on the Beach of 1930 is a prime example of how Munkacsi highlighted the formal possibili­ties of photography with the exploitation of extreme angles. The swimsuit-clad woman striding confidently across the beach is shot from such a vertiginous point of view that she seems to be flattened against the undulating sand patterns behind her. The dramatic angle and the sharp light-dark con­trast of this photograph calls attention to Munkacsi's skill at manipulating the formal qualities of photography to create new ways of seeing.

His dance photographs captured the explosive spontaneity of the dancers in all their twisting, jumping, and kicking agil­ity. As if internalizing the dancers' rhythm, Munkacsi showed an impeccable talent for anticipating just the right moment so that the frozen figure is imbued with animation. In one photo, a white-suited Fred Astaire tilts precariously out of a twist, and the next one shows him executing an exuberant kick-up. Ballet and jazz dancers are elegantly suspended in air as they leap through space, throwing dynamic shadows in their wake.

In 1929, Ullstein sent Munkacsi on an extended assignment to the Middle East, where Munkacsi spent several months travel­ing through Ankara, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Algeria. BIZ was feeding a demand for reportages from exotic locales, which coin­cided with a rising anthropological interest in "primitivist" cultures. Munkacsi deliv­ered to his audience; his portrait of a young Algerian boy and his camel (Camel and Camel Driver, Biskra, Algeria of ca. 1929) was tak­en using a soft focus technique, creating a mythic allure that heightened the exoticism of his subjects. Swathed in a flowing white robe and bedecked with an Arabian head­dress, the boy leans back dreamily against the equally languid and long-lashed camel.

The prominent Weimar cultural critic and journalist Siegfried Kracauer theorized that the modern bourgeoisie's compulsion to travel, even vicariously through illus­trated magazines, was fundamentally an escapist exercise. "As travelers," he writes, "they distance themselves from their ha­bitual location; going to an exotic place is their sole remaining means of showing that they have outgrown the regions of the Here that enslave them." What societal factors were psychologically enslaving Berliners of the late twenties, necessitating this psychic escapism? The Weimar era's rampant eco­nomic inflation, newfound social freedoms, and political upheaval all played a role in affecting the psyches of Berlin's citizens.

Visitors can find photographic docu­mentation of this troubling time in the little alcove off the main gallery space, display­ing Munkacsi's series of photographs taken on May 21, 1933, the infamous Day of Pots­dam, when the enfeebled president of the equally decrepit Weimar Republic, Paul Hindenburg, effectively ceded all control over to Chancellor Adolf Hitler. The irony of having a Hungarian Jew document this occasion is duly noted, but it is important to notice here how much these photographs of goose-stepping soldiers and pompous of­ficials differ from Munkacsi's other work. He uncharacteristically shoots from a low angle, making the towering, faceless sol­diers convey a feeling of menacing intimi­dation. Two months after the photographs appeared in a special edition of the BIZ, its Jewish editor was dismissed and Ullstein's publishing house was Aryanized. Munkacsi accepted a lucrative contract with Harper's Bazaar and moved to New York in 1934.

In his subsequent work for Harper's Ba­zaar, Life, Ladies Home Journal, and other American magazines of the 1930s and 1940s, Munkacsi revolutionized fashion photography. Instead of adopting the in­dustry standard of stiff and artificial poses, he told his models to run along the beach, allowing gauzy materials to stream behind them as their limbs and faces glowed with youthful vigor. He bought a house in Sands Point, New York, and loved to photograph women on the beach in all their carefree eroticism. He took portraits of stars such as Jean Harlow, Gary Cooper, and Katharine Hepburn. A particularly stunning portrait of Greta Garbo shows her standing back languidly in a diaphanous white gown while her voile sleeves dance and twirl like wings in the wind. The wide format of this photo­graph allows ample space for the iridescent sleeves to take on a life of their own. Set against the luscious garden, Garbo looks very much the part of the beautiful forest nymph.

Munkacsi's photos of women captured a watershed moment in twentieth-century female liberation. One of the most radi­cal expressions of this women's movement was the emergence of the "New Woman" in the Weimar era. The New Woman denot­ed a mode of fashion with the boyish bob, namely the Bubikopf cut, loose dresses, or even a suit and pants, and reckless behav­ior. In "Louise Brooks and the New Woman in Weimar Cinema," the small exhibit just downstairs from the Munkacsi show, Ameri­can film star Louise Brooks embodies this new image of women. In several film stills taken from prominent German director G. W. Pabst's 1929 film Pandora's Box, Lou­ise Brooks stares out, replete with a severe black bob, heavy make-up, and glimmer­ing gowns, all adding to her undeniable on-screen magnetism. Brooks plays Lulu, a woman who manipulates people and re­lationships around her as if they are pawns for her pleasure, home wrecking, sleeping around (with men and women), and even committing murder with nary a second thought.

Martin Munkacsi, Boys running into the surf at Lake Tanganyka, ca. 1930
© Joan Munkacsi, Courtesy Ullstein Bild.

Along with pictures of Brooks, the ex­hibition displays several photos from the twenties of other femme fatales in film, most notably Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel (1930) and the woman socialist-turned-robot in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927). As Vanessa Rocco, cura­tor of the exhibition, points out, "cinematic representations of threatening women and emasculated men, and images of gender destabilization in popular culture, must be contextualized against the backdrop of the socio-cultural turmoil of Weimar Germany." The New Woman movement took a signifi­cant step backward when the deeply con­servative national socialists came to power in Germany. The new policies of intoler­ance extended to gender as they did to race, promulgating the cult of the strong Aryan mother by placing the woman squarely in the kitchen and home.

For the pictorial representation of the impending Nazi terror, visitors can look to the adjacent exhibit, the exhaustive "Henri Cartier-Bresson's Scrapbook: Photos 1932-46." One of the twentieth century's best-known masters of photography, Cartier-Bresson had been captured and held in a German prisoner-of-war camp for three years before his escape in 1943. As he was presumed by the world to be dead, the Museum of Modern Art in New York de­cided to assemble a posthumous exhibition in his honor in 1946. Much to his amuse­ment, Cartier-Bresson heard of these plans and joined in with the preparation efforts, selecting over 300 photographs as part of his "Scrapbook" collection. These small-format photos, taken with his 35mm Leica camera, include some of his best-known im­ages, such as the iconic Behind the Gare St. Lazare (1932), which shows a man and his reflection as he leaps over a puddle on a wet Paris day.

During the war years it was extremely difficult for Cartier-Bresson to procure ma­terials for photography; paper was rationed, flashbulbs were limited, and photographic film was nearly impossible to find. Despite this, his ingenuity and resilience in attempt­ing to escape from the POW camp proved to be an indispensable asset for this hard-nosed photojournalist. In a 1946 interview with the New York Post, Cartier-Bresson said that the wartime experience directly impact­ed his photography: "I became increasingly less interested in what one might call an 'ab­stract' approach to photography. Not only did I become more and more interested in human and plastic values, but I believe I can say that a new spirit arose among pho­tographers in general; in their relationships not only to people, but to one another."

As a photographer interested in the rela­tions between humans, Cartier-Bresson was naturally drawn to times of war and other crises where human emotion were stretched to extremes. Initially drafted into the in­fantry of the French army at the start of WWII, he was transferred to the Film and Photography unit in Metz, France. After he escaped from the POW camp in 1943, he immediately joined the French Resistance. His Resistance membership ID is on dis­play in the exhibit, and visitors can see that his slightly embarrassed smile and diverted eyes betray his aversion to having himself photographed.

In September 1944 Cartier-Bresson ob­tained authorization from the French Cin­ema Board to make a film jointly with the U.S. Office of War Information about the return of prisoners-of-war and deportees to France. Co-directed by Cartier-Bresson and Lieutenant Richard Banks, Le Retour (The Return) was filmed from April to November of 1945 and was screened at MoMA during the opening of Cartier-Bresson's solo exhi­bition. Because the U.S. Army decided to shoot the film in the relatively light 35mm format, Cartier-Bresson had his hands free to take photos with his Leica. The results of his footage are incredibly haunting. A series of three photos shows a woman recog­nizing the person who had denounced her to the Gestapo in Dessau, Germany. In the first picture, a slanted frame heightens the instability of the crowd spilling forward as they hound the woman in question. A re­cently liberated prisoner—still in his striped uniform—drags her along by the shoulder. Indignant, she defensively buttons her shirt as her denouncer attempts to beat her. In the second picture, the crowd has dragged her to an interrogator as the mob jostles around the table. A sense of hysteria reigns. Finally in the third picture, the accused tries to drag herself away while her accuser, face shriveled up in a grotesque grimace, tries to beat her. In these small but powerful prints, Cartier-Bresson shows us the insanity of an inhumane war.

Cartier-Bresson's body of work is varied and encyclopedic, yet in all his photos lie a common element—that searching human quality—always with an eye attuned to find­ing the whimsical in the quotidian. Some­times, particularly in his pictures of prosti­tutes and street children from Mexico and Spain, this element borders on pathos. One of the most difficult prints of the exhibit shows a young boy in civil war-torn Valen­cia, Spain of 1933, running his hand along a charred and broken wall. His eyes swoon in his head, his mouth open and his head tilted backward in excruciating ecstasy. An­other famous photo, Madrid, 1933, shows off Cartier-Bresson's eye for geometry and rhythm in composition. Three boys stand in the left foreground, echoed by three boys in the right foreground as they play a game of marbles amidst the ruins, while a white fa­çade punctuated by rectangles and squares rises up behind them. A pot-bellied man with a bowler hat strides by in the center midground, making the juxtaposition truly whimsical. Cartier-Bresson loved these for­mal affinities in his work. "I try to have a picture that has rhythm and rhyme between different elements," he said. "The greatest joy for me is geometry—it is a sensuous, in­tellectual pleasure!"

The most famous phrase associated with Cartier-Bresson is the "decisive moment." As he says in an accompanying short 1973 film which runs continuously in a corner of the gallery, it's all about anticipating the right split second: "By the time you arm the shut­ter—the picture may have been in between. You must be quick, like an animal with its prey. It's all about the whens." As if taking a line right from Munkacsi himself, Cartier-Bresson says of his lightning-quick intuitive approach: "I never think! I act quick! You have to forget yourself when shooting." For Cartier-Bresson, photography was a means of "instant drawing"; he had always wanted to become a painter, but he made his name in photography instead.

The sheer volume of work on display and the prints' small formats can be irksome for any visitor. This film, specially re-mastered for this show, constitutes the highlight of the exhibition since visitors get to see an array of work not presented in the show while they hear the artist explain that particular work and his musings in his French-accent­ed cadence.

Cartier-Bresson traveled extensively and landed on every continent, capturing piv­otal moments in Spanish, French, Chinese, and Mexican history. He captures the glare of the Spanish sunlight in several pictures of street urchins playing in rubble from 1933, showing off his mastery of composition and natural lighting. He also took portraits of the twentieth century's most important in­tellectuals and artists. Portraits were the most difficult genre for him. "You are cap­turing the interiority of their person in their natural habitat," he explains in the film. "You are looking through a microscope. You must put the camera underneath the person's skin." He recounts how he stood in front of Ezra Pound for an hour and a half in total silence: "We just looked at each other in the eye, without any embarrassment...I think I took one good photo, and four other passable ones, but no others." The resulting portrait of Pound—the one good photo—shows the poet sitting in an armchair, the light spotlighting his shock of white hair, as he watches us with a steady, piercing gaze underneath his wrinkles. Cartier-Bresson used this penetrating method for all of his subjects; sculptor Alberto Giacometti balls one hand tensely into the other, looking just like one of his sculptures as he hunches over his narrow shoulders, and an aged Al­fred Stieglitz, whom Cartier-Bresson called "the father of us all [photographers]", rubs his glasses distractedly with a white cloth as he gazes far into the distance, leaning back against his bed.

Martin Munkacsi, Field Full of Children, Kissingen, Germany, 1929
© Joan Munkacsi. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Cartier-Bresson made it his lifelong proj­ect to foster a supportive community for photographers. In 1947 he founded Mag­num Photos with several prominent photog­raphers, chief among them Robert Capa, the Life photojournalist who captured the D-Day invasion of Normandy. To this day, Magnum Photos serves as an important co-operative agency for archiving the work of top photographers around the world.

A self-confessed surrealist photographer by training, Cartier-Bresson's eye for the absurd comes through in the striking jux­tapositions of people with elements in their natural environments, evident from a low-angle snapshot of three Mexican prostitutes who stare at the camera from painted faces as they stand in a macabre tableau. "Pho­tos can be like a Chekhov story," he said, alluding to the intrinsic narrative possibili­ties of his images. Indeed, the two men in hats with their noses to the wall in a 1932 photo seem to be sharing some secret, a clandestine moment which Cartier-Bresson captured slyly with his Leica. "They can be a whole world," the photography maestro says in the film.

If a photograph can indeed be a world, then the ICP has presented a whole universe in these three shows. Cartier-Bresson and Munkacsi's travel photography opened the modern individual's eyes to other humans untouched by Western civilization or to victims and perpetrators of war at its ugli­est manifestation. Louise Brooks and her fellow New Women staked out a brave new world for womankind, even if it was just for one dazzling instant. All of these artists' work helped transform the consciousnesses of the modern individual and deserves to be admired in this constellation of era-defining images.

Joyce Hau, CC '07, is a Comparative Literature and Society major with German and Chinese as her languages and cultures of study. She is the Publisher of the Columbia Journal of Literary Criticism. She can be reached at jhh2102@columbia.edu.

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