Martin Munkacsi, At 100 kilometers — Riders in the Hungarian Tourist Trophy, detail, 1929; Courtesy Ullstein Bild; © Joan Munkacsi.

Witnessing History, Capturing the Moving Subject, Think While You Shoot!

Martin Munkacsi, Fred Astaire on his Toes, 1936, Courtesy the Collection of F.C. Gundlach.

Martin Munkacsi, Lovely autumn: the last warm days of sunshine, ca. 1929, Courtesy Ullstein Bild; © Joan Munkacsi.

Martin Munkacsi, Lucile Brokaw at the Beach on Long Island, 1933, Modern gelatin silver print, © Joan Munkacsi.

Martin Munkacsi, Opening Ceremony of the Reichstag, Day of Potsdam, March 21, 1933 – the Reich’s Army on the march, 1933; Courtesy Ullstein Bild; © Joan Munkacsi.


San Francisco
Museum of Modern Art
151 Third Street
(between Mission and Howard streets)
San Francisco

Martin Munkacsi: Think While You Shoot!
May 12-September 16, 2007

Born in 1896, Martin Munkacsi pioneered the art of enlivening photography with action and energy. From the start of his career in the 1920s, when he worked as a sports photographer in his native Hungary, Munkacsi rejected the posed shot, preferring that his subjects move, and that he move with his subjects, handling his heavy camera equipment as if it were portable. (Munkacsi favored the formal composition and specificity afforded by his cumbersome large-format camera.)

Martin Munkacsi: Think While You Shoot! brings together more than 125 vintage photographs as well as magazines and layouts from the 1920s through the mid-1940s — many of which have not been on view since their original publication — this career retrospective serves to reaffirm Martin Munkacsi’s invaluable contribution to the history of photography. Organized by F. C. Gundlach at the Haus de photographie, Hamburg, the exhibition completes an international tour in San Francisco in a focused presentation overseen by SFMOMA Senior Curator of Photography Sandra Phillips.

Around 1927 Munkacsi relocated to Berlin, the center of publishing activity with a community of innovative photographers, artists, and photographic reporters. Munkacsi and his peers capitalized on publishers’ shift away from hand-drawn illustration in favor of photography. Of many talented freelance photographers available, Munkacsi was the one to be hired as staff for the German photo weekly Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung (BIZ). He distinguished himself with a dynamic style of spontaneous reportage that captured fleeting moments — a soccer ball leaving the foot of a sportsman, a dancer twirling in mid-air, a motorcyclist racing through a puddle, children at play — suggesting stories beyond the picture plane. His pictures also pointed to the major cultural undercurrents of the period between the World Wars. Not long after he photographed the Day of Potsdam, which marked the start of Nazi dictatorship, anti-Semitic policies bore down on Jewish-run BIZ, and Munkacsi, like many of his Jewish colleagues, fled Germany.

On immigrating to the United States in 1934, Munkacsi took a job as a fashion photographer at Harper’s Bazaar under Editor-in-Chief Carmel Snow. His work revolutionized American fashion photography and remains that for which he is best remembered in the United States. Rebuking convention, which used the model as a lifeless mannequin or “clotheshorse,” Munkacsi presented the model outdoors and in action — running, swimming, driving, and enjoying the physical freedom, and engineering marvels, of the modern world. His model was the “all-American” athletic woman, a real person with a real identity.

In 1940 Munkacsi signed what was then the most lucrative photography contract to-date, for a Ladies Home Journal series titled How America Lives. Munkacsi shot 65 of the 78 sequences, which portrayed everyday life in America during World War II.

Arranged roughly chronologically, Think While You Shoot! represents all phases of Munkacsi’s 40-year career, elucidating his extraordinary range — from the glamour of Hollywood to daily life in Africa — and spotlighting his unrelenting commitment to capturing physical vitality in elegant and innovative framing. In addition to politically-charged photographs for BIZ and cutting-edge fashion spreads for Harper’s Bazaar, highlights of the exhibition include photographs from Munkacsi’s travels to Liberia, Brazil, Egypt, and Algeria and portraits of such fascinating cultural figures as Fred Astaire (in an image that appeared on the cover of Life magazine in 1936), William Randolph Hearst, Mae West, Jean Harlow, Claudette Colbert, Gary Cooper, Frida Kahlo, and Diego Rivera.

Henri Cartier-Bresson once selected Munkasci’s Boys running into the surf at Lake Tanganyika (1930) as a favorite image, which he credits as having sparked his own photographic career (The photograph of African youths running into the surf communicates an exuberant sense of life that is a hallmark of Munkasci’s work.). Despite his considerable contributions to photography, however, Munkacsi has been largely forgotten — partially the result of a fragmented archive. Following his death in 1963, two major U.S. art museums turned down the opportunity to purchase his oeuvre, resulting in the scattering and presumed destruction of many works. By reuniting examples from throughout his career, Martin Munkacsi: Think While You Shoot! offers the public a glimpse at Munkacsi’s extraordinary output and reaffirms his standing as a preeminent figure in the history of photography.

Martin Munkácsi (born Kolozsvar, Austro-Hungary, May 18, 1896, died July 13, 1963 New York, NY) was an Hungarian photographer who worked in Germany (1928-34) and the United States.

Munkácsi was a newspaper writer and photographer in Hungary, specializing in sports. At the time, sports action photography could only be done in bright light outdoors. Munkácsi's innovation was to make sports photographs as meticulously composed action photographs, which required both artistic and technical skill.

Munkácsi's legendary big break was to happen upon a fatal brawl, which he photographed. Those photos affected the outcome of the trial of the accused killer, and gave Munkácsi considerable notoriety. That notoriety helped him get a job in Berlin in 1928, for the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, He also worked for the fashion magazine Die Dame.

More than just sports and fashion, he photographed Berliners, rich and poor, in all their activities. He traveled to Turkey, Sicily, Egypt, London, New York, and famously Liberia, for photo spreads in the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung.

The speed of the modern age and the excitement of new photographic viewpoints enthralled him, especially flying. There are aerial photographs; there are air-to-air photographs of a flying school for women; there are photographs from a Zeppelin, including the ones on his trip to Brazil, where he crosses over a boat whose passengers wave to the airship above.

In 1934, the Nazis nationalized the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, fired its Jewish editor-in-chief, Kurt Korff, and replaced its innovative photography with pictures of German troops.

Munkácsi left for New York, where he signed on, for a substantial $100,000, with Harper's Bazaar, a top fashion magazine. Innovatively, he often left the studio to shoot outdoors, on the beach, on farms and fields, at an airport. He produced one of the first articles ilustrated with nude photographs in a popular magazine.

His portraits include Katharine Hepburn, Leslie Howard, Jean Harlow, and Jane Russell, Louis Armstrong, and the definitive dance photograph of Fred Astaire.

Munkácsi died in poverty and controversy. Several universities and museums declined to accept his archives, and they were scattered around the world.

Berlin's Ullstein Archives and Hamburg's F. C. Gundlach collection are home to two of the largest collections of Munkácsi's work.

Richard Avedon said of Munkácsi, "He brought a taste for happiness and honesty and a love of women to what was, before him, a joyless, loveless, lying art. Today the world of what is called fashion is peopled with Munkácsi's babies, his heirs.... The art of Munkácsi lay in what he wanted life to be, and he wanted it to be splendid. And it was."

Martin Munkacsi, Jumping fox terrier, ca. 1930; Courtesy Joan Munkacsi; © Joan Munkacsi.


Martin Munkacsi, Greta Garbo on vacation, detail, ca. 1932; Courtesy Ullstein Bild; © Joan Munkacsi.