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CREATING TIMELESSNESS: THE PHOTOGRAPHY OF ERNST HAAS

Although he committed to one medium, Austrian-American photographer and photojournalist Ernst Haas never committed to one style. He experimented with abstraction, blurred motion, and, most notably, vivid colors at a time when black-and-white was the universal norm. His pioneering spirit and individual approach to image-making led to an oeuvre that is difficult to categorize, encapsulating everything from intimate human emotions to the creation of the universe.

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Surtsey Volcano, Iceland (1965) ‘The Creation’ Ernst Haas Estate / Getty images

Through black-and-white documentation and colorful abstraction alike, photographer Ernst Haas became internationally renowned for his pioneering approach to and mastery of his chosen medium. Born in 1921 in Vienna, Austria, Haas came to photography only upon his father’s death in 1940, when he entered a darkroom for the first time to print old family negatives. But this sparked a lifelong interest and 40-year career: first through photojournalism, covering events in Europe at the end of World War II, and then through more experimental imagery, notably with projects like “The Creation.”

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Aerial Flamingos, Kenya (1970) ‘The Creation’ Ernst Haas Estate / Getty images
 

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Great Sand Dunes, Colorado, USA (1978) ‘The Creation’ Ernst Haas Estate / Getty images

When Haas was scouting locations for a fashion photoshoot in 1947, he noticed prisoners of war arriving at a train station. As soon as they began disembarking, Haas began shooting. His intimate, close-up images portray the anticipation and grief of both those waiting and those arriving as they search for lost relatives. He turned the resulting photographs into a visual essay that caught the attention of LIFE magazine—then one of the most influential photo-based publications in the United States. LIFE, and its German-language equivalent Heute, published what has become known as the series “Homecoming.”
“Homecoming” marked a pivotal moment in Haas’s career. Following the essay’s publication, he received two offers: one from LIFE to become a staff photographer, another from war photographer Robert Capa to join the then-two-year-old and now-world-famous international cooperative for photographers, Magnum Photos. An independent and rebellious spirit at heart, Haas traveled to Paris and became the first non-founding member of Magnum. When turning down the position at LIFE, Haas wrote, “What I want is to stay free, so that I can carry out my ideas […] I don’t think there are many editors who could give me the assignments I give myself.”

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Black Wave (1966) ‘The Creation’ Ernst Haas Estate / Getty images
 

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Drops in Coral (1963) ‘The Creation’ Ernst Haas Estate / Getty images

 

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c.1960s, ‘The Creation’ Ernst Haas Estate / Getty images

 

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1968, ‘The Creation’ Ernst Haas Estate / Getty images
















 

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Kenya (1970) ‘The Creation’ Ernst Haas Estate / Getty images

Indeed, it’s unlikely that any editor would have assigned him to experiment with shallow depth of field, selective focus or blurred motion—photographic techniques that are now regarded as hallmarks of his artistic practice. Take, for instance, La Suerte De Capa (1956): Taken in Pamplona, Spain, the image portrays a bull and matador in the midst of a fight. But rather than a sharp scene, showing exactly what’s at stake, Haas used a slow shutter speed to produce a blurred image, transforming violence of the fight into an almost dreamlike fantasy. With such an approach, Haas aimed to transform “an object from what it is to what you want it to be.”
Taking the idea of abstraction to the next level, Haas made the series “The Creation.” With it, he wanted to visualize the creation of Earth, as described in various religious texts but with a primary focus on the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. The resulting book, first published in 1971, included 106 color photographs made around the world. In one, fiery hot lava explodes from an Icelandic volcano; in a close-up, the interior of an abalone shell appears like an iridescent landscape; in a zoomed-out aerial photograph, a flock of flamingos is transformed into an abstract array of pastel pixels against a dark background. Like the concept of the creation itself, these images are as abstract as they are concrete: We know what it is that we’re seeing but question its very existence, or at least the normative perceptions thereof.

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Galapagos (1969) ‘The Creation’ Ernst Haas Estate / Getty images
 

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1982, ‘The Creation’ Ernst Haas Estate / Getty images

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Kenya (1970) ‘The Creation’ Ernst Haas Estate / Getty images

Some early images from “The Creation,” along with those from the bull fight and other motion studies plus a photographic essay on New York City, comprised the Museum of Modern Art’s very first exhibition of color photography dedicated to a singular artist in 1962. This expansive show solidified the reputation and legacy Haas continued to build until his death in 1986, and his belief in color photography as a new “philosophy of seeing” lives on today. Viewing his images now, decades after they were made, continues to instil a sense of wonderment; they incite us to redefine our readings of daily life, to pause and see the world anew.

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Red rose (1970) ‘The Creation’ Ernst Haas Estate / Getty images

Text: Emily McDermott

Images: ©️ Ernst Haas Estate / Getty images