27 August 2017

Ernst Haas: Intimate Space


















"What birds plunge through is not the intimate space,
In which you see all Forms intensified.
(In the Open denied, you would lose yourself,
would disappear into the vastness.)

Space reaches from us and translates Things:
to become the very essence of a tree,
throw inner space around it, from that space 
that lives in you.  Encircle it with restraint.
It has no limits.  For the first time, shaped
in your renouncing, it becomes fully free." 
  -  Rainer Maria Rilke, (the favorite poet of Ernst Haas), translated from the German by Gabriel Caffrey

Alfred Eisenstadt, Yousef Karsh, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon - and Ernst Haas. Haas  belongs  in their company as one of the great photographers of the  20th century but Ernst Haas has been, if not neglected by the critics, then  somewhat  overshadowed by the photographic avalanche we now live with.  The Viennese-born Haas, who was a member of the Magnum Photo Agency, and later its fourth president, gradually moved from photojournalism to an increasingly personal art.  


It is this element of Haas's work that I want to look at.  The photos here were included in a book, The Creation, published in 1971, as Haas visualized the natural world to the accompaniment of texts, mostly drawn from the Old Testament. (The book became a surprise bestseller, making for the largest print run ever for a photography book.) Although Haas was captivated by the possibilities inherent in color film,  you can see that he deliberately avoided the high contrasts that caused the word 'garish' to attach to Kodachrome.  A heap of petals or an intact hydrangea and what difference does it make in this world of intimate space?   And what marvelous coincidence led Haas to an ice formation that resembles a design from the shops of the Wiener Werkstatte or the spermatozoa that Gustav Klimt flung across his "decorative" portraits of the wives of Viennese aristicrats?


















Ernst Haas (1921-1986) did not always want to be a photographer; he vacillated between a painter or  an explorer, wishfully looking for a way to combine the two.   But World War II came to Europe and everything, including the education of a young man from Vienna.  It was his introduction to the photography of Werner Bischof  in Bischof's native Switzerland after the war that set him on course at last.   It was thanks to sponsorship by the Magnum Agency that Haas finally obtained a rare visa to come to the U.S.

Images:
1. Ernst Haas - Hydrangeas
2. Ernst Haas - Ice formation

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