Martin Munkacsi

Ode to Munkacsi

November 4 – December 20, 2009

With the passing of Joan Munkacsi in December 2008, our community and the photography world at large lost a dear friend and a passionate supporter of one of the most defining artistic voices of the 20th century.

An internationally recognized expert in vintage jewelry and a highly respected writer who notably served many years as the editor of James Beard’s cook books, Joan left all who were graced to know her bedazzled with her intelligence, humor, and generosity.

The Center for Photography at Woodstock was particularly fortunate to have Joan Munkacsi as a friend. Over the years she served as a member of our board of directors, volunteered as copy editor of our publication, PHOTOGRAPHY Quarterly, and generously made her father’s work available for our annual benefit auction. In 1992, Joan contributed an eloquent article on her father’s oeuvre entitled The Man Who Loved Women: Martin Munkacsi in issue 54 of PHOTOGRAPHY Quarterly.

It is impossible to say whether or not Martin Munkacsi’s legacy would have remained in relative obscurity had Joan not picked up the mantle. Certainly some passionate outsider may have rekindled our attentions toward such a revolutionary artistic voice, but none would have championed his work with the same level of dedication that Joan gave as she shared her father with the rest of the world.

On July 14, 1963, the legendary Hungarian photographer Martin Munkacsi (b. 1896) died after suffering a heart attack while attending a soccer game at Randall’s Island. His New York City-born daughter, Joan, was suddenly left fatherless and saddled with the stewardship of his photographic legacy at the age of 15.

Once billed as “the highest paid photographer in America”, Munkasci had single-handedly revolutionized the look and feel of fashion photography under the watchful eyes of Carmel Snow and Alexey Brodovitch at Harper’s Bazaar. His approach was exuberant, spontaneous, and full of a zest for life –his models leapt, ran, and turned cartwheels on the beach and even in the rain.

Although he was very successful, Munkacsi had never saved any money (in his later years, Joan recalled her father pawning cameras to buy her birthday presents). The radical changes he introduced to photography, which had gone on to influence the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Richard Avedon, had by the late 1950’s become standard practice. The once-illustrious Munkacsi suffered a string of misfortunes – a third divorce, his failing health – which forced him to cut back on assignments. At the time of his death, his work was virtually forgotten and his legacy was in shambles after years of neglect.

Over her lifetime, Joan worked diligently to cement her father’s place within the photographic canon by writing about his work and partnering with Howard Greenberg Gallery, which has represented Martin Munkacsi since organizing an exhibition of his work in 1984. In 1992, she helped the Aperture Foundation publish a definitive monograph of his work, and in 2007, she assisted the International Center of Photography in mounting a major retrospective in New York City entitled Think While You Shoot (a Munkacsi catch-phrase). In the year before her passing, Joan also helped to obtain a long-lost cache of over 4,000 fragile glass plate negatives that had been missing since her father’s death in 1963.

CPW’s exhibition of over two dozen modern prints of Munkacsi’s work reflect upon his major influences (fashion, street photography, his deep love for athleticism, the outdoors, and women), and features key points in his professional photographic career. Munkacsi worked for such publications as Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, the precursor to Life magazine and Harper’s Bazaar, and he was an enormous player in revolutionizing the aesthetics of fashion photography and magazine art direction. His signature approach is evident in his very first assignment for Harper’s, in which Lucille Brokaw runs towards him on the beach, as a “typical American girl in action, with her cape billowing out behind her” (Martin Munkacsi: An Aperture Monograph, p.47)

Richard Avedon said that Munkacsi “bought a taste for happiness and honesty and a love of women to what was, before him, a joyless, lying art. He was the first. He did it first, and today the world of what is called fashion is peopled with Munkacsi’s babies, his heirs.”

Yet if these photographs celebrate the work of a maverick and a visionary of his field, they necessarily pay tribute to his most indefatigable and ardent supporter, Joan Munkacsi. She was the primary force in championing her father’s remarkable contributions to the field and ensuring that his legacy was not forgotten. As such, this exhibition celebrates and remembers Joan Munkacsi, a dear friend and passionate advocate, who embodied the exuberance and joie de vivre evident in so much of her father’s vision in herself.

Special thanks to the Howard Greenberg Gallery, Lester Nafzger, and Bob Wagner for their help and support in making this exhibition possible.