Ernst Haas

Life in colour

The Lumière brothers discovered the light-filtering properties of potato starch in the early 20th century. They applied it to their Autochrome process, with which they produced photographic images with natural colours using coated glass plates thanks to an easy-to-use technique. The prototype of colour photography had been created. It rapidly evolved and eventually became widespread throughout Western Europe and the USA in the early days of consumer culture following the Second World War, as the colourful images were ideally suited to conveying the catchy, enticing advertising slogans of this period.

The Austrian photographer Ernst Haas took his first colour pictures some 50 years after the Lumière brothers’ first experiments, at a time when colour photography had just begun to fight for recognition as an art form in its own right outside commercial use. For Haas, who up until this point had worked exclusively in black-and-white, the shift towards this technology also marked a fundamental new phase in his life: He left his home town of Vienna to start a career as a photographer in the USA. On arriving in New York in 1952, he found an atmosphere shimmering with promise: Compared with European standards, social boundaries seemed to be more flexible, the opportunities for consumption abundant and sophisticated, and lives thrillingly individual. Capturing this optimistic mood and media-savvy way of life in free, personal photographs became a fundamental theme of Haas’ artistic work.

With his camera lens, he sought ways to access this new world by recording scenic, almost cinematic moments. For Haas, motion, texture and surface became means of expressing an emotional mood driven by sentimental energy: His subjects loom out of dark shadows, are immersed in water or gently veiled by the ethereal haze of summer in the city. The aesthetic cosmos of the advertising industry, for which Haas worked, resonates in his artistic work. It shows posters, torn and faded, neon signs like foreign bodies, huge and out of place. At the same time, dramatic light and dark contrasts set the mood in his images, while sophisticated lighting gives them a pictorial quality.

Emotion and aesthetics blend in Haas’ colour photographic art to create a complex style that was unprecedented in the history of this media. His pioneering creative work was even crowned with a major retrospective by the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1962. Even though the name Ernst Haas almost faded into oblivion in the decades that followed, seen from today’s perspective, his pictures have lost none of their exceptional complexity, grace and expressive force.

Biographical information

1921

born in Vienna, Austria

1949

invited by Robert Capa to join Magnum Photos

1951

emigrates from Austria to the United States of America, where he begins experimenting with colour photography

1953

LIFE magazine publishes his groundbreaking 24-page colour photo essay on New York City

1954

receives the Leavitt Award from the American Society of Magazine Photographers

1962

first retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York

1971

publishes his first photobook, The Creation

1972

receives the Cultural Award from the DGPh – German Society for Photography, Cologne

1986

receives the Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography

1986

dies in New York