Ernst Haas is acclaimed as one of the most celebrated and influential photographers of the 20th century and considered one of the pioneers of color photography. Haas was born in Vienna in 1921, and took up photography after the war to earn a living. His early work on Austrian returning prisoners of war brought him to the attention of Life magazine. He declined a job offer as staff photographer in order to keep his independence. Inspired by his father, an amateur photographer, he bought his first camera on the black market, in exchange for a lump of margarine.
He used his camera almost as an antidote to the hardships he had suffered in Nazi Vienna. With only sporadic training, he turned to photography after being kicked out of medical school for being Jewish, forced into hard labour and seeing his father die, heartbroken, at being stripped of his position in the Austrian government. Yet by the 1950s, Haas was recognised as one of the world’s best photographers.
Haas moved to the United States in 1951 and soon after, began experimenting with Kodachrome color film. He went on to become the premier color photographer of the 1950s.
According to his son, Haas’s European Jewish roots influenced this sensibility. “He had an admiration of America without a sense of judgment. He took it in without thinking. He was grateful that America saved his life and wanted to express it in his photos,” he says.
Throughout his career, Haas traveled extensively, photographing for Life, Vogue, and Look, to name a few of many influential publications. He authored four books during his lifetime: The Creation (1971), In America (1975), In Germany (1976), and Himalayan Pilgrimage (1978).
Haas’s contribution to photography was cemented in 1986, winning the prestigious Hasselblad Award just before his death. Yet his legacy lingers, reshaping photography as his abstract aesthetic, conceptual design and innovative use of technology remains as contemporary and exciting today as it did in the 1950s.