The idea of capturing the decisive moment is often attributed to Henri Cartier-Bresson, the pioneering photographer who pushed street photography into the public consciousness and made the 35mm film format a respected medium for true artistry. Less often discussed is the fact that the idea of the decisive moment only came to Bresson after looking at the work of Martin Munkácsi. Munkácsi’s photograph, Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika, captured Bresson’s imagination, and changed the way he thought about the role of his work. Taken in 1929 or 1930, around the time Bresson got his first camera, this photograph feels like a piece out of time, a theme that seems to transcend Munkácsi’s work.
Perhaps best known for his fashion photography, which was often featured in Harpers’ of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, Munkácsi’s career is far broader than that. He shot sports and travel photos in his early days, then street photography in the 1930s and ’40s, and fashion work was interspersed throughout the entirety of this thirty-year career.
Finding five photos from Munkácsi proved a challenge. Upon his death, his portfolio scattered to the wind. With some of his shots now residing with the International Center for Photography, a sizable portion is now simply missing. Though this set focuses on his work in the 1930s, it is astonishing how consistent his work remained over a career of three decades.
Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika, 1929 or 1930
I studied history, indeed my degree is in history (I don’t think I’m the only CP contributor to make this ill-guided selection of major). To some extent this fueled my love of photography, as photographs are some of the most compelling primary sources you’re likely to find. When digging into a staid tome on some oft-forgotten facet of history, a photograph can add a lot of depth to a subject. That said, prior to the Second World War most photographs are fairly static. Even in challenging scenarios, photos were often posed (and they feel that way, too). There are exceptions of course, but those tend to be exciting deviations from the norm.
Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika bucks that trend entirely. This is a vivid photograph filled with motion and excitement. The three boys are virtually silhouetted against the bright waters at the shore of the lake, and critically, they are running away from the photographer. Clearly Munkácsi felt when pressing the shutter that the feeling of action and excitement was more important than making the subjects identifiable. Decisive moment, indeed.
Coffee Workers, Brazil, 1932
I’ll admit, my top five selections don’t always come from a high-minded place. If you read my article on Robert Doisneau you probably know that I have no qualms about choosing an image because I think it’s funny, when perhaps something else might be more artistically satisfying. To be frank, this image of a pair of coffee workers wading through a sea of coffee beans really just struck me as funny. It’s a good composition, the figures are well placed, and the texture of the beans is more interesting here than would be, say, water.
We could dive in to the vagaries of Vargas era Brazilian economics, and the hardships of agricultural laborers in Brazil in the 1930s. Coffee was the backbone of Brazil’s export economy at the time, and the Great Depression struck the nation harshly.
But really, what a moment.
Bugatti in the Dirt, 1934
Sports photography in the 1920s and ’30s was nothing like it is today. Film was extremely slow, and good shots required a lot of light to maintain any kind of clarity with a moving subject. Munkácsi was an early innovator in action photography, and many of his early sporting and action photographs embrace motion in a way that was uncommon at the time.
This shot, which appears to be a Bugatti Type 37, features the iconic French junior-Grand Prix car sliding through the dirt (likely in a rally, note the double spare tires rather than the more typical single). While the shot doesn’t show the car purely in focus with the background fully blurred as is currently in-vogue in motorsports photography, it shows the photographer’s thinking evolving. Motion is part and parcel of this shot, and it’s exciting and evocative in a way that pre-war sports photographs typically are not.
Puddle Jumper, 1934
For street photographers, this would be a wonderful shot today. In 1934, the Gare St. Lazare puddle jumper was fairly scandalous. Fashion photography in the 1920s and ’30s was rather dull. Models were heavily posed. Facial expressions were fixed. While clothing and hairstyles were changing rather radically in the period, fashion photography stayed rooted in an earlier tradition. You just didn’t show respectable women without their knees touching, and this shot was bold.
Peignoir in a Soft Breeze, First Printed in Harper’s Bazaar, June 1936
Munkácsi wanted to carry the energy of a seemingly more extroverted populace into his work. In a 1935 Harper’s Bazaar Munkácsi wrote “Never pose your subjects. Let them move about naturally…. Don’t let the girl stop to put her hair to rights.” Indeed, the New York Times attributes this shift in his work to a 1934 shoot with model Lucille Brokaw. In an era in which photographers were burdened with heavy, slow to use equipmen,t he seemed to presage the modern era of seemingly non-stop shutter snapping and flashing lights during fashion shoots.
This image is just one of many that show how Munkácsi liked to work. The subject remains dignified, but she is decidedly a part of her environment, rather than set apart from it. Her clothing is being blown about by the wind, and her posture seems to be more reactive on her part, rather than posed slowly and carefully by the photographer.