Martin Munkacsi was a Hungarian photographer, born with the name Mermelstein Márton in 1896. He passed away in 1963, in New York, having enjoyed a successful career based in both Germany and America.
Munkácsi started his working life as a journalist, writing and photographing stories for the Hungarian press. The technology for sports photography as we know it today did not exist, and it was difficult to gain good photographs of people in motion outdoors without the assistance of bright lights. Munkácsi seemed to have a natural gift of snapping his shot at exactly the right moment to maximise the conditions, leading to glorious action photos which were unheard of at the time.
Munkácsi’s big break was entirely accidental. Out with his camera, he came across a fight in which a man died. Munkácsi snapped a photo of the brawl, which helped the courts convict the killer, and made him a household name. As a result of this, he was hired by Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, a German newspaper, in 1928, and moved to Germany.
The technology available in Germany thrilled Munkácsi. He adored flying, and took many shots of flying planes, Zeppelins, and even a few aerial pictures.
As WW2 approached, and Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party took control of Germany, the Jewish editor of Berliner Ilustrirte Zeitung was replaced, and instead of Munkácsi’s beautiful photographs, photos of German troops were featured. Saddened by what he saw, Munkácsi left Germany and moved to New York, where he took up a job with Harper’s Bazaar as a fashion photographer.
In a break from the norm, he photographed his subjects outside, and not in a studio. Beaches, farms, fields and airports were favourite locations. He even made headlines by being one of the first photographers to provide nude photographs for publication in a popular magazine.
After many successful years, Munkácsi was dogged by illness, bereavement and divorce. Begging Harper’s Bazaar for work, he resorted to selling his beloved cameras to pay the bills. He died in 1963 of a heart attack. His ex-wife visited his apartment, and found it empty. Poignantly, the only evidence of life was a half eaten can of spaghetti in the fridge, with the fork left in it. Whether intentionally or not, Munkácsi left the world with one last powerful image.
With his name sullied, universities and museums were not interested in receiving his archives, and they were split up and sent to recipients across the world.
Thankfully, Munkácsi’s work is slowly coming back together, and the Ullstein Archives in Berlin and the Gundlach Collection of Hamburg now have the largest collections of his photographs which are available for public viewing.