10 Photography Lessons We Can Learn from Ernst Haas
- Setbacks can be used as opportunities. Haas was studying to be a doctor to help people after watching the atrocities of WWII. Yet, he wasn’t allowed to continue medical school because he was Jewish. This was a major turning point in his life as he started studying photography. He got his first camera at the age of 25.
He called being a photographer “a painter in a hurry”. Photography to him wasn’t just a way to take pictures, but travel the world and have rich experiences. The camera gave him a way to do this in a way that painting wouldn’t have allowed due to the slower nature of that medium.
Studying the masters is essential to one’s growth and he deeply explored the work of Edward Weston among others. Weston of course is famous for his Pepper photo along with an incredible body of work. It was these types of images that made him realize that photos can be used to make art not just record shots of a moment.
Personal work is a critical part of any photographers commercial success. His first huge break came when he was supposed to be working a small story. Instead he did a series of homecoming shots of POWs, and soldiers. This was an non-commissioned shoot that he just happened upon. It led to LIFE magazine and the very well known Magnum agency. Even later in his career when he was shooting major ad campaigns like the Marlboro Man, he would use breaks to shoot personal work.
He experimented with color very early on, not willing to merely rest on his earlier successes in black and white. This eventually led to color photography being widely embraced at a time when many were questioning its artistic legitimacy.
He kept pushing himself to try new things - working with creative blur and slow shutter speeds, never willing to stay in one style for too long. He called this style “painting with the camera”. He was never afraid of failure, understanding that progress comes not from complacency but a constant evolution of ideas.
Haas said “A picture is the expression of an impression. If the beautiful were not in us, how would we ever recognize it?” This is a powerful sentiment as he explains how photography is not merely a snapshot of something in front of us, but rather something that’s generated from within. He later would say “The limitations in your photography are within yourself as what we see is what we are.”
His interests were broad and well rounded with his work being influenced by music, painting, literature, philosophy, and history. The world around him provided a wealth of inspiration. If you look in photography magazines today they are filled with ads, and a few recycled articles with concepts that have been used for decades. A better approach is to fill your creative queue with all kinds of inspirational work. This can come from just about anywhere for those who are open to accept it.
The Bible was inspiration for Haas. He curated a collection of his photographs from around the world and arranged them to show the story of creation as he interpreted from the book of Genesis. This was his first book, titled “The Creation” and remains a classic in the art world.
The success of your photography doesn’t rest on just a handful of highlights. For those who work often, inspiration strikes more frequently. We must always be creating, and willing to try new things. Recognizing that mistakes are not failing if they lead to change and improvement. Haas said, “Important is the end result of your work: the opus. Therefore, I want to be remembered much more by a total vision than a few perfect single pictures.”