“Think while you shoot”, wrote Martin Munkacsi in Harper’s Bazaar. From his early years as a sports photographer for the Hungarian newspaper Az Est to his formative years as a news photographer in German weeklies, to his revolutionary career as a fashion photographer in New York, Munkacsi practiced this cerebral approach to grace and glamour. He revolutionized his art with a combination of extreme angles, unusual situations, and surprising locations. His photo of Lucile Brokaw running on the beach featured in Harper’s Bazaar (December 1933) and his photos of Leni Riefenstahl on ski-slopes, which appeared in Vanity Fair on January 1934, cemented his reputation as the “kinetic man” of photography. When he signed $100,000 contract (equivalent to $1.5 million today) with Bazaar, he is one of the highest paid photographers in 1940.
His work with what was then a new invention—the 35mm camera—inspired some of the great names in photo history, including Richard Avedon and Henri Cartier-Bresson. The above photo, of Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika , was credited by Cartier-Bresson as “the only photograph to have influenced me.” On seeing these boys in a moment of freedom, spontaneity and joy, Cartier-Bresson commented: “In 1932, I saw a photograph by Martin Munkácsi of three black children running into the sea and I must say that it is that very photograph which was for me the spark that set fire to fireworks. I suddenly understood that photography can fix eternity in a moment …. [it] made me suddenly realise that photography could reach eternity through the moment. I couldn’t believe such a thing could be caught with the camera. I said damn it, I took my camera and went out into the street.'”
But Cartier-Bresson who abhorred darkroom manipulations – but whose iconic photo was ironically one of only two images he cropped – probably didn’t know the story behind Munkacsi’s photo. Not only how much the framing was altered in the darkroom was unclear, but where it was taken was also uncertain. Munkácsi supposedly photographed the scene at Lake Tanganyika in 1930, while on assignment in Africa for German magazine BIZ. However, his assignment was to document Liberia – 2,000 miles away from Lake Tanganyika. To add to the confusion, the above picture was sometimes simply titled ‘Liberia, 1930’. The photograph did not fit in with Munkácsi’s other images of Liberia, and was not published until the following year, in the French arts magazine Arts et Métiers Graphiques.