The Cathedral on Seventh Avenue
July 17, 2010
On September 12, 1986, photographer Ernst Haas had a heart attack. Haas was known as the poet of color, and his masterpiece, the best-selling The Creation is, for my generation of photographers, the book that changed everything. There was Ernst, and there was everyone else—his arched, thick, silvery eyebrows were intimidating, yet despite his intense stare he was also a modest, engaging, and humorous teacher.
“The best lens is your feet,” and “No one gives you freedom—you take it,” are two Haas truisms that have stayed with me through the years.
When I recently met a photographer and kept staring at her t-shirt, she looked at me and said “It means ‘light.’” There was a large kanji character on the back, and she was somewhat startled when I said “That’s not what I was staring at.” There, in small letters were the words “Haas/Japan Photographic Expedition,” and when I asked about it she said that she had gone to his workshop in Japan in 1984, 26 years earlier. And then she began to talk, and as she talked I heard it—that faraway, almost mystic voice, of someone who has fallen under the spell of a gypsy—part Buddhist, part poet, and all genius. I asked her to write a few words about that trip, and she sent this in an email:
In 1984, I was 26 years old. Through all my odd jobs, I had managed to save $10,000. Then I read that my idol, Ernst Haas, was offering a workshop in Japan. An audible gasp, heart racing, frantically rereading in disbelief. Could it be true? Do I really have an opportunity to spend 2 weeks in Japan with Ernst Haas? Without hesitation, I spent 60% of my net worth to go on that trip. He was gentle and caring, unobtrusive and modest.
I remember our first day in Tokyo—torrential rain. Ernst, in his singsong way: “okay everybody—put on your rain suits. We’re going out in the rain like little ducks to photograph!” Ernst wanted you to dig deep, to learn the culture and become apart of the environment. We stayed in a monastery on top of Mt. Koyasan with magical forests, photographed a Noh play at night in Tokyo, visited countless Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, visited the “bowing deer” in Nara, enjoyed the rice planting celebration and beautiful gardens in Kyoto.
Moving his camera with the subject, Haas’ motion studies of the ballet and of horses are the classics that define technique he perfected. And his close-ups of blades of grass, leaves, sulfur pools in Yellowstone, and peeling paint and posters defy categorization. The words of William Blake immediately come to mind:
“To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.”
In the early 1990s, I got an excited call from photographer Peter B. Kaplan, saying he had just seen an exhibit of Ernst’s work at the Howard Greenberg Gallery. The world was different then and photography was different then. Ernst worked with little equipment, often preferring a simple satchel or a soft messenger bag for his camera.
When I first came to New York, I called Ernst and he answered, and I quietly explained that I was a photographer, and as I hung up the phone I could still hear his voice saying “Come by at six.” Six for Ernst was 6AM. In those days, he lived above a garish lingerie store on Seventh Avenue. The next morning I timidly knocked on his door, and for an hour we talked about photography and about my work. He asked if I painted and I said “No...I don’t know how to paint."Haas immediately smiled and said “You don’t need to know how to paint in order to paint.”
In 1949, Haas wrote a letter to Life magazine, turning down a staff position. Though he would later enjoy the success and exposure of having many photographs and essays published in Life, the innocence of this letter reveals his singular sense of who he was and who he wanted to be:
I believe in the end-success of a man’s work...aware of the connection in life between our earth and the cosmos; a person able to understand the mistakes, and to admire the achievements, of other people… I have always felt better taking a risk rather than an easier route, for what I believe in. I am young enough to do that and I am full of energy and hope to reach my goal. I prefer to be noticed, some day, first for my ideas and second for my good eye… Maybe you will think I have not got my two feet quite on the ground...What I want is to stay free, so that I can carry out my ideas…I don’t think there are many editors who could give me the assignments I give myself.