Martin Munkacsi was born Morton Mermelstein in May 1869 in Transylvania. His father who had experienced anti-Semitism changed the name to Munkacsi in reference to a Hungarian village called Munkacs.
At 11 years old he began running away from home and left for good when he turned 16. His first job was house painter in Budapest, but a year later he decided to join Az Est instead, and worked for the daily sports journal as a reporter assigned to cover soccer matches and car races. He simultaneously became an interviewer for two weekly publications, and took photographs with his home made camera.
In 1927 he moved to Berlin where he signed a contract with a large publishing house. A year later he began taking pictures for the picture magazine Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung. His work included shots of Greta Garbo’s legs appearing underneath a large umbrella and a third of Leni Riefenstahl on skies.
Henri Cartier Bresson fell in love with Munkacsi’s print of three naked boys running into the Lake Tanganyika and said:
“There is in that image such intensity, spontaneity, such a joy of life, such a prodigy…”
In flash, the then painter decided to change careers.
In March 1933, he photographed the president of Germany turning over the government to Adolph Hitler in Potsdam. Within three months he left Germany for New York.
There he was hired by Harper’s Bazaar’s editor in chief Carmen Snow. The photographer worked on his fashion shoots the same way he did when he photographed sport events.
“Never pose your subjects”
He liked dynamics and often took his models out for a walk where they could move about naturally. One of his ideal celebrity models was the dancer Fred Astaire.
With Kurt Safranski, a fellow emigrant, he created a mock up for an American photo weekly based on Berliner Illustrite Zeitung. Henry Luce bought the idea, Safranksi became the first managing editor of Life Magazine, and Munkacsi a staff photographer.
By the 1940s Munkacsi became a celebrity in his own right.
He suffered a heart attack in 1943 and did not adapt well to working in color when magazines were redesigned after WWII. A year later he lost his contract with Ladies Home Journal, and Harper’s Bazaar also dropped him soon after.
He got on by some freelance work for Reynolds Aluminum, Ford, and Kings Features to name a few. He even sold his camera to make ends meet.
He was destitute and forgotten by the time of his death in New York in 1963.