Arts Listings

Action and Exuberance on Display at SFMOMA

By Justin DeFreitas
Monday April 26, 2010 - 02:09:00 PM

Time is running out to see a superb and fascinating photography exhibit at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art. “Think While You Shoot!” a career-spanning retrospective of the tremendously varied body of work by Hungarian-born photographer Martin Munkacsi, runs through Sept. 16. 

Munkacsi could do it all—and with style, insight, and humor. From sports and action to war and politics, from bathing beauties to portraits and fashion, from pop culture to gripping photojournalism, the versatile Munkacsi seemed to master every subject he took on. 

He began his career in Hungary, working primarily as a sports photographer, capturing athletes in motion with crystal-clear precision. The exhibit begins with some of this early work. One image shows a goalkeeper lunging, frozen in time while floating horizontally above the ground with outstretched arms, straining for a ball that passes just out of reach. Another shot shows the gritty rush of speed as a motorcyclist crashes through a puddle, eyes squinting as dark jets of mud splash up all around him. 

In the late 1920s Munkacsi made his way to Berlin, where he took a job with the leading German photo weekly Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, for which he traveled the world in search of photojournalistic fodder. Some of his most striking images from this era present a radical departure from his usual joyous photographs, as he documented the transfer of power from German President Paul von Hindenburg to Adolf Hitler.  

The force of Munkacsi’s shots of German soldiers on the march is only intensified by their placement in the gallery opposite a long wall of lighthearted portraits of beautiful young women frolicking on sun-soaked beaches. The rise of the Nazis prompted the Jewish photographer to emigrate to the United States, where he took a job with Harper’s Bazaar. The bathing beauty portraits illustrate how Munkacsi immediately influenced his profession: he transformed fashion photography from a static, studio-bound form to a celebration of the body in action, producing kinetic, exuberant photographs of models in motion outdoors, on city streets and beaches. His models didn’t just strike a pose and let their finery hang in luxurious folds; they walked, they ran, they jumped and danced. 

Also on view are shots that display Munkacsi’s sense of humor and his curiosity about people. At some point he stopped shooting the athletes at sporting events and focused his camera instead on the spectators, making for a delightful series of images that bring out the emotion—heartache, anticipation, and joy—of people watching other people. This semi-voyeuristic approach comes to full fruition in another striking display: Munkacsi’s series of a couple riding a double-decker bus. The body language in these three photographs suggests that a particularly intimate conversation is taking place against the shifting backdrop of urban streets. One of Munkacsi’s most noteworthy talents was this ability to distill an image in such a way that it suggests meanings and plot lines and happenings far beyond what is within the frame. 

Other images take a more comic approach. One shows a skier making his way uphill, the criss-crossing pattern of his splayed ski prints in the snow behind him sharply telling of his cumbersome journey. Another shot looks down on a field full of schoolchildren reclining for what appears to be an impromptu nap or perhaps a group cloud-watching session. Munkacsi’s camera transforms them into a haphazard geometric pattern without losing the human appeal of a lazy afternoon spent lolling in the grass with a few dozen friends. 

Munkacsi had a gift for finding the humanity in everything he photographed. And though his images of the rise of the Nazis and his respectful but harrowingly intimate documentation of the death and sorrow of a mine disaster may be stirring, jarring, and powerful, his most lasting contribution to photography is the joyful exuberance he brought to his best work. 





Through Sept. 16 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. 151 Third St., San Francisco. Open 10 a.m. - 5:45 p.m. Monday and Tuesday; 10 a.m.-8:45 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m.-5:45 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Closed Wednesday. (415) 357-4000.