Quotes by Ernst Hass

October 26, 2017


William Blake saw “the world in a grain of sand.” It can be seen in many such things, for in the smallest cells are reflections of the largest. And in photography, through an interplay of scales, a whole universe within a universe can be revealed.

                                                                   -The Creation





On Personal Composition


A young photographer talked to me one day about his desire to liberate himself from his own sense of composition. I understood his problem as we all would love sometimes to be free from our own knowledge. It is even the most difficult to unlearn—as the most important problems are. I advised him to photograph with his eyes closed, just using his ears for directions.

He disappeared with enthusiasm and came back with pictures which were just as well balanced in composition as his earlier work. He looked dissatisfied and asked me how I liked them. I said it is besides the point. “I just don't see any difference in my composition,” he said. I asked him to show me the edited contact sheets. He did, and I knew the solution to his problem. Wherever he saw a well composed accident he framed it with his marking pen.

“How many rolls of film did you shoot?”

“About ten."

“How many pictures did you edit?

“About 12."

I asked, "Did you edit with closed eyes or open ones?" He looked at me astonished.

"With open ones!”

Here is the solution. If you photograph blind to abandon your sense of composition you have to edit the same way. It is the only way to solve your problem.




Black and White Versus Color


There have never been conflicting thoughts within me about black and white versus color photography. The change came quite naturally. I was longing for it, needed it; I was ready for it, and there was a film available to work with. The year was 1949, and the film was KodakI, rated at 12 ASA.

I still do not understand all these problematic discussions about color versus black and white. I love both, but they do speak a different language within the same frame. Both are fascinating.

Color does not mean black and white plus color. Nor is black and white just a picture without color. Each needs a different awareness in seeing and, because of this, a different discipline. The decisive moments in black and white and color are not identical.


There are three different factors which have to be realized and balanced: form, content, and color. The last does not always benefit the composition. It can even go against it, in which case it has to be overcome. To translate a world of color into black and white is much easier than to overcome the color, which so often runs contrary to its subject metter. There are black and white snobs, as well as color snobs. Because of their inability to use both well, they act on the defensive and create camps. We should never judge a photographer by what film he uses - only by how he uses it.

It is difficult for me to write about a problem which, for me, was just a natural evolution. I have worked for 35 years as a photographer. Al least a third of this time was in black and white, as there was nothing else. The rest has been in color, with a few unhappy years when we were asked to work in both styles.


Looking back, I think my change into color came quite psychologically. I will always remember the war years, including at least five bitter post-war years, as the black and white ones, or even better, the grey years. The grey times were over. As at the beginning of a new spring, I wanted to celebrate in color the new times, filled with new hope.


The world wanted to be rediscovered. All sorts of magazines were born or reborn, and with them a new profession became aware of itself—the photographer. He was the new troubador, and his instrument was the camera. With it he traveled around the world to bring back his visual songs. It was all very idealistic and often lyrical. It was also the time when veteran photographers Bob Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Chim created Magnum, the first agency owned by photographers. They were looking for new talent. Capa's idée fixe was not so much to satisfy the banal photo market, but to create new markets. He wanted for photographers to be independent enough to work freely on their own ideas without guidance, without the need for a magazine editor and his opinion. It was a wonderful, adventurous time. We did not have much money, and we traveled like millionaires. Everything was connected with the new courage for color. Fashion, food, travel, cars, flying—everything changed and took on a new brightness. The dark ages were over. Is it any wonder then that a young photographer longed for a color film with which he could capture all this new colorfulness in the environment?


The dilemma with color is still the impossibility of doing prints as freely and easily as in black and white. If that were possible the whole so-called art market, with its incomprehensible hostility towards color, would change drastically. I sometimes ask myself, what would have happened if color film had been invented first? I loved the old black-and-white days . . . and Ithink of them with nostalgia.


I also still believe that the normal development of a photographer should go from black and white to color. One should be able to do both well, in the same way as painters still learn to draw as well as to paint. I first wanted to become a painter—photography came much later, and because of many strange circumstances.


Today I am happy that it happened the way it did. We live in such a fascinating world where old and new still exist side-by-side. To see a world change so fast and to be able to react visually to these changes requires a camera.


A few words about the old question of whether photography is art or not. I never understood the question. If painting, music, and sculpture are arts, then even a bad painter, bad musician, or a bad sculptor must be an artist. But not a great photographer? Is it the medium or the message in question?


The pure definition of the world "art" alone is too vague today to break one's brain and soul about it. Let us take a little vacation from this word. Let us work as well as we can, and it will come all by itself into which category it will be placed in the future. Personally, I don't even believe so much in the value of a single picture anymore. Idon't really photograph for the wall. To compete with the painter is not really our destiny; we are on the way to speaking our very own language. With it we will have to create our own literature. you will have to decide for yourself what kind of works you want to create. Reports of facts, essays, poems—do you want to speak or to sing?


There are almost too many possibilities. Photography is in direct proportion with our time: multiple, faster, instant. Because it is so easy, it will be more difficult. We can photograph almost anything. There is a photographic explosion in the world—it's the glamour profession. Anybody taking pictures can copy trends or styles.


Only a vision—that is what one must have.




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