Photo ©1984 Randy Wells
When teaching photo workshops, one of the first questions I ask my class is, “How many of you know the name Ernst Haas”? And, sadly, over the years, the number of hands that go up… has gone down. This year, being the 30th anniversary of his death, I think it is more important than ever for people to become aware of the man and his work.
When I started out in photography, there were certain photographers whose photographs excited me and inspired me. Most of them worked in black and white… only a few in color. And the one that had the most influence over me was Ernst Haas. I remember the first time I saw his book, The Creation, which was published a few years before I became a professional photographer. The beauty and power of those images resonated with me then and continues to today. Later, I began to realize that more and more of his work I had actually seen before in the pages of Life, Look and the other big picture magazines of that time. Here was someone doing something unique in photography and doing it in color long before others had the insight or courage to do so. To me and a generation of photographers who came up around the same time, Ernst was the father of color photography.
In many ways, he was the closest I have ever come to meeting a true Renaissance man. Music, painting, poetry, philosophy were all part of his being. And yet he had this amazing ability to wrap everything up into photography. His photographs, his books, his writings, his audio-visual slide shows were all extraordinary as was the man. His knowledge, wit and humor I still carry with me to this day and try to pass on to my students.
In 1984 when the opportunity came to travel with Ernst on a photo tour of Japan, my wife, Linda, and I signed up immediately. I was excited about the possibility of meeting one of my heroes. At the same time, I was a bit nervous. What would the man who’s images I had grown to admire actually be like in person? I soon found out that Ernst matched his images in elegance and charm. And, that trip would be life changing to me on many levels. During that time Ernst had grown to love Japan and all things Japanese and the itinerary that he created was unique in that it included so many of his favorite places and events which he was willing to share with our group.
People often ask, “What did you learn from Ernst?” There were so many things. One of the first lessons I remember came early on during that Japan trip. I was schlepping an overstuffed camera bag and a tripod along with a few cameras around my neck. With a gentle smile he pulled me aside and asked, “How do you feel?” I wearily replied, “Fine except that physically, I’m exhausted.” He suggested that I lighten my load by leaving the camera bag and tripod in the hotel and try working with just one or two cameras with fixed focal length lenses. “Use your feet to zoom in or out, because the less you carry, the more you will see. And the more you see the more photographs you’ll make.”
After Japan, we would continue to stay in touch. I would visit him at his studio/home in New York and occasionally join him as a guest speaker when he taught workshops. We would have late night phone conversations that included advice, great stories and lots of laughter.
In May of 1986, I hosted a workshop for him at my studio in Houston where, among other things, he debuted his Abstaction audio-visual slide show, one of the most hauntingly powerful a/v presentations I’ve ever witnessed. It was a perfect ending to an amazing week. It was also the last time that I would see him.
Like many photographers who were influenced by Ernst, there was always one photo of his that haunted me… Central Avenue, Albuquerque (Route 66) taken in 1969. Last March, while I was in Santa Fe teaching my annual workshop, I took the class to Albuquerque for a group field trip and turned them loose. It was a windy overcast day… not the best light. But toward the end of the day I told the group that I thought the light might break and if they were in the right place at the right time, they just may get some magical light. 30 minutes before sunset, the light DID break and fired up Central Avenue. And other than the fact that I did not have the wet reflections on the streets that Ernst had that day, I felt that I was looking back in time at what he must have seen on that eventful day that he made the iconic photograph. His photograph is still the benchmark and much has a changed in the past 47 years on that road, but it sure was special to have seen… a moment I will never forget!
While I only knew Ernst for the last few years of his life, the friendship that evolved and lasted until his untimely death allowed me the opportunity to get to know this man not only as the great photographer that he was, but also as a mentor and a dear friend as well as the self-appointed godfather to my daughter, Jessica.
Certain people come into our lives and we are never the same afterwards. How lucky I was to have had him in my life.