13 things Ernst Haas taught me about photography

Greetings from a balmy Rome. Today I wanted to take a look at Ernst Haas, my favourite photographer and, hands down, the biggest photographic influence on my work. When I discovered his books in the 80’s I was blown away by the beauty he discovered in the most mundane views or objects: lines on a street, a shaft of light, a burst of vivid colour.  Haas was a prolific photographer, working across multiple genres, but much of his photography involved creating very simple but stunningly compelling photographs, ones that are heavy with texture, beautiful light, sumptuous colour and most importantly, intense feeling.

Haas’s passions and way of seeing the world felt very similar to what I was naturally drawn to, and though my work isn’t particularly akin to his, there is definitely a strong influence. I cannot encourage you enough to look at his work.

Here are the things I have learnt from him:

shadow on pavement

Shadow on Pavement © Ernst Haas

  1. Beauty in the mundane

“The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself” Henry Miller

Haas’s simple photos of lines on the street and reflections completely opened up my view of photography. To see that mundane things like this could be considered interesting powerfully struck me. I know we see this in abundance now but to create something beautiful from mundane objects is actually pretty hard.

Pavement 11

Pavement II © Ernst Haas

Of course it’s harder to take simple photos. To begin you need to find things that fascinate you and pay close attention to them. Examining what they are, what elements they are made up of. Taking things down to their simplest elements is very difficult. But that is what makes it interesting. It then comes down to feeling, how you feel about what you are looking at, what textures, colours you can draw out of what you’re photographing. What is the light doing? Every part of the photograph communicates something, and the less there is in a photograph, the more weight and meaning each element has.

2) How to dream with open eyes

“You become things, you become an atmosphere, and if you become it, which means you incorporate it within you, you can also give it back. You can put this feeling into a picture. A painter can do it. And a musician can do it and I think a photographer can do that too and that I would call the dreaming with open eyes.” – Ernst Haas

When you are looking around you and are taking photographs, you are entering a different state of mind. You are detaching yourself from being absorbed with your own mind and thoughts, and you are doing what Haas suggests, ‘dreaming with open eyes’. Haas was then able to see the beauty and feelings of things outside of himself – here of lights and lines.


Lights of New York, 1970 © Ernst Haas

For me it’s almost like remembering the best moments in my life, like time has slowed down.  I remember the sunlight filtering through the trees onto my face as I lay looking up at the sky as a small child in Greece – the feeling of looking at the early morning sunlight coming into my bedroom and the texture of a cotton cover on my skin, as I lay in bed with my new girlfriend; the lines of shadow created by the blinds on the floor as I sat exhausted with my wife as she was in labour with our first child.


California, USA, 1976 © Ernst Haas

Photography is capturing moments of feeling, for yourself but also for others. And what the best photography does for me is create a sense of a memory, perhaps of something you might have experienced, or a connection with the photographer, of their memories, their experiences, their moments.

3) The world is just a jumble of….. interesting shapes,  lines and more shapes

“Bored with obvious reality, I find my fascination in transforming it into a subjective point of view. Without touching my subject I want to come to the moment when, through pure concentration of seeing, the composed picture becomes more made than taken. Without a descriptive caption to justify its existence, it will speak for itself – less descriptive, more creative; less informative, more suggestive; less prose, more poetry.” Ernst Haas from ‘About Color Photography’

This is one of my favourite Haas photos. In so much of his work you can see an interest in lines and shapes. And that interplay of lines and shapes, combined with colour and light, are what make them so intriguing.


Western Skies, 1978 © Ernst Haas

When you get into looking at things, you start to see them more individually, less as a whole view and more as singular objects almost floating around in space. Here Haas was using many interesting shapes and lines – pulling the scene together and contrasting them creates a slightly disorientating, but ultimately pleasing, collection of shapes for the eye to see, and therefore a great photo. This comes from the discipline of careful looking.

4) Feeling of colour

Before I saw Haas’s work I didn’t realise that you could feel colour so intensely from a photo. Just like you can feel in your body the emotion behind a dramatic expression on a photo of someone’s face, you can also feel everything else in the photo – and colour is no exception. I suppose it’s like how struck we are by a beautiful red flower or the pinks and oranges of sunrise in nature. Everything that we see, and so everything that we photograph, has the power to make us feel.

blackWave ernst haas

Black Wave © Ernst Haas

5) It’s all about the light

Nevada Sky © Ernst Haas

Light for me is the number one consideration for photos. Most photographers are obsessed with light, it just comes down to priorities. Perhaps growing up in Southern California has made me more obsessed with colourful, dramatic light. Usually I vere towards wanting amazing light, but it can also be looking for an absence of light, looking for shadows, looking for what is happening, and the sensations that are created in low light. I talk more about light here and here.

6) Reality is subjective

“The camera only facilitates the taking. The photographer must do the giving in order to transform and transcend ordinary reality.” Ernst Haas

This is another of Haas’ interesting compositions, a seemingly disjointed photo, with various shapes and colours and different light sources (the ambient light, the light from the bar, the reflected lights on the car)

USA, 1968 © Ernst Haas

To take this photo you have to be looking and waiting and watching. Breaking down the world into different parts, finding shapes or colours or views that interest you and waiting for other elements to come together into the frame. If I find one interesting element I stop and look around, if I find two or three I am definitely waiting around for something else to happen – perhaps for the light to change, or someone to walk into shot. You won’t always get it, but start with looking for one interesting element and work from there.

“In every artist there is poetry. In every human being there is the poetic element. We know, we feel, we believe.” Ernst Haas

7) The fun you can have with a reflection

Haas did some pretty epic reflections. I love reflections and I love how Haas took it to a whole new level.  He’s using shapes again, interesting shapes to contrast and place and change the view. Because that’s how we see the world, isn’t it? Not as one straight forward view but by multiple angles, layered and busy. Haas had a great ability to reflect in his work some of the chaos that our eyes see, before our brain has worked on it and made it easier to understand.

New york
New York, 1975 © Ernst Haas

Reflection, 42nd Street © Ernst Haas

8) Seeking inspiration from multiple sources

Haas warned against seeking too much direct inspiration as it “leads too quickly to repetitions of what inspired you,” and instead recommends you to “refine your senses through the great masters of music, painting, and poetry. In short, try indirect inspirations, and everything will come by itself.”

I think of it like the roots of a tree drawing water and nutrients from a wide area. Bring multiple sources into your own creative filtering system. I go through phases of looking at other people’s work, but I don’t feel bad if I go months without looking at another photographer’s work, because sometimes other photographs are interesting and inspiring but other times it’s confusing and not helpful for me in creating something distinct and original. Of course that’s not the only way to be – this is just what works for me. So I read, listen to music, walk, talk to people. Live, basically. That’s what does it for me.

“Develop an interest in life as you see it; the people, things, literature, music – the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself.” Henry Miller

But also! Don’t think too hard about it or take anyone’s advice too seriously or dogmatically. No-one has the answer that’s right for you!

“Style has no formula, but it has a secret key. It is the extension of your personality. the summation of this indefinable net of your feeling, knowledge, and experience.” Ernst Haas

9) Forget about art

“One cannot photograph art’” Ernst Haas 

By this I take the idea that there is no one way to create art. There is only living and feeling and looking and learning. And wrapping this all up into expressing yourself. Art is what is decided when people start looking at what you’ve done, after you’ve taken the photograph, not before.

10) “Colour is joy” Ernst Haas

I love working in colour, it’s excites me.  I have said many times and will continue to bang on about this – what you should be concentrating on in your photography, or any creative medium, is the things that excite you. Haas introduced me to a vast world of colour photography – but what is so interesting about his colour work is the feelings he got from his colours. It’s like he is completely connected to what he is photographing and you feel you are there, in the picture.

Lights from a neon sign and a stained glass window, reflected in a swimming pool, California, USA, July 1977. (Photo by Ernst Haas/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

California, USA, 1977 © Ernst Haas

11) Love simplicity

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” ~ Leonardo da Vinci

There is something deeply cathartic about seeking out simplicity. Life is complicated enough: a strange combination of long stretches of the mundane and a mad puzzle at others. I like to seek out things that pierce the bubble of life, that remind me of simple pleasures. And Haas did that brilliantly. You don’t need to go to far flung places, or look for ‘interesting’ people or things to photograph. You could just take a drive and see what happens…..

Twilight USA, September 1977 © Ernst Haas

“The best pictures differentiate themselves by nuances…a tiny relationship – either a harmony or a disharmony – that creates a picture.” Ernst Haas

12) It’s OK to love to photograph beauty

“All I wanted was to connect my moods with those of Paris. Beauty paints and when it painted most, I shot.” Ernst Haas

View from Notre Dame, 1955 © Ernst Haas

(see, strong lines again!)

There is a weird cycle in photography, and in the art world. Every now and again the mood seems to be to reject beauty.  It is as though by celebrating what is naturally beautiful you have been taken in by something that is too easy to admire; it’s not challenging enough (as though we need more challenges in life, jeez!) But Haas rejected this, and I admire him for that. Even when his work fell out of fashion (he was a super famous photographer in the 1950’s and 60’s, but the art world fell out of love with him from the 70’s onwards. He is nowhere near as famous as he should be, and has become more of a photographer’s photographer, because I think photographers realise how amazingly hard it is to photograph is such a consistently beautiful and simple way ).

But what’s fascinating too is that it was not just straightforward beauty that he was photographing. Everything has a story, perhaps an edge or complexity that reflects beauty in real life. Life is not straightforward and neither were Haas’ photographs.

13) Photography can create movement

(Another) thing I love about Haas is how he continued to develop and push his work to explore different ideas and themes. There are many famous photographers who get known for a style and then get stuck there (and plenty of non famous ones too). It’s easy to find something you are good at and just focus on that, almost like you are holding on to it for dear life. But as Haas said:

“Don’t park. Highways will get you there, but I tell you, don’t ever try to arrive. Arrival is the death of inspiration.” Ernst Haas

Haas’s experimentation with movement in photography was a style he worked and developed over many projects. I love how the colour and the story of the photo seem to be enhanced by the movement. Again, simple, colour and shape driven. Beautiful.


La Suerte De Capa, Pamplona, Spain, 1956 © Ernst Haas

So I thought I’d finish with a some ideas on how you can get into an Ernst Haas inspired photo mood. Ask yourself:

What simple things totally fascinate you? What could you go out into the world and truly and deeply examine?  I love photographing lines on the road, and how they can take you somewhere, or nowhere at all (thanks Ernst!).  I also go pretty crazy for reflections.

Perhaps for you it could be:

  • the look of bare feet in grass
  • street lights at night
  • freckles
  • texture of the hair of your dog

Examine these things. Thinking of them as mere objects, not what they are connected to, what their purpose is, what they are. Just think of what you see in your gaze and your imagination. And then when you are totally happy you have looked and examined closely enough, then you are ready to get out your camera and start to experiment…….

And for further inspiration, some good articles about Haas here and here. A lot of the quotes I took from Haas are from this article that he wrote about his philosophy of photography on the Ernst Haas estate website. There is also an Haas exhibition on at the Atlas Gallery in London until July 4th of an early project ‘Reconstructing London, visions of the city after World War II.’

I’d love to know what you think of Haas’s work and what you’ve learnt from him. Send me an email or comment below.

Happy photographing!