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Making still pictures move was Munkacsi's specialty

Hungarian's work is one of threefine ICP shows

NEW YORK -- According to the old joke, a Hungarian is someone who can enter a revolving door behind you -- and exit it in front of you. Those words come to mind before the whirlwind wonder that is the photography of Martin Munkacsi at its best.

Actually, there's a double relevance. It's as if Munkacsi's reputation got lost in a revolving door after the years of his greatest artistic and commercial success, the period between the two world wars. Ill health had something to do with that decline, as did the changing nature of the marketplace.

Munkacsi (pronounced moon-KAH-shee) never quite disappeared -- once seen, a name like that is hard to forget -- but his work was largely neglected. He was recalled, if at all, as another Hungarian émigré clutching a camera: a lesser Capa , a much lesser Kertesz . So "Martin Munkacsi: Think While You Shoot!," which runs at the International Center of Photography through April 29, offers restitution as well as delight.

Born in Hungary in 1896, the young Munkacsi wrote poetry and worked as a journalist. He began taking pictures to accompany his articles. He'd found his true calling. Soon he was the highest-paid photographer in Budapest, or so he claimed. By the late 1920s, he was based in Berlin.

There are more than 120 photographs in the ICP show, from multiple genres: sports, fashion, celebrity, travel, even news (several remarkable images taken shortly after the Nazis came to power -- and shortly before Munkacsi fled to America). What his best pictures share is ebullience and energy: the still picture as action shot.

Some of the action he created, employing high angles and aerial shots. There's a series of pictures he took on a zeppelin flight to Brazil that epitomize the dash and kineticism of his sensibility. He also bestowed energy on previously static genres. When Harper's Bazaar put him on contract, he brought fashion outdoors. He shot heiresses running on the beach and models with pitchforks standing next to cows. After Munkacsi's death, in 1963, Richard Avedon wrote, "He brought a taste for happiness and honesty and a love of women to what was, before him, a joyless lying art. He did it first, and today the world of what is called fashion is peopled with Munkacsi's babies, his heirs."

More often, the energy in Munkacsi's pictures owes as much to content as form. He was like the slightly older Jacques-Henri Lartigue in reveling in the new world of sport and active leisure -- but at a much higher r.p.m. Munkacsi shot skiers, swimmers, skaters, acrobats, footballers, gymnasts, motorcycle racers (strapping himself to the side of a bike!). He was a gifted dance photographer; the show includes a couple of terrific shots of Fred Astaire in action.

Munkacsi's tremendous elan does not always translate. His portraiture and many of the travel shots are leaden. Even so, his single best-known image, "Boys running into the surf at Lake Tanganyika, " comes from the latter genre. Above and beyond its own considerable merits, it's one of the most important images in the history of 20th-century photography for the simple reason that it helped inspire the career of one of the most important photographers of the 20th century, Henri Cartier-Bresson. "For me this photograph was the spark that ignited my enthusiasm," he wrote. "It is the only photograph to have influenced me."

What Munkacsi's picture helped bring about is bounteously apparent in "Henri Cartier-Bresson's Scrapbook: Photographs, 1932-46," which also runs through April 29. It consists of more than 350 photographs taken by Cartier-Bresson that he placed in chronological order in a scrapbook for a 1947 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition had been arranged as a memorial tribute to the photographer, who'd been presumed killed in action during World War II. In fact, he'd been captured by the Germans and later escaped from a POW camp.

Cartier-Bresson went on to live another six decades , an incalculable boon to the art of photography. Yet even if he had died during the war, these images make plain he'd have already earned a very high place in the history of the medium. The images have been removed from the scrapbook and individually mounted. Among them are a dozen or more photographs recognizable to even the most casual viewer. There are also related items, such as Cartier-Bresson's pocket date book from 1944 and membership card in the French Resistance.

A few years before Cartier-Bresson picked up a camera, and while Munkacsi was still in Berlin, German film witnessed a collision (or should that be interlocking?) of female sexuality and assertion such as the screen has not seen since. Louise Brooks , with that crown of black hair befitting a monarch of the Eternal Feminine , exploded forth in "Pandora's Box" and "Diary of a Lost Girl ." Marlene Dietrich became a star in "The Blue Angel. " "Madchen in Uniform " portrayed lesbianism with an unprecedented sympathy. "Metropolis " took the virgin-whore dialectic far into the future and well over the top with the saintly Maria and her lewd robot impersonator.

"Louise Brooks and the the 'New Woman' in Weimar Cinema" (it, too, runs through April 29) includes stills from each of those films, two dozen in all. A small show, it seems all the smaller after the expansiveness of the Munkacsi and Cartier-Bresson exhibitions. But one look into the eyes of Louise Brooks is reminder enough that small need not mean insubstantial.

Mark Feeney can be reached at