Issue 20.2: April/May 2017

The Unseen Francis Haar

A Hawai‘i photographer’s little-known work captured a vanishing side of Honolulu
Story by Constance Hale. Photos by Francis Haar.

Photographer and film-maker Francis Haar first came to Hawai‘i in 1959 while working on a documentary about ukiyo-e, the colorful woodblock prints that flourished in Japan in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Specifically he had come to interview the author James Michener, who owned an extensive collection of these “pictures of the floating world,” replete with courtesans, Kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, iconic landscapes, folk tales and erotica.

At the time, Haar had eight documentaries and nine books to his credit, and his films and photography were internationally known. Living on an expired visa in Japan with his wife and three children, he was also a man without a country—stateless and looking for a new home.

Hungarian-born photographer and filmmaker Francis Haar documented Honolulu's Chinatown on the eve of urban redevelopment in the 1960s.

Hawai‘i’s tempting scenery, Asian influences, temperate weather and family culture appealed to him. There was also a large university where he might teach. And so in 1960 Haar returned to Hawai‘i with his family to settle down. Over the next seventeen years, he would produce five more books and seven more films, all in the Islands. They included the documentary Hula Hoolaulea: Traditional Dances of Hawaii, a window into hula through the person many consider its high priestess, ‘Iolani Luahine.

All Haar’s work captures the beautiful, gritty, starkly realistic and incredibly human side of the places he lived and worked. “He had a sharp eye for meaningful subjects … whether a farm girl or a factory profile,” wrote Michener. Haar’s appreciation for the esoteric corners of a culture, and his tender glimpses into people’s lives, gives the work timeless strength.

Though Haar died in 1997, he still has work on display at the Hungarian Museum of Photography, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Honolulu Museum of Art Spalding House. Yet most of his photographs, especially those of Hawai‘i, are known only to the few who happen upon one of his rare books on eBay or somehow find their way to his archive in Hamilton Library at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. In the Haar collection at the library, 3,500 sheets of negatives tell a moving story of ordinary and extraordinary people, buildings and streets. In particular, a little-known but captivating series Haar shot in the backstreets and alleys of Chinatown in the mid-1960s offers a glimpse into a part of Honolulu that has otherwise been lost to history.

Among the thousands of images in the little-known Haar collection at the University of Hawai‘i are glimpses of this disappeared world. Above, one of Haar's Chinatown street scenes, with the Beretania Follies burlesque theater in the background and a theater sign that's seen better days in the foreground.

The man behind these images was born Haár Ferenc in Csernatfalu, Hungary, in 1908. His father made decorations for military uniforms and was an amateur photographer with a wooden box camera. Haar studied industrial arts in Budapest, worked at an architectural firm and, in 1929, bought a camera and taught himself photography. In no time he was photographing cityscapes, and he joined a circle of artists, actors and writers in Budapest. The avant-garde group had a name (Munka Kōr, or “Work Circle”), a leader (the socialist poet Lajos Kassák), a philosophy about photography (it was “the real child of our age”), and a ceramist named Irene Papa, whom Haar soon married.

Francis and Irene Haar opened a photo studio. While Haar’s early images reflected the leftist bent of Munka Kōr and exposed the hardships of peasant life, his aesthetic was soon influenced by the Bauhaus in Germany, the European avant-garde and the work of Americans like Paul Strand and Alfred Stieglitz. One of his best-known pictures from this time shows Irene sunbathing, with leaves covering her eyes, as was her habit. The photo frames her head and neck and features the basic geometry of crisscrossed diagonals, with the leaves set against the angle of the face. The photo ran right side up as the cover of U.S. Camera in 1940, but Haar positioned it upside down as well, emphasizing its abstract compositional structure but also a distinctive wit.

In 1937, one of Haar’s cityscapes, “View of Pest”—in which the Hungarian capital, cut by the snaking Danube River, is framed by the columns of its basilica—was selected for the Hungarian Pavilion at the Paris Exposition. Francis and Irene decamped to the City of Light and decided to stay. With Irene as an assistant, Haar devoted himself mostly to portraits, but he also captured markets, shop vitrines and, in “Lovers on the Boulevard,” pedestrians hurrying past a large movie poster.

The A‘ala Triangle was once a densely packed neighborhood of dance halls, poolrooms and tenements. At the apex of the triangle, where Beretania and North King streets meet, stood a majestic but dilapidated building that housed the Aala Pawn Shop. Shortly after Haar photographed that building, the entire neighborhood was razed to create A‘ala Park.

He became friends with other Parisian artists, but his most important connection may have been the Japanese film importer Hiroshi Kawazoe, whom Haar invited to sit for a portrait. Kawazoe and his wife, the concert pianist Chieko Hara, became friends. Soon Haar was the portraitist of choice for Japanese aristocrats, architects, painters and dancers.

As the war in Europe closed in, the Haars realized Paris might not remain a haven. Francis was invited to Japan by the International Cultural Society of Japan. He left from Marseille in November 1939, traveling by boat with Kawazoe and Hara. Irene joined him six months later.

Japanese architecture, aesthetics and culture had quite an influence on him. Asian fabric design and ukiyo-e in particular inspired him, much as they had artists like Van Gogh and Gauguin. It was all exotic to his Eastern European eyes. “I admired the simplicity and closeness to nature,” he wrote. “The rows of wheat fields were so carefully tended, like a garden.”

Haar had made photos throughout the journey to Japan, and in 1940 he published his first book, Way to the Orient. He opened a portrait studio in Tokyo’s Ginza district and took photos for architectural firms and cultural societies. In Kyoto he photographed a disabled storyteller. Near Mount Fuji he captured an old painter who, in his entire life, had not painted anything but that one sacred mountain.

In 1942 the Haars were evacuated to Karuizawa, a resort town in the mountains northwest of Tokyo. They lived there through the war with their two children and a loyal maid in a small summer home, under conditions that were brutal in the long, cold winter. They survived on bartering, the milk of a goat and the watercress that grew in a nearby stream. “Irene used it in many ingenious ways,” writes Haar. “In soup, sautéed, or raw as a salad. We lived almost on watercress alone.”

Above, Haar poses with Andrew Lind (at right), a sociology professor at the University of Hawai`i; the two collaborated on a show called Disappearing Honolulu.

Malnourished, Haar spent the last months of the war in bed. When American reporters from the military magazine Yank arrived, they offered Haar K-rations, vitamins and a job. From 1946 to 1948 Haar worked for the magazine and also as a filmmaker for the US Public Health and Welfare Section.

By 1946, the Haars were back in Tokyo. Irene soon painted the walls of a restaurant with scenes of peasant life, dressed the Japanese waiters in Hungarian shirts and cooked up goulash and chicken paprika. The Irene’s Hungaria restaurant became a mecca for artists and intellectuals, including visitors like actor William Holden, the ballerina Danilova, Michener and even members of the Japanese imperial family.

The restaurant supported what was now a family of five and gave Francis Haar creative berth. He made documentaries and books—about geishas, Kabuki and the ama, or female pearl divers. “His modus operandi was to do a film first, taking still images throughout the process, then do a book afterwards,” says Tom Haar, his eldest son, who lives in Honolulu and is also a photographer.

“I could never approach his stamina,” says Tom about his father’s ability to “go, go, go,” even in an entirely new country. “My wife, who is Japanese, calls him a locomotive. Already one year after arriving in Japan, he did a book on Mount Fuji!”

Tom shares his memories of his father over afternoon coffee at a café near the University of Hawai‘i. Now 75, his accent still hints at his roots, which he describes as “Hungarian parentage but a Japanese upbringing.” English is his third language, learned from French Alsatian missionaries at the Marist International School in Yokohama.

The English adjective Tom comes up with for his father, though, is unambiguous: conservative. “Father was always working. In the morning he would first thing be on his typewriter, writing letters to friends. But even in his writing he was conservative—all facts, nothing personal, more like an extensive biography.”

Haar, who trained as an architect, was drawn to architecture as a photographer. But he also had a gift for portraiture, evident in the Chinatown photographs seen above and on the opening page.

Francis Haar himself called his sensibility a “realistic documentary style.” He aimed to present life as it is, “never posed,” he wrote. “The aim of the photographer should be to record his visual experience.” Lew Andrews, a professor at UH Mānoa, notes that Haar’s Japan work “reveals a warmth and intimacy not often found in the work of foreigners.”

Haar continued making portraits, including those of Daisetz Suzuki, a Zen master, and the director Akira Kurosawa, whom he photographed on the set of Seven Samurai.

By the late 1950s Francis and Irene were again contemplating next steps. Their passports had expired, and they feared being deported back to their now-communist homeland, hardly a cradle for artistic expression. While Irene stayed in Tokyo to run the restaurant and raise the kids, Francis went on a scouting expedition, working for the Container Corporation of America in Chicago.

The curators of the Art Institute of Chicago hired Haar to produce a documentary on the museum’s Japanese woodblock print collection, which Michener had donated. Haar and Michener had known each other in Tokyo, and Haar jumped at the chance to film his friend’s narration in Waikīkī, where Michener had recently completed his historical novel Hawaii.

The connection was fortuitous. Michener introduced Haar to the director of the Honolulu Academy of Arts, who in turn introduced Haar to ‘Iolani Luahine. The Rockefeller Foundation agreed to underwrite a documentary focused on Luahine, Hula Hoolaulea, and she and Haar became great friends. (Eventually, in 1985, those now-iconic photos of the woman who could be an ancient, a comic, a spirit or just a friendly elder in a mu‘umu‘u and slippers, appeared in the book ‘Iolani Luahine.)

Concerned by the continued redevelopment, Haar combined his photos into Aala ‹ Life and Death of a Community, an film he called a historic document, as well as a lyrical poem in black and white.

Haar made six more films about Hawai‘i and thousands of still images. He was fascinated by Hawaiian culture. But he was also drawn to other artists and used his skill in portraiture to catch their creative spirit on film. One result was Artists of Hawaii, a book-and-film project that recorded the cultural life of Hawai‘i in the 1970s. He had forged relationships with many of his subjects: the muralist Jean Charlot, the painters Madge Tennant and Tseng Yu-Ho, the architect Vladimir Ossipoff, the sculptor Isami Doi.

Some of Haar’s best friends in Hawai‘i were other émigrés. Irene opened a new Irene’s Hungaria in Kailua, which became a hangout for Eastern European expats. Tom saw a different side of his father there. “He would joke around more when Hungarians were around,” Tom says, “pulling out his harmonica and playing.”

If Eastern Europeans in Hawai‘i brought out Haar’s fun-loving side, colleagues at UH Mānoa, where he taught photography, stoked his artistic fire. One of those was the painter Kenneth Bushnell, who rented a studio in the Aala Pawn Shop building. The old neighborhood was about to be razed for a new city park. A friend of Bushnell’s suggested that they document everything they could. The three men wandered the neighborhood, snapping photos, capturing sounds and gathering quotes from residents.

The area was part of Chinatown, the city’s earliest trade center and its first ethnic neighborhood. It still had turn-of-the-twentieth-century low-rise buildings, with their storefront style and vernacular of wood, brick and stone. It still had a pungent ethnic character, with markets filled with chickens, almond cakes, candied ginger and lotus root. Teak-lined apothecaries abutted noodle shops and cafés selling red-and-gold boxes of teas. But it was also a mecca for sailors, prostitutes and drunks. Urban renewal projects—Queen Emma Towers in 1958, Kukui Plaza in 1961, the ‘A‘ala Park redevelopment in 1965 and the Kauluwela neighborhood redevelopment in 1967—were forcing thousands of Chinese and Japanese families to relocate. As they emptied out, the seediness factor grew. While some romanticized the bars, adult bookshops and burlesque theaters, many found the area repugnant.

The combination of decaying architecture, active demimonde and disappearing worlds proved catnip for Haar. Some of his photographs depict streetwalkers and pool sharks. Others capture Chinese families on their stoops, or boys swimming under the King Street Bridge. Together they were collected in a twenty-minute experimental film called Aala—Life and Death of a Community, which Haar calls “a historic document, as well as a lyrical poem in black and white.” Although it had a screening at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i, this important work is virtually unknown.

Some of these images recall early Haar photos of Budapest’s vistas and Paris’ lovers on boulevards. Others are reminiscent of the portraits of commoners he took in Japan. Always they show how he is drawn to the idiosyncrasies of architecture and humanity. “Architecture was a through line,” says Tom, reflecting on his father’s life, “but portraiture was his forte.” HH