Munkácsi was a newspaper writer and photographer in Hungary, specializing in sports. At the time, sports action photography could only be done in bright light outdoors. Munkácsi's innovation was to make sports photographs as meticulously composed action photographs, which required both artistic and technical skill.
Munkácsi's legendary big break was to happen upon a fatal brawl, which he photographed. Those photos affected the outcome of the trial of the accused killer, and gave Munkácsi considerable notoriety. That notoriety helped him get a job in Berlin in 1928, for the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, where his first published photo was a race car splashing its way through a puddle. He also worked for the fashion magazine Die Dame.
More than just sports and fashion, he photographed Berliners, rich and poor, in all their activities. He traveled to Turkey, Sicily, Egypt, London, New York, and famously Liberia, for photo spreads in the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung.
The speed of the modern age and the excitement of new photographic viewpoints enthralled him, especially flying. There are aerial photographs; there are air-to-air photographs of a flying school for women; there are photographs from a Zeppelin, including the ones on his trip to Brazil, where he crosses over a boat whose passengers wave to the airship above.
On 21 March 1933, he photographed the fateful Day of Potsdam, when the aged President Paul von Hindenburg handed Germany over to Adolf Hitler. On assignment for the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, he photographed Hitler's inner circle, although he was a Jewish foreigner.
In 1934, the Nazis nationalized the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, fired its Jewish editor-in-chief, Kurt Korff, and replaced its innovative photography with pictures of German troops.
Munkácsi left for New York, where he signed on, for a substantial $100,000, with Harper's Bazaar, a top fashion magazine. In a change from usual practice, he often left the studio to shoot outdoors, on the beach, on farms and fields, at an airport. He produced one of the first articles in a popular magazine to be illustrated with nude photographs.
His portraits include Katharine Hepburn, Leslie Howard, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, Jane Russell, Louis Armstrong, and the definitive dance photograph of Fred Astaire.
Munkácsi died in poverty and controversy. Several universities and museums declined to accept his archives, and they were scattered around the world.
Berlin's Ullstein Archives and Hamburg's F. C. Gundlach collection are home to two of the largest collections of Munkácsi's work.
In 1932, the young Henri Cartier-Bresson, at the time an undirected photographer who catalogued his travels and his friends, saw the Munkácsi photograph Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika, taken on a beach in Liberia. Cartier-Bresson later said, "For me this photograph was the spark that ignited my enthusiasm. I suddenly realized that, by capturing the moment, photography was able to achieve eternity. It is the only photograph to have influenced me. This picture has such intensity, such joie de vivre, such a sense of wonder that it continues to fascinate me to this day."
He paraphrased this many times during his life, saying, "I suddenly understood that photography can fix eternity in a moment. It is the only photo that influenced me. There is such intensity in this image, such spontaneity, such joie de vivre, such miraculousness, that even today it still bowls me over."
Richard Avedon said of Munkácsi, "He brought a taste for happiness and honesty and a love of women to what was, before him, a joyless, loveless, lying art. Today the world of what is called fashion is peopled with Munkácsi's babies, his heirs.... The art of Munkácsi lay in what he wanted life to be, and he wanted it to be splendid. And it was."'
In 2007, the International Center of Photography mounted an exhibit of Munkácsi's photography titled, Martin Munkácsi: Think While You Shoot! in conjunction with the show Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Scrapbook: Photographs, 1932-46. In 2009, the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York City staged a joint exhibit of photographs by Edward Steichen and Munkácsi.