The explosive development of photography as a medium of untold expressive power and as a primary vehicle of modern consciousness occurred during the two decades immediately following the Great War. In the aftermath of this first totally mechanized conflict, avant-garde artists, commercial illustrators, and journalists turned to photography as if seeking to discover through its mechanisms and materials something of the soul of contemporary industrial society.
Photography’s long-acknowledged power to mirror the face of the world was by no means abandoned, but in the 1920s and ’30s a host of unconventional forms and techniques suddenly flourished. Abstract photograms, photomontages composed of fragmented images, the combination of photographs with modern typography and graphic design in posters and magazine pages—all were facets of what artist and theorist László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946) enthusiastically described as a “new vision” rooted in the technological culture of the twentieth century.
An influential teacher at the Bauhaus in Germany, Moholy-Nagy championed unexpected vantage points and playful printing techniques to engender a fresh rapport with the visible world (1987.1100.499). Other photographers in Germany, such as August Sander (1876–1964) (1987.1100.82) and Albert Renger-Patzsch (1897–1966) (2005.100.147), emphasized a rigorous objectivity grounded in the close observation of detail. And with the advent of the 35mm camera in the early 1930s, photojournalism and street photography became possessed of a new grace, deftness, and mobility.
In France, Surrealism was the gravitational center for avant-garde photography between the wars. Launched in 1924 by the poet André Breton, the Surrealist movement aimed at the psychic and social transformation of the individual through the replacing of bourgeois conventions with new values of spiritual adventure, poetry, and eroticism. Essentially a philosophical and literary movement, Surrealism was greatly indebted to the techniques of psychoanalysis, and Freud’s research into free association and dream imagery. Surrealist photographers made use of such techniques as double exposure, combination printing, and reversed tonality (1987.1100.81) to evoke the union of dream and reality.
In Russia, the Revolution of 1917 imposed transformation through a reordered society. It enlisted the enthusiastic participation of artists like El Lissitzky (1890–1941) and Alexander Rodchenko (1891–1956), who saw in photography the most efficient way to express the dynamic reshaping of their country. In their photographs, they used a repertoire of defamiliarizing devices—extreme up and down angles (1987.1100.5), tilted horizons, fragmentary close-ups, abstracted forms—as part of an attempt to break old habits of perception and visual representation.
The late 1920s saw a series of international exhibitions devoted to New Vision photography. The most significant of these was Film und Foto, an exhibition held in Stuttgart, Germany, in May–July 1929, which included approximately 1,000 works from Europe, the Soviet Union, and the United States.
The rise of Stalinism and Fascism in the 1930s would disillusion and silence many of the photographers associated with the new vision. By turns euphoric and despairing, prey to utopian optimism or deep spiritual disarray, the short period between the two world wars remains one of the richest in photographic history.
Department of Photographs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Founded by the architect Walter Gropius (1883–1969) in 1919, the Bauhaus was a utopian haven for avant-garde artists during the period of radical change and tenuous peace in Germany after World War I. A war veteran, Gropius found his battered country badly in need of rejuvenation and believed that the collective of Bauhaus artists could play an important role in that process. Based on the concept of the medieval cooperative of artists and craftsmen combining their talents to build the great Gothic cathedrals, the progressive school of art and design sought to bring together the fine and applied arts, human ingenuity, and modern technology in order to help construct a new rational, egalitarian, and ordered society.
In 1925, after losing the financial support of the city of Weimar, the school’s original home, Gropius relocated the Bauhaus to Dessau, an industrial city of 50,000, about 100 miles southwest of Berlin. On a level plain just outside of the city, Gropius constructed his Bauhaus building, a gleaming glass and concrete complex of interrelating structures that became the center of a small universe. Sheltered from the turmoil of the external world, it provided a stimulating and nurturing environment in which the artists could apply themselves to the task at hand. United in their goal to create new art fit for the modern era, they embraced novel techniques and free experimentation.
While architecture, typography, carpentry, metalwork, weaving, sculpture, wall painting, and theater all had established workshops at the school before 1929, photography was not taught or even organized as an extracurricular activity. In spite of this, it attracted an enthusiastic following, particularly after the arrival of the Hungarian Constructivist artist László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946), whom Gropius appointed to lead the preliminary course and metal workshop in 1923. Aided by his wife, Lucia Moholy (1894–1989), the dynamic young artist had established himself as one of the prime movers and enthusiastic advocates of experimental photographic techniques (1987.1100.69). While at the school, he continued to write articles and books on the subject, including his seminal Malerei, Photographie, Film (Painting, Photography, Film, 1925), which was illustrated with many of his own photographs. He demonstrated unusual camera vantages and various darkroom techniques that were tantalizingly fresh: they constituted, he believed, a “new vision” for a medium that was surely the expressive vehicle of the future.
Just as traditional media and materials were being subjected to intense reappraisal at the Bauhaus, Moholy-Nagy advocated unlimited experimentation with the photographic process. The photogram, created by placing objects on photographic paper and exposing them to light, exemplified the idea that the medium, formerly valued primarily for its ability to reproduce, was capable of producing entirely new art. In his 1926 Photogram (1987.1100.158), he deftly deals with light and issues then being explored in modern painting simply by using the play of light to create a radiant image of a hand and paintbrush floating serenely in dimensionless space.
The force of Moholy-Nagy’s talent and enthusiasm galvanized other artists to begin their own adventurous explorations. Unencumbered by the structured expectations of a formal course, photography at the Bauhaus was practiced as the best sort of play—its myriad modes and magical processes enchanted masters and students alike. Even as they recorded the beginner’s array of elementary topics, they were instinctively employing techniques absorbed from a variety of sources, ranging from Constructivism to illustrated newspapers to avant-garde film. The smaller cameras and faster exposures gave them a new dexterity, enabling them to keep time with the energetic pace of school life.
This aspect of photography at the Bauhaus is exemplified in the lively work of the young student Lux Feininger (1910–2011), son of the painter and Bauhaus master Lyonel Feininger (1871–1956). Never without his camera, Lux roamed the school in search of activities he could transform into his characteristically exuberant views of student life, exemplified by his sprightly Charleston on the Bauhaus Roof (1987.1100.107). Possessing the dynamic immediacy of the most innovative press photography of this period, Feininger’s photograph captures a dramatic instant that perfectly expresses the youthful verve and spirited freedom that was clearly present on both sides of the camera.
With the departure of Gropius in 1928 and the controversial appointment of the Marxist architect Hannes Meyer (1889–1954) as his successor, the Bauhaus became increasingly unpopular with the local government and community. In 1930, Meyer was forced to resign and within two years the city completely withdrew funding, forcing the school’s closure. Although Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969), the school’s final director, relocated it to Berlin as a private institution, it lasted only a year before it was permanently closed by the Nazis in 1933.
Department of Photographs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art