Behind the image: Moholy-Nagy’s archive

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Published on the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus, Moholy Album offers a new perspective on the work of one of the movement’s central members, László Moholy-Nagy

László Moholy-Nagy had a profound influence on the trajectory of 20th-century photography. He experimented with the medium and wrote extensively on its function. Influenced by the art movements of Constructivism and Dadaism, the artist created photograms and photomontages characterised by their unusual perspectives and experimental compositions. He also made straight camera photographs, which were similarly avant-garde, and the focus of a new book,  Moholy Album,that seeks to explore Moholy-Nagy’s photographic practice  — from the mid-1920s, during which he taught at the Bauhaus, followed by the several years he spent moving across Europe, before immigrating to the US in 1937.

When Hattula Moholy-Nagy (hereinafter referred to as Hattula) inherited her father’s estate in 1971, she was surprised by how little documentation it contained of both László Moholy-Nagy at work, and of his work itself. “Many of Moholy-Nagy’s diaries and private files got lost during his emigration between Amsterdam, London and Chicago, but the majority were simply destroyed following his early death in 1946,” explains Jeannine Fiedler, the editor of Moholy Album.

Hattula, an archaeologist and a member of the board of directors of the Estate of László Moholy-Nagy (ELMN), discovered that the missing documentary materials had been discarded by her Mother during the family’s move from Chicago to San Francisco. Over the years, she slowly managed to salvage some of it, including a sheaf of 73 lightweight cardboard sheets, each with nine contact prints, approximately 6 x 9cm in size, pasted onto one side in portrait format. The sheaf was accompanied by additional contact prints and strips, negatives, enlargements, paper folders and envelopes from photoshops in Germany, Switzerland and England.

Although the material shed light on Moholy-Nagy’s filing system, and his working process during the period in which he was most engaged with black-and-white photography, it was fragmented and lacked context. But, when Fiedler observed the sheaf of cardboard sheets she was transfixed. “The cardboard sheets were the fundament of the project, which began in 2010, and concluded with the completion of the Moholy Album in June 2019,” she explains. Fiedler proceeded to undertake painstaking research, which involved travelling across Europe to identify the people and places depicted in the images. She also employed the contact prints as a starting point from which to explore the entirety of the Estate of László Moholy-Nagy — curating related images and material around the individual stills. “During my work … every so often an image came to mind: the image of a garland revolving around itself,” she reflects. “This is how I perceive the movement of Moholy-Nagy’s thoughts and work — as a kind of constant, self-heating commotion; a new idea, a new brainwave, as a daily drive for action.”

The resulting book, Moholy Album, hones in on Moholy-Nagy’s black and white camera photography and explores it in the context of his life during the interwar period. The publication looks beyond the images, exploring the processes and material objects that underpin them. “I was able to gather together about 1,000 images, which, together, showcase the wide scope of Moholy’s black-and-white photographs,” explains Fiedler, “from his attempts at employing camera photography as an artistic means in 1924-5, until his emigration to the United States in 1937, when the medium became less important to him”.

Below, Fiedler discusses the process of compiling the book and what it contributes to our understanding of Moholy-Nagy today.

Boote am Pont Transbordeur. Marseille. 1929. Courtesy of the Estate of László Moholy-Nagy (ELMN), Hattula Moholy-Nagy. © For the reproductions: Steidl.

BJP-online: This is the first time that Moholy-Nagy’s daughter Hattula has granted full access to her father’s photographic archive. What does this contribute to our understanding of Moholy-Nagy, the photographer?

Jeannine Fiedler: In Moholy Album, one will find many of Moholy-Nagy’s most iconic images from the early twentieth century, but not as exclusively as they have been published in countless other photo books. This publication presents the artist as more than just the celebrated visionary and theoretician of the 1920s New Vision movement; Moholy Album reveals that he was also a documentarian in his own right — a humanist and philanthropist observing the entirety of mankind. Moholy-Nagy was such a competent artistic photographer that he was able to shift smoothly from one genre, and milieu, to the next without disregarding his established aesthetic. I hope that the book and its texts succeed in reflecting the transformation of Moholy-Nagy from an avant-garde hero to a documentarian whose work reveals subtle political innuendos and hidden humour.

BJP-Online: The material collated in this book offers the most extensive overview of Moholy-Nagy’s black-and-white photography. What does it tell us about his experiments in this medium? 

Fiedler:This question leads us straight to the cardinal aspect of Moholy-Nagy’s work and thinking, which in most cases began with theoretical considerations on an artistic problem.  One of the artists more well-known theoretical considerations was the discussion of ‘production’ and ‘reproduction’, which resulted in him creating cameraless photographs that he named photograms.

Moholy-Nagy remained engaged with the photogram technique for the entirety of his life and considered it central to his understanding of his work as an artist. He was preoccupied with the questions of: What the essence of art should be after the age of traditional panel painting came to a halt? If colour pigment was the essential carrier of the creative process, what could it now be in an age in which machines — film and the photo camera, plus newly invented materials made of chemicals and so on — had started to dominate artistic media? For Moholy-Nagy, the answer was light, in all its worldly appearances and manifestations.

Portrait of Ellen Frank, Berlin, 1929. Courtesy of the Estate of László Moholy-Nagy (ELMN), Hattula Moholy-Nagy. © For the reproductions: Steidl.

BJP-Online: The material in Moholy Album spans the period 1923 to 1928, during which the artist taught at the Bauhaus before several years spent moving across Europe as the Nazi party solidified control of Germany. How would you define this period in relation to the whole of Moholy-Nagy’s artistic career?

Fiedler: During his Bauhaus years, Moholy-Nagy gained stature as both a renowned artist and a charismatic teacher. After a short Dada phase in his early Berlin years, in 1923 he was appointed by Walter Gropius [founder of the Bauhaus school] as a promising Constructivist artist who became a Master at the Weimar and Dessau Bauhaus schools, teaching the foundation course and metal workshops. Moholy-Nagy was the mastermind behind Gropius’ shift from the Romantic, Expressionist Bauhaus of beautifully-handcrafted, unique items, to a school that cooperated with the industries by submitting designs, models, and patterns, which were suited to mass production. Moholy-Nagy and Josef Albers [the German-born American artist and educator who also taught at the Bauhaus], became the most influential art and design teachers of that era — Moholy-Nagy would go on to become the founding director of the New Bauhaus in Chicago, which was renamed the Institute of Design during his lifetime and integrated into the Illinois Institute of Technology. Without exaggeration this period was the most important for Moholy-Nagy; in those five years he became the artist and teacher we know today.

Balcony (studio house at the Bauhaus Dessau). 1926. Courtesy of the Estate of László Moholy-Nagy (ELMN), Hattula Moholy-Nagy. © For the reproductions: Steidl.

BJP-Online: How did you decide how to structure the book?

Fiedler: I needed to get to grips with the sheer mass of images. Initially, the cardboard sheets offered a rough grid for organising the material. Then, I started to assemble groups of appropriate motifs and images around them. By examining the work so intensely I was able to develop more and more ideas about the images; I travelled across Europe to ascertain places and people in the photographs.

It was very difficult when I wanted to change the position of one image or entire groups of stills. Handling the numbering and, more importantly, the cross-references, without generating mistakes was demanding and tedious work. And I wanted to transfer Hattula’s numeration system into the book so that she would have a functioning reference to her collection while using it.

Six black-and-white contacts on white cardboard. Courtesy of the Estate of László Moholy-Nagy (ELMN), Hattula Moholy-Nagy. © For the reproductions: Steidl.

BJP-Online: What do you want viewers to take away from the publication? And what does the new material, and your reading of it, contribute to the history of photography more broadly?

Fiedler: In creating the book, it materialised that I was treating many images as pieces of art in their own right. Every image is accompanied by a long description, some of which are small essays. In this way, I wanted to present a more complete image of Moholy-Nagy the photographer as also being an artist, theoretician and teacher. However, it is the role of the readership to appraise this and not mine; anything else would be presumptuous. My hope, which I may express at the end of our interview, is that the Moholy Album will be translated in English — the sooner the better.

Moholy Album is published by Steidl and edited by Jeannine Fiedler.