New York

László Moholy-Nagy

Though photography may be an a posteriori medium by nature, László Moholy-Nagy had a very a priori notion of what comprises a good photograph—one shared by many of his contemporaries. It had to be distinctly photographic, he felt, an exploration and exploitation of the technical possibilities inherent in various kinds of picture-making processes—and the result, generally speaking, were photographs with geometric, Constructivist compositions. In his camera-made works, Moholy-Nagy demonstrated how the worm’s and the bird’s eye view can transform a European metropolis into an aggregate of plunging lines, startling trapezoids, and audacious patterns. In Decorating Work (Switzerland), 1925, he depicts the side of a building from a precipitously close and low vantage point. Windows become dark polyhedrons penetrating the smooth, light surface of the building, and a worker, perched on nothing but a plank, becomes a proletarian fly clinging to a window frame several stories above the ground. In Marseille, Von Pont Transbordeur, 1927, Moholy-Nagy takes an aerial perspective on the harbor: ovoid boats lined up in their berths are set at a 45-degree angle to the edges of the photograph, creating a diagonal pattern that sweeps across the flattened picture plane. Although for Moholy-Nagy such patterns lay fallow in many areas of life, he felt that it was technology, specifically the camera, that had the unique ability to apprehend them—to create the “new vision” for man that he touted in his articles and books.

Though Moholy-Nagy worked at all three kinds of photography, the central element of his photographic practice was the photogram, made by placing objects on film or paper and exposing them to light. Often even his camera-made works look like photograms: Marseille, Von Pont Transbordeur reiterates the schematic composition and light forms (boats) on black background (water) typical of the photogram. Generally speaking, there are two ways in which the photogram asks to be read. The first veers almost futilely toward subject matter: you look at a late photogram such as the one from 1939 wondering, Is that a piece of string there? Is that a strip of film? What’s that other gizmo? Almost inevitably, you deduce from the ghost world of photograms a fascination with quotidian objects worthy of Dutch still-life painters. The second method is more consciously formal, you sort of squint your eyes and take in the composition as a whole, the fluid gradations from dark to light, and so on. Moholy-Nagy would have preferred the latter method, as he often insisted in his writings that a photogram meant nothing other than itself. “Fotografie ist Lichtgestaltung” was his motto, photography is the manipulation of light—and, by consequence, a manipulation of the viewer, whom he hoped to lead into the future by the eyeball. Perhaps he never quite got there—Nazi Germany, not the Bauhaus, dominated the horizon the artist lived to see—but Moholy-Nagy’s pictures continue to articulate this vision, an unrealized alternative to the future no longer promised by photographers but by their heirs apparent m optimistic technophilia, the digerati.

Keith Seward