Lucia Moholy
Writing Photography's History

Oc­to­ber 12, 2019 – Fe­bruary 2, 2020

On the oc­ca­sion of the Bauhaus an­niver­sary, the Mu­se­um Lud­wig is ded­i­cat­ing a small pre­sen­ta­tion in the Pho­tog­ra­phy Room to the pho­to­g­ra­pher and his­to­rian of pho­tog­ra­phy Lu­cia Mo­ho­ly. Three new­ly ac­quired vin­tage prints by Lu­cia Mo­ho­ly will al­so be shown for the first time. In ad­di­tion to her pho­to­graphs, let­ters from the Mu­se­um Lud­wig archives will be pre­sent­ed that de­mon­s­trate the live­ly exchange be­tween Mo­ho­ly and the pho­tog­ra­phy col­lec­tor and his­to­rian Erich Stenger. They planned to write a book about the his­to­ry of pho­tog­ra­phy to­gether around 1932. How­ev­er, the rise of the Nazis drove Mo­ho­ly in­to emi­gra­tion, while Stenger be­came a sought-af­ter ex­pert in the field in Ger­many. Mo­ho­ly ul­ti­mate­ly pub­lished A Hun­dred Years of Pho­tog­ra­phy: 1839–1939  in Lon­don in 1939.

Her book be­came the best­seller she had hoped for and con­tained thoughts on pho­tog­ra­phy that were rad­i­cal­ly new at the time: pho­tog­ra­phy and paint­ing were de­scribed as two equal­ly valid ways of pro­duc­ing “ab­s­tract pic­tures,” for in­s­tance: “Pho­tog­ra­phy (...) has been adopt­ed by a few ab­s­tract pain­ters as a new medi­um by means of which they tried to give shape to their feel­ings of bal­ance. They are Man Ray, liv­ing in France, and Mo­ho­ly-Na­gy, liv­ing in U.S.A. They took up the method of 'Pho­to­genic draw­ing,' dis­cov­ered by Schulze in 1727 and fa­miliar to Fox Tal­bot be­fore 1834, and ap­plied it in their own way. (...) The ques­tion whether pho­tog­ra­phy has been sub­ject­ed to any in­flu­ence of the ab­s­tract arts does not, there­fore, arise with re­gard to th­ese pic­tures. It was a pro­cess of as­sim­i­la­tion, not of in­flu­ence.”

As a pho­to­g­ra­pher, Lu­cia Mo­ho­ly her­self had de­vel­oped pho­to­grams (al­so known as pho­to­genic draw­ing) and in­tro­duced the tech­nique to her part­n­er at the time, the pain­ter and Bauhaus teach­er Lás­zló Mo­ho­ly-Na­gy. A pho­to­gram is a cam­era-less pho­to­graph in which ob­jects are placed on light-sen­si­tive pa­per and ex­posed. Their sha­d­ow is left be­hind as a bright area on the pa­per. As an (art) his­to­rian, she at­tribut­ed the pro­cess to ear­ly pho­to­graph­ic ex­per­i­ments, such as Jo­hann Hein­rich Schulze’s dis­cov­ery of the pho­to­sen­si­tiv­i­ty of sil­ver salts in the 18th cen­tu­ry and Wil­li­am Hen­ry Fox Tal­bot’s first pho­to­grams from the 1830s. Thus, she found the roots of cre­a­tive pho­to­graph­ic work in the pre­his­to­ry of pho­tog­ra­phy, which gave even more weight—a tra­di­tion—­to the con­tem­po­rary works. She al­so de­scribed pho­to­grams as equi­va­lent to ab­s­tract ten­den­cies in paint­ing.

The pi­oneer­ing na­ture of Mo­ho­ly’s his­to­ry of pho­tog­ra­phy is par­tic­u­lar­ly evi­dent in com­pari­son to Erich Stenger’s book Die Pho­to­gra­phie in Kul­tur und Tech­nik: Ihre Geschichte während hun­dert Jahren (Pho­tog­ra­phy in cul­ture and tech­nol­o­gy: Its his­to­ry over one hun­dred years). In his view, pho­tog­ra­phy was above all a tech­nique that was used in many fields, but not a pos­si­bil­i­ty for cre­a­tive ex­pres­sion. He wrote about the pho­to­gram: “If one is con­tent to cap­ture the dis­tri­bu­tion of light and sha­d­ow of any ob­ject in a cone of light in an im­age, and thus to re­pro­duce the ob­ject on­ly in its sil­hou­ette, not as a pho­to­graph­ic im­age, one ar­rives at the ‘pho­to­gram’ . . . . Oc­ca­sio­n­al­ly, play­ful­ly charm­ing sil­hou­ettes were cre­at­ed in this ‘cam­era-less’ tech­nique, which have noth­ing in com­mon with ob­jec­tive pho­tog­ra­phy.” Stenger’s iron­ic, even con­de­s­cend­ing tone and his conser­va­tive taste in art make it hard to imagine a joint his­to­ry of pho­tog­ra­phy be­tween him and Lu­cia Mo­ho­ly. This makes the re­al­iza­tion that they con­sid­ered such an un­der­tak­ing all the more sur­pris­ing.

Their re­search was based on the Stenger Col­lec­tion, which is now at the Mu­se­um Lud­wig as part of the Ag­fa Col­lec­tion. Here Mo­ho­ly saw ear­ly pho­to­grams by Tal­bot, one of which is shown in the cur­rent pre­sen­ta­tion. Mo­ho­ly al­so learned of Jo­hann Hein­rich Schulze’s ear­ly ex­per­i­ments through Erich Stenger. While Stenger did not suc­ceed in mak­ing the con­nec­tion to the “charm­ing sil­hou­ettes” of his day, Mo­ho­ly traced this broad ar­c—one more rea­son to pay tribute to her his­to­ry at the Mu­se­um Lud­wig.

Cu­ra­tor: Miri­am Szwast