From experiment to convention: photography in the Bauhaus – by Sam Sanchez
The Bauhaus has revolutionized the definition and practice of modernism in the fields of architecture, design, printmaking, metal work, fine art, advertising, pedagogy, and even theater.
From its establishment in 1919 in Weimar, its maturity in Dessau in 1925, and its eventual closure in 1933 in Berlin under Nazi pressure, the people and works made famous by the institution always followed the principle of the „combined work of art“ – Gesamtkunstwerk – in itself a response by its founder and first director Walter Gropius to the challenge of rebuilding Germany and Europe from the ashes of the Great War and everything it represented.
Today, the legacy of Bauhaus is representative to that of 20th century Modernism, influencing art, design, architecture, and photography.
Establishment of photography in the Bauhaus
Student life and integrated practice led to the inception, development, and establishment of photography in the Bauhaus.
What started as amateurish experimentation by the Bauhäuslers (students) and Masters (professors and lecturers) matured into a standard of how photographs can become design mediums with the help of current technology. At this time, the birth of small-format (35mm) photography revolutionized the way how photographs can be made, and they were some of the pioneers who experimented with its possibilities as a tool and medium.
This resulted to the creation of an academic position from their self-educational methods and new ways of vision provided by new technology and philosophy. In a way, photography in the Bauhaus sought to quantify designed scenes through artistic expression that ‚designs’ light.
Note that I did not write it as „Bauhaus photography,“ as the underlying aesthetic and principles of their photography practice was a continuation of previous documentary photography practice, specifcally New Objectivisim and New Vision. Instead, it is better quoted academically as „photography in the Bauhaus“ in order to distinguish their practice from other similar or related developments such as Russian Avant-Garde, Constructivism, Surrealism, Dada, or later American documentary photography.
Defining photography in the Bauhaus
Photography in the Bauhaus can be summed up in two phases: the Weimar years of product photography (1919-1923), and the Dessau-Berlin years of photographic experimentation (1927-1933), however in actual practice these phases happened alongside each other in different contexts and uses.
In its early years, photography was primarily used there for publication and documentary purposes of self-made products, student work, and fine art. These were then used for informational magazines and flyers about the school. The success of the first Bauhaus exhibition in 1923 was the catalyst that eventually led to the realization that the institution could not disregard the medium.
Lucia Moholy, the wife of the famous Hungarian universal artist László Moholy-Nagy, was tasked to photograph artifacts made by the institution as she was the only one to have actual photographic training in micro- photography. Her photographs mirrored that of her subjects: stark, clean, and direct, making the individual photograph representative to the whole institution. Indeed her photographs are considered by historians to be the most representative images of the Bauhaus, thus she could be considered to be the first „Bauhaus photographer“ in this regard.
Nevertheless, Moholy was not the only photographically-inclined person in the Bauhaus. Her husband was dabbling into it as well, experimenting with photograms and photo-collages and including them in his graphic design works; later, Erich Consemüller took on the reins of Moholy’s role whilealso being a part of the documentarists who captured Bauhaus life in detail. Both Moholy and Consemüller’s works are instrumental in defining the Bauhaus image until today.
When the institution moved to Dessau after the completion of the now- famous Bauhaus building, everyone who owned a camera were already engaged into photography upon their own liking and discretion.
It was an expression of their aesthetic will to create and design, and it was a popular leisure activity. In this era, many photos of Bauhäuslers attending seminars and lectures, working in the various workshops, at play by the Elbe river, or during their infamous parties such as the Bauhaus-Fest were made.
Theodore „Lux“ Feininger and Werner David Feist were some of the well-known documentarists at this time, alongside figures like Ivana Tomljenović, Kurt Kranz, Xanti Schawinsky, Horacio Copolla and Ise Gropius, Walter’s wife. Social documentary photography was also performed in the Bauhaus by students such as Albert Hennig, Erich Comeriner, Judit Kárász, and Irena Blühová.
One special person to note was the Japanese Bauhäusler Takehiko Mizutani, who studied under a government grant and was a keen photographer who took images of everything he saw – from window displays to street signs. Heist writes in his book „My Years in the Bauhaus“ that he might have been one of many young Japanese students sent abroad to collect information for the later improvement of Japanese technology and design.
Embracing new technology and techniques
The Bauhäuslers were armed with a variety of equipment that was available to them in the 1920s. Most of them owned large-format cameras like Heist (who owned a Goertz camera handed down from his uncle), a few had medium-format cameras, and the lucky well-off students like Naf Rubenstein had Leicas, which at this time was the newest photography innovation.
The darkroom was available for them to use as well, a place where they could improve photographic technique as they slowly became more interested in realizing images that became technically possible with new photography technology, and how these could be integrated into design works. Finally, their works were readily used in other workshops, most notably for advertising purposes, as this was fertile testing ground on how Bauhaus theories can work in real commercial life and to ease their financial problems through paid projects.
Regardless of whether they used photography to record their work or their life, they were all inspired by their environment – not only the physical, architectural one but also the socio-political and philosophical one.
This inspiration also came with a hint of disrespect for all established or academic procedures, being the rebellious and revolutionary clique that they were. As photographic artists, they were autodidacts who used photography as a medium for design as a laboratory for design experiments than a library of design principles.
Despite their efforts, most of their initial photographs were rich in creative invention but technically disappointing, with only their product and advertising photographs the only exceptions. Hence, the need to include photography in the formal curriculum became apparent.
Photography in the Bauhaus curriculum
The first instance of this academic inclusion was in 1923, when Moholy-Nagy informally taught photography as part of his „Vorkurs“ (Introduction) course for new Bauhäuslers. But it was only in 1929 when Bauhaus director Hannes Meyer integrated the photography course led by the Berlin-based photographer Walter Peterhans into the advertising workshop of Joost Schmidt that it became a formal part of the academic curriculum.
Furthermore due to its inclusion in the advertising and print workshop, it was heavily used for advertising still life, products, and objects, Bauhaus-made or otherwise.
Peterhans’ introduction also injected new life into their photography practice, concentrating totally on photographic technique through his knowledge in optics and photochemistry. Heist describes it as „more of (Paul) Klee’s creative process than Moholy-Nagy’s:“ he meticulously photographed texture and form through careful lighting and selective use of photochemical products. The photographs that they were able to create experimented with texture, structure, void, and form that suited to the new language of vision.
It was indeed a holistic integration of photographic talents, as Peterhans’ level and demand for technical perfection suited the highly-creative and wild imagination of the Bauhäuslers, who were then able to create masterpieces of photographic Gesamtkunstwerk.
The epitomy of Bauhaus inquiry into photography was Moholy-Nagy’s book „Malerei Fotografie Film“ (Painting Photography Film), which was more of a guide than a manuscript on how modernist design probes the challenge of integrating art with the modern times through „assisted vision“ by cameras and film.
It was a collection of essays and photographs that Moholy-Nagy and other residents made, which he later categorized as „ways of seeing.“ This was the first-ever attempt of clarifying what and how special can photography become as a communication and artistic medium when compared to other visual arts; he then concluded that „photography is the basis of perception in the modern world“ and coined the term „New Vision“ (Neues Sehen) to describe it.
A recurring approach of this vision was with the use of specific themes coming from two general subjects: the Bauhaus works and the residents who made them.
These themes, such as specialized portraits, comedic presentation, deliberate application of optical phenomena, and constant depiction of human and architecture, reflected their personal perception as a „special clique of people“ and to their perception of Weimar-era Germany as a „house of construction“ (which is what Bauhaus literally means in German).
It is important to note that many of these themes came naturally but were never consciously decided beforehand, as these choices were not executable templates but rather investigations into the general purpose of photography, using the subject, the photographer, the image, and the image medium as variables. Therefore it can be generalized that their practice was a playful performance of the scientific method in photography.
One can say nowadays that photography in the Bauhaus fell in the genres of product and documentary photography, the latter specifically as diaristic documentary. Yet beyond exploration, their adoption of such themes was an answer to the „rapidness of the times“, a dynamic alternative to the static contemplation of existing photography; the elemental premise here is the application of modernist design principle with the themes selected.
The end of Bauhaus?
Despite their institutional demise during the rise of the National Socialists by the beginning of 1930s, the spirit of the Bauhaus lived on in many countries, particularly in the United States and Soviet Union, where the residents emigrated and continued to practice their discipline in their professional fields.
Cooperative involvement with other disciplines, the core principle of the Bauhaus Gesamtkunstwerk, also helped the continuing development of the Bauhaus aesthetic and discipline.
The later development of documentary photography can be indirectly attributed to the academic experimentations of the Bauhaus, and this became apparent in photographic movements that chartered a similar path to documentation and photographic capture such as that of World War II photojournalism, the New Topographics, the Düsseldorf School, and recent studies on low graphic style and minimalism in photography.
In a way, the Bauhaus lived on and continues to live in contemporary photography as part and parcel of its philosophy and way of seeing.
Driven by their desire to help rebuild society through a complete rethinking of the artistic and design practice, the message of photography in the Bauhaus was that of idealism and irony through the intersection of academic experiment and aesthetic convention.
Though the dimensional translation of dynamic elements into a flat, static space cannot be directly attributed to the works of the Bauhaus, it can be said that the idea for a new philosophy of photography, and one that directly correlates optical and physical phenomena into communicative and design pieces was practiced and perfected here.
Photography in the Bauhaus was photography of function and understanding, something that today’s photographers do for a living and live to do – regardless of genre, interest, skill, or background.
It was capturing the experience of art, design, and life – all together through the viewfinder of new sight and seeing.
~ Sam Sanchez
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