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László Moholy-Nagy: Adventures in Photograms
Updated: Jul 23, 2022
Donna West Brett November 2021
This century belongs to light. Photography is the first means of giving tangible shape to light, though in a transposed and—perhaps just for that reason—almost abstract form.
László Moholy-Nagy, 1927.
In the introduction to Painting, Photography, Film (Malerie, Fotografie, Film) of 1925, Moholy set out his treatise for the optical creation of photography and the depiction of nature using light as a creative agent, what he referred to as “chiaroscuro in place of pigment.” Light here is considered a “new creative means” and it is in Painting, Photography, Film that he coined the term photogram, a process that allowed him to compose in a newly mastered material. The camera-less technique of the photogram afforded him an opportunity to explore the possibilities of making an image with light by placing objects in contact with light-sensitive paper and exposing them to a light source such as the sun or an electric lamp. Moholy’s experiments in the photographic centered around his interest in light as a component of a light-space-time continuity, an interest he had in common with fellow artists Hans Richter, Kurt Schwerdtfeger, Josef Hartwig, and Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack. While the word “photography” translates from its Greek origins as “writing with light,” the photogram as a new instrument of vision “is the most completely dematerialized medium which the new vision commands,” according to Moholy. His ambition was not to replicate light but to use it as a pure artistic medium, like paint. In other words, he desired to record and fix light itself, in all its permeable, malleable and temporal nature.
Moholy’s use of the photogram utilized old techniques that, unbeknownst to him, were at the forefront of photographic invention in the 1830s. Quite simply, a photogram is a unique image made by placing two- or three-dimensional objects onto a piece of paper made light-sensitive by a chemical coating. The paper is then exposed to light, developed, and chemically fixed, with only the outline or shadow of the object remaining to form a picture such as the outline of a fernleaf. In early iterations of the photogram technique, such as those by the British scientist and photographic pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877), the light-sensitive paper was exposed to the sun, whereas Moholy and others also utilized electric light in the studio. Neither a negative nor a positive, the photogram is essentially a unique, unrepeatable image, that, unlike a camera image, uses no mediating lens. As Susan Laxton has written, the “material, process, and subject matter” of all photograms, including those of Moholy, is light. It was light as material, process, and subject that Moholy used to strive for a representation of the fourth dimension by capturing light projected over time (via space and time exposure), a vision he pushed into other experimentations such as those in film and in pure kinetic light projection through light-space modulation using metal and Plexiglas. For Moholy, the photogram records the actions of light over time, “that is, the motion of light in space,” indicating that the medium’s tool is not the camera but rather light and time itself, with the resulting work bringing a new form of space articulation. This claim is key to understanding the ways in which he developed the medium from a material manifestation to a dematerialized form.
László Moholy-Nagy, “Unprecedented Photography,” in Photography in the Modern Era: European Documents and Critical Writings, 1913–1940, ed. Christopher Phillips (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art/Aperture, 1989), 85. First published as László Moholy-Nagy, “Produktion-Reproduktion,” De Stijl 5, no. 7 (July 1922).
Moholy-Nagy, Painting, Photography, Film, 7.
Moholy-Nagy, Painting, Photography, Film, 32.
László Moholy-Nagy: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum (Malibu, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1995), 10.
Moholy-Nagy, Painting, Photography, Film, 21.
László Moholy-Nagy, “A New Instrument of Vision,” in Moholy-Nagy, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (London: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 1974), 50. Originally written in 1932 and published in Telehor (Brno, 1936).
As reproduced in William Henry Fox Talbot, The Pencil of Nature, first issued in six parts from 1844–1846.
Susan Laxton, “Moholy’s Doubt,” in Photography and Doubt, eds. Sabine T. Kriebel and Andrés Mario Zervigón (London: Routledge, 2017), 146.
Donna West Brett is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Art History at the University of Sydney.
(Excerpt from László Moholy-Nagy: Adventures in Light, Space and Time, in Deborah Ascher Barnstone and Maria Makela eds. Material Modernity: Innovations in Art, Design, and Architecture in the Weimar Republic (Bloomsbury, 2022).