The experiments of Moholy-Nagy encompassed what he termed an “entire field of optical expression,” combining painting, which was traditional, photography which was industrial, and film, which was characterized by moving images. In one of the early books, Painting, Photography and Film of 1925, that examined the origins of optical expression as the expansion of means and media through mechanical instruments, he listed and illustrated an expanded “list” if you will of viewpoints and perspectives the camera could take. In other words, Moholy-Nagy was redesigning, not just the practice of photography but also the composition of the image itself. There was the oblique view, the displaced perspective, the composite or montaged image, and the mobile or successive image, or filmic.
If Renaissance perspective required the viewer to stand in one place for a frozen moment in time and to gaze, with unswerving fixed vision upon one point on a horizon line, then modern vision or new vision was always on the move. But this mobility changed spatial relationships, creating extremes—from very high and far to very close and detailed. Renaissance vision was both fixed and expansive, capturing the peripheral edges, falsifying the capacities of human vision. The camera also exceeded an individual’s capacity to see but the New Vision was definitionally modern, based upon transparency or the progression from the material to light. Even painting could be subsumed under New Vision because Moholy-Nagy reduced it to a material that held hues only because of the act of light. He conceptually dissolved the structure of architecture and see not the enclosure but what was enclosed, space itself. Sculpture is not thickness or mass, instead it is a concept, a volume. He understood design from its interior, turning the idea of making an object into thinking of its necessary internal properties. Design for Moholy-Nagy was a process of reversals.
Painting, Photography and Film of 1925 by László Moholy-Nagy was one the famous series of books published by the Bauhaus. The series of fourteen publications was collectively known as the Baushausbücher. But “books” was a difficult word to apply to the book by Moholy-Nagy if one defined book as a text dominated tome thickened by identical pages. At this time, in the traditional book, the illustrations were secondary to the words. Moholy-Nagy changed this relationship between the dominate and the subservient and, like his photographic work, upended the expected norms.
The 1920s, particularly in Germany, there was what was called “photo-inflation,” or the omnipresent deluge of photographic images in newspapers and magazines. It was Germany that pioneered the idea of the photo-essay and new layout design found in magazines, however, it is important to note that the mass media magazine design changed during the same years Moholy-Nagy reinvented book design and, of equal importance, is the development of new cameras, the Ermanox and the Leica with fast lens, which made photography by ambient light possible. It is no accident that the pre-existing pictorial magazine in Germany was modernized by a former filmmaker, Stefan Lorant who took over one Das Magazin and from 1924 to 1925 transformed its visual editing or the layout and design. Lorant increased the size and proportion of photographs in relation to text and made the reader think in pictures rather than with words.
When his “book” came out, the layout of Moholy-Nagy caused confusion—what was this a book or a magazine? The design of the pages could be compared to a painting by Mondrian, and of course, the artist was very familiar with De Stijl painting. Like a hive, the black grid creates separate combs for each image and reserves blank spaces to contrast to the segments devoted to text. The result of this new approach to the book is not the photo-essay of the magazine but a more balanced equilibrium between word and image, between occupied and unoccupied space. The artist himself called the publication a “brochure” and priced it so that it was affordable and not an artist’s book or an object of luxury. This revolution in design refused to settle into a given mode and, like the illustrated news, mimicked the modernity of vision and stressed the shortened attention span of the hurried city dweller. The reader jumps from block to block, turns the page and keeps leaping rapidly from the image to text. The contemplation of quiet reading and the gaze of the appreciative art lover is disrupted. In 1925 the artist wrote, “Typophoto,” about the modern book and the new design and typography:
“Neither curiosity nor economic considerations alone but a deep human interest in what happens in the world has brought about the enormous expansion of the news service: typography, the lm, and the radio.
The creative work of the artist, the scientist’s experiments, the calculations of the businessman or the present-day politician, all that moves, all that shapes, is bound up in the collectivity of interacting events. The individual’s immediate action of the moment always has the effect of simultaneity in the long term. The technician has his machine at hand: satisfaction of the needs of the moment. But basically much more: he is the pioneer of the new social stratification, he paves the way for the future.
The printer’s work, for example, to which we still pay too little attention, has just such a long-term effect: international understanding and its consequences.
The printer’s work is part of the foundation on which the new world will be built. Concentrated work of organization is the spiritual result that brings all elements of human creativity into a synthesis: the play instinct, sympathy, inventions, economic necessities. One man invents printing with movable type, another photography, a third screen printing and stereotype, the next electrotype, phototype, the celluloid plate hardened by light. Men still kill one another, they have not yet understood how they live, why they live; politicians fail to observe that the earth is an entity, yet television (Telehor) has been invented: the “Far Seer”—tomorrow we shall be able to look into the heart of our fellow man, be everywhere and yet be alone; illustrated books, newspapers, magazines are printed—in millions. The unambiguousness of the real, the truth in the everyday situation, is there for all classes. The hygiene of the optical, the health of the visible is slowly filtering through.
What is typophoto? Typography is communication composed in type. Photography is the visual presentation of what can be optically apprehended. Typophoto is the visually most exact rendering of communication.
Every period has its own optical focus. Our age: that of the lm; the electric sign, simultaneity of sensorially perceptible events. It has given us a new, progressively developing creative basis for typography, too. Gutenberg’s typography, which has endured almost to our own day, moves exclusively in the linear dimension. The intervention of the photographic process has extended it to a new dimensionality, recognized today as total. The preliminary work in this field was done by the illustrated papers, posters, and by display printing.
Until recently typeface and typesetting rigidly preserved a technique that admittedly guaranteed the purity of the linear effect but ignored the new dimensions of life. Only quite recently has there been typographic work that uses the contrasts of typographic material (letters, signs, positive and negative values of the plane) in an attempt to establish a correspondence with modern life. These efforts have, however, done little to relax the in flexibility that has hitherto existed in typographic practice. An effective loosening up can be achieved only by the most sweeping and all-embracing use of the techniques of photography, zincography, the electrotype, etc. The flexibility and elasticity of these techniques bring with them a new reciprocity between economy and beauty. With the development of phototelegraphy, which enables reproductions and accurate illustrations to be made instantaneously, even philosophical works will presumably use the same means—though on a higher plane—as the present-day American magazines. The form of these new typographic works will, of course, be quite different typographically, optically, and synoptically from the linear typography of today.
Linear typography communicating ideas is merely a mediating makeshift link between the content of the communication and the person receiving it:
COMMUNICATION ← TYPOGRAPHY → PERSON
Instead of using typography—as hitherto—merely as an objective means,
the attempt is now being made to incorporate it and the potential effects of its subjective existence creatively into the contents.
The typographical materials themselves contain strongly optical tangibilities by means of which they can render the content of the communication in
a directly visible—not only in an indirectly intellectual—fashion. Photography is highly effective when used as typographical material. It may appear as illustration beside the words, or in the form of “phototext” in place of words,
as a precise form of representation so objective as to permit of no individual interpretation. The form, the rendering, is constructed out of the optical and associative relationships: into a visual, associative, conceptual, synthetic continuity: into the typophoto as an unambiguous rendering in an optically valid form.
The typophoto governs the new tempo of the new visual literature.
In the future every printing press will possess its own block-making plant, and it can be confidently stated that the future of typographic methods lies with the photomechanical processes. The invention of the photographic typesetting machine, the possibility of printing whole editions with X-ray radiography, the new cheap techniques of block making, etc., indicate the trend to which every typographer or typophotographer must adapt himself as soon as possible.
This mode of modern synoptic communication may be broadly pursued on another plane by means of the kinetic process, the film. “