László Moholy-Nagy returned to one of the first manifestations of “writing with light” in his “photograms,” a term he coined, in which chemicals and light interact upon a support. The result of the strange ghost like prints captured and frozen by light was what he termed, “a bridge leading to a new visual creation for which canvas, paintbrush, and pigment cannot serve.” Then he could go to the other extreme, raiding mass media for quotidian sources of banal imagery which could be extracted from their context and montaged into a new environment that, according to the artist, “compressed interpenetration of visual and verbal wit; weird combinations of the most realistic, imitative means which pass into imaginary spheres.” But it was also possible to pick up a camera and fill it with film and go forth into the world and use the ability of the mechanical means to aim the lens at places the eye would seldom wander and quote the notes recorded by this “New Vision.”
Practicing photography at the Bauhaus, where Moholy-Nagy taught after 1923, came naturally out of the interest of the students and the teacher himself who continued his study of photography, now with a camera and film. His wife Lucia, the famed photographer of the Bauhaus building and its students, taught him traditional darkroom techniques. The joint venture between the married couple, their earlier work on the exploration of the interaction between what he termed, “Production-Reproduction,” was translated into the making of a photograph that was not a reproduction but a production in its own right.
This 1922 article published in De Stijl journal made the case that the camera did not have to limit itself to the handmaiden role of merely replicating reality. In fact, the photographer could “produce new, unfamiliar relationships” between the camera’s vision and the facts of the world, juxtapositions the human eye overlooked. The result was what Moholy-Nagy called “New Vision” or Neues Sehen or Neue Optik. This New Vision was a mechanical vision or the camera’s way of seeing and Moholy-Nagy was one of the post-war advocates, who insisted that a photographic image should not be compared to a drawing or a traditional print. This insistence upon seeing in a new way also comes out of the new urban experience of being bombarded with sights and sounds surrounding the city dweller on all sides, assaulting her simultaneously. In such a world, the inhabitant must pay attention, so to speak, with a different and more selective mode of alertness. One could no longer gaze—there was no time for calm contemplation—one needed to glance and look quickly, perhaps seeing in bits and pieces, ignoring the whole for the necessary details.
New Vision photography then can be understood as a metaphor for the vision of modernity itself. This modern photography was based upon an insistence on not seeing and on re-seeing the world from new perspectives that renounced old points of view. The goal was to forego the “belly button shot” or aiming at the middle and carefully framing the object of attention in the manner of a composition of a painting. But what could a camera do?
Well, a camera could create an entirely new design by pointing up and aiming high or by climbing high and pointing low or the camera’s quick eye could randomly capture a stray detail and rip it out of context. The ultimate objective of New Vision photography is a defamiliarization of seeing and looking and of transforming an expected composition into an unexpected abstract design. In his essay, “Photography is Design with Light,” Moholy-Nagy imagined that in the future the “illiterate” person would be not the one who cannot read books but the one who cannot read images. The chaotic situation in Weimar Germany was both destabilized and augmented by what was becoming an image world with photography as the main mode of communication from art to mass media. In this era of experimentation that would soon be snuffed out, Moholy-Nagy asserted that the Eiffel Tower should be re-viewed as a sculpture and he photographed it from the ground, craning upward at what he considered to be a perforated form.
When he left the Bauhaus in 1928 to start his own business as a graphic designer, he photographed the Berlin Radio Tower from the top down. Over and over, Moholy-Nagy used the camera’s ability to frame and crop and he tilted the box, setting it against the existing geometric lines of the city to destabilize the perspective. In 1923, the new artist wrote an essay, “The New Typography:”
“Typography is a tool of communication. It must be communication in its most intense form. The emphasis must be on absolute clarity since this distinguishes the character of our own writing from that of ancient pictographic forms. Our intellectual relationship to the world is individual-exact (e.g., this individual- exact relationship is in a state of transition toward a collective-exact orientation). This is in contrast to the ancient individual-amorphous and later collective-amorphous mode of communication. Therefore priority: unequivocal clarity in all typographical compositions. Legibility-communication must never be impaired by an a priori esthetics. Letters may never be forced into a preconceived framework, for instance a square.
The printed image corresponds to the contents through its specific optical and psychological laws, demanding their typical form. The essence and the purpose of printing demand an uninhibited use of all linear directions (therefore not only horizontal articulation). We use all typefaces, type sizes, geometric forms, colors, etc. We want to create a new language of typography whose elasticity, variability; and freshness of typographical composition is exclusively dictated by the inner law of expression and the optical effect.
The most important aspect of contemporary typography is the use of zincographic techniques, meaning the mechanical production of photoprints in all sizes. What the Egyptians started in their inexact hieroglyphs whose interpretation rested on tradition and personal imagination, has become
the most precise expression through the inclusion of photography into the typographic method. Already today we have books (mostly scientific ones) with precise photographic reproductions; but these photographs are only secondary explanations of the text. The latest development supersedes this phase, and small or large photos are placed in the text where formerly we used inexact, individually interpreted concepts and expressions. The objectivity of photography liberates the receptive reader from the crutches of the author’s personal idiosyncrasies and forces him into the formation of his own opinion.
It is safe to predict that this increasing documentation through photography will lead in the near future to a replacement of literature by lm. The indications of this development are apparent already in the increased use of the telephone which makes letter writing obsolete. It is no valid objection that the production of films demands too intricate and costly an apparatus. Soon the making of a lm will be as simple and available as now printing books.
An equally decisive change in the typographical image will occur in the making of posters, as soon as photography has replaced poster painting. The effective poster must act with immediate impact on all psychological receptacles. Through an expert use of the camera, and of all photographic techniques, such as retouching, blocking, superimposition, distortion, enlargement, etc., in combination with the liberated typographical line, the effectiveness of posters can be immensely enlarged.
The new poster relies on photography, which is the new storytelling device of civilization, combined with the shock effect of new typefaces and brilliant color effects, depending on the desired intensity of the message.
The new typography is a simultaneous experience of vision and communication.”