The theme of disturbing the universe of expectations was evident in the photographs of László Moholy-Nagy, which expressed the same New Vision. If Moholy-Nagy redefined photography he did so from the inside out. The Eiffel Tower the pinnacle and the predictor of modern urban existence—raw and unfaced, without façade, unclad—was best-known from afar. While most photographers preferred to photograph the structure so that it could be recognized, Moholy-Nagy reduced the feat of engineering to a black and white weave of girders, ranging from dense to open but never identifiable. And this is the perversity of Moholy-Nagy. He removed the sense of place that was once the prime directive of a photograph—to record and to mark a site, to record an environment. Often the photographer would climb high and peer down with his camera, finding an obscure angle, which was disorienting and snapping the shudder.
A nameless piece of streetscape would be reduced to a fragment which was now a design that was abstract, except for details that humanized the photograph. Or he would remain grounded and point the instrument skyward as he did viewing the famous cantilevered balconies of the Bauhaus. At the pinnacle of the rising layers of balconies is the fragment of a human being peering down as Moholy-Nagy points up and the young man and the camera fix their eyes upon each other and the shutter closes. The swooping and swooning vision is purely that of the camera, the human eye tends to compress what it sees. In 1928, the artist left the Bauhaus, following Walter Gropius to another phase of his professional life. In Berlin, he separated from his wife and published a new Bauhaus book, New Vision. From Material to Architecture, in 1929. That same year, Moholy-Nagy exhibited in the famous Film und Foto, an international exhibition in Stuttgart, the show that could make it plain to Europe that New Photography had arrived. He was asked to organize the first room that would provide a history of photography so the viewers could contrast the old vision with the new. With his access as a curator to the content, the artist gathered together some ninety-seven of his own work—we do not know which images he selected—for the fifth room.
The photographs of Moholy-Nagy were exercises in design by camera, subverting the straight-forward Renaissance+fixated images of the nineteenth century. New Vision is camera vision but what is selected were a series of fragments that could exist only in a modern city of steel and concert and iron and hard unnatural surfaces, punctuated by the occasional person, reduced to an element of an abstract web of lines and shapes. He predicted that “a knowledge of photography is just as important as that of the alphabet. The illiterates of the future will be ignorant of the use of the camera and pen alike.” What he meant was that in a machine age, only those who used machines and understood how machines worked could understand modern life.
The 1929 exhibition in Stuttgart in the summer months, just before October brought the Depression and everything came crashing down, was a display of over a thousand works by hundreds of photographers and filmmakers. Sponsored by the Deutscher Werkbund, the Film und Foto, or “FiFo” for short, exhibition toured to Berlin, and Zurich and Vienna, featuring American and Soviet photography, and by 1931, it had made its way to Tokyo. What was remarkable about the exhibition was its expansive vision, incorporating the newly discovered work of Eugène Atget and the anti-photographic montages of the Dada artists, the proto-Surrealist works of the American Man Ray, the father and son team of Edward and Brett Weston, the calm seriousness of Albert Renger-Patzsch and the always diagonals of El Lissitzky, combined with the definitive editing of Sergei Eisenstein and the humor of Charlie Chaplin.
But the philosophy of photography in Europe was quite different from those photographers in America and Germany who photographed the machines themselves in a direct fashion, called “Straight Photography” in New York and “New Objectivity” in Germany. Although photography of the 1920s, introduced in 1929 in Stuttgart, was later lumped into the catch all category of “new vision,” the New Vision of László Moholy-Nagy was not the only interpretation of photography in the modern age. As shall be discussed in the next chapter, other photographers had other ideas of what New Vision meant.
Today the landmark exhibition of Film und Foto is remembered and re-experienced through two important books, each displaying revolutionary new book design layouts. Es kommt der neue Fotograf—Here comes the New Photographer—by Werner Gräff. For the photographers, used to more traditional formats, this book was an instruction manual, a show and tell, with images exemplifying unusual perspectives or camera tilts, but its most unusual aspect was the “tell” aspect. Once again, the inverse of the image-text ratio was present, with sentences being drawn out across numerous images. In chapter three some thirteen images intervene with the end of the sentence. As radical as it sounds to have segments of a sentence jumping from photograph to photograph, this visual structure is actually very much in line with German syntax in which a sentence is normally packed with parenthetical phrases and can literally go on for pages, without an image intervening, before reading the end, which in German is the verb.
The photographs were given a new role, that of narration in which they “spoke” as it were as eloquently as the written words themselves. In keeping with the theme of the exhibition and with the catalog, there is a general agreement in both books for Film und Foto that the camera has provided a new way of seeing the world, but there is also a demonstration of the advancing technologies of photography which, with the new cameras, could perform visual wonders undreamed of by that old veteran Atget.
The comprehensive catalogue, Foto Auge, with an essay by Franz Roh and the layout designed by Jan Tschichold, contained seventy-six photographs of the period. This catalog was the first serious attempt to given an account of New Vision photography and shows what would be the last of an international exchange among artists of many nations. These books, especially that by Graff, were tremendously successful because the reader could literally see and experience what the writers were explaining. From the early 1920s on, the German press had become an illustrated news medium and had developed a visual vocabulary of photo essays. The news photographer would be more straightforward in the way the camera was used, but, by the time Foto Auge consolidated “new photography” by creating an international exhibition to explain the avant-garde, the way of seeing—that is the modern vision—had become familiar.
New Vision, therefore, can be broken down into a variety of aspects. On one hand, there are the radical takes on photography, coming from cutting edge artists such as El Lissitzky, the Russian photographer and László Moholy-Nagy, who all experimented with new ways of taking a photograph, using a camera and of manipulating the photograph itself. On the other hand, there was the New Vision trained in urban settings where looking was characterized by the fleeting glance, inspiring magazines, newspapers and books which fed the new “image world” of mass media. The Weimar years are usually linked the term “New Objectivity” and, here again there is a need to make more distinctions. There is the “new objectivity” in the mechanical vision or the camera itself that allows the inclusion of unexpected vantage points and there is the new objectivity in which the photographer used the camera to examine and capture a simple truth, without any aesthetic purpose in mind.
The America photographers, in contrast, coming from a different culture, did not have the need, as in Germany, to find the truth, were romantic in their approach, emphasizing beauty, something outmoded in Germany. In investigating the possibilities of New Objectivity, the German photographers began to act on their own, becoming curators of their own exhibitions of their photographs, now presented in books. On the pages of a book, the photographer was in control of the layout, the placement of the image on the page and the arrangement of each image, As an element of New Vision photography, the book of photographs came of age in Weimar Germany. These books are still resonant today: Eric Mendelsohn’s account of his visit to that most modern of nations, the United States, America: An Architect’s Picture Book, and Albert Renger-Patzsch who, three years later in 1928 published The World is Beautiful, followed a year later by a topological investigation of the German people, broken down into types by August Sander. In 1929, another landmark publication appeared, Karl Blossfeld’s, Art Forms in Nature and his second less famous book, The Wonder Garden of Nature, appeared in 1932, the year he died.