January 28, 2010

Photographs from the Institute of Design

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, 1940, Untitled, gelatin silver print (photogram), 20 x 16 inches

In 1937, Laslo Moholy-Nagy, an important member of the Bauhaus founded a school in Chicago which he called the New Bauhaus and would utilize the same educational model as the original. It soon became the School of Design and then the Institute of Design. The reason I am writing this post on the school is that it was a center of important and innovative photography during the middle years of the 20th century, much of which has influenced the way I use a camera to frame the world. The images in this post were taken from the terrific catalogue Taken by Design: Photographs from the Institute of Design, 1937-1971.

In Moholy-Nagy's photograms, light is the main actor, playing over objects brilliant or almost hidden, a poetry of shape and shadow achieved by the simplest means: things placed on light sensitive paper. It is this exploration of the abstract qualities of the photographic medium, rather than its storytelling capacity, that interests me.

Harry Callahan, Untitled (Lakefront Fence), 1947, gelatin silver print, 11 x 10.5 inches

Callahan used stark contrast to alter his image from being a purely perceptual experience to a timeless one. His photographs of nature, in their stark simplicity, become Nature, almost as a Platonic ideal.

Aaron Siskind, North Carolina, 1951, gelatin silver print, 13.4 x 9.3 inches

Walls, with torn papers and scrawled words and irregular surfaces, were a rich subject for Siskind, and seem an equivalent in photography for abstract expressionist painting, but here the artist is seeking and finding, in the actual physical world, a way of seeing that transforms the ordinarily overlooked, the scribbles and leftovers, into something surprising and beautiful.

Frank Levstik, Jr., Untitled (Bed Springs), 1945/6, gelatin silver print, 7.5 x 7.3 inches
Utility Shack Door, 1940, gelatin silver print, 6.4 x 6.1 inches

The corkscrew springs jostle against their serious straight neighbors in Levstik's image of lines in space. This fanciful "drawing" is light as the door is dense and solid, with broken geometry held together by a hasp.

Arthur Siegel, Headlight, 1953, dye imbibition print, 10 x 8 inches

This photograph, one of the few in color in this catalogue, is one of my favorites. There's a strong emotional tug in that covered headlight, as though it was a blind eye, battered and bandaged. We are presented with a fact: the blue metal, shiny, rusted, with curves and details; the rag, stained and torn, a taut round with ends flopping; all so perfectly balanced as to make them new.

Art Sinsabaugh, Midwest Landscape #34, 1961, gelatin silver print, 3 x 19 inches
Midwest Landscape #15, 1961, gelatin silver print, 4.4 x 19.25 inches
Midwest Landscape #4, 1961, gelatin silver print, 4.5 x 19 inches

Art Sinsabaugh's Midwest landscapes are different from the others in this post, in their sweep and distance (and I apologize for the poor quality of the reproductions; they are printed across a double page in the catalogue and I found it very hard to photograph them well, but please click on the image to see the enlargement). As a former landscape painter, I especially appreciate the brilliant use of the long format: the masses of dark trees as irregular punctuations alongside the white geometry of church and steeple; the long march of squat cylinders halted by the tall light elevator building; the endless crop rows moving from soft illegibility to clarity then back to the dark. Portraits of a landscape, straightforward and clear, and as in all this work, the discovery of extraordinary beauty in commonplace things, a lesson in paying attention.


  1. Another smart post, so much information that I will have to return to take in some more. I drink from your well and am grateful.

  2. it's a pleasure to look at these, thanks for sharing them.

  3. I'm happy to know you both like this post. Thanks for the comments.

  4. Like old home week: thanks! Looking at the light & shadow and form in good photography has been so helpful in designing gardens. A friend who used to be the primary photographer at the Chicago Botanic Gardens studied with Art Sinsabaugh. His name is William Biderbost and his website is : www.biderbostphotos.net/

  5. I wouldn't have connected photography with garden design, so thanks for that insight, Julie, also for the link (which is photo, not photos for anyone else trying to find it).

  6. Thanks Altoon for sharing these wonderful images, and thanks Julie for the link.

  7. I think the Arthur Siegel photo could be an
    Altoon painting. Why not?