Unreal Nature

May 1, 2010


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:02 am

Photogram No. 1 – The Mirror by László Moholy-Nagy; circa 1928 print from a 1922-23 photogram
Gelatin silver print; 63.8 x 92.1 cm

This is taken from a discussion about László Moholy-Nagy in the book In Focus: László Moholy-Nagy: Photographs from the J.Paul Getty Museum (1995):

Katherine Ware [KW]: Let’s turn our attention to one of the photograms, Photogram No.1-The Mirror. We think the photogram was made in 1922-23 and that this print was made from it around 1928.

Charles Hagan [CH]: This is really an extraordinary object. It’s very large. How was it made?

Weston Naef [WN]: In their 1922 article, “Produktion-Reproduktion,” Moholy and Lucia described how they made the first photograms by creating images on film without a camera by using a mirror or lens devices. It seems to me that this method was used to make this picture, because it is a positive rather than a negative. The process would have been quite different from Man Ray’s photograms from the same period.

From looking at the print we can guess that it was created as a negative on a transparent base, because of the white background. If it were created in any other way, it would have a dark background. But if a photogram, a cameraless picture, were made on a transparent base and then put into an enlarger and projected to get it to its present size, all of the tones would be reversed, with the whites becoming blacks and the blacks white.

Thomas Barrow [TB]: It’s an extraordinary image. It’s really one of the great Moholys. The scale has something to do with it. It is the largest one I have ever seen. It also says on the back “Mirror,” so that reinforces Weston’s comment.

Having made a lot of photograms in my career, I have found that it is very difficult to work on film. I think it was probably made on paper and was a negative photogram that wa then placed face to face with another piece of photo paper and exposed again to make a positive. I think it was then photographed and the enlargement made from the negative. The middle tone in the circle has stayed very sharp, but on the right side there is softening which makes me think it’s from a copy negative.

WN: What are the original objects that created these shadows? They seem to be cut paper. These are not the sort of objects taken from real life that Man Ray was using. These elements are so dematerialized that we can’t imagine that this is a bowl sitting on a piece of paper.

TB: Let’s think about the difference between Moholy’s work and Man Ray’s. Man Ray, although he said he did not like being called a Surrealist, did use objects in a surreal way. He always wanted the objects defined. But Moholy was, as he said, sculpting or painting with light.

Jeannine Fiedler [JF]: I think that with his photograms Man Ray wanted to create mysterious glowing objects, a world of enigmatic objects. And that’s completely contrary to what Moholy wanted to achieve. He worked with cutout paper templates, little strips of board or paper, and he used very cheap photo paper for his photograms, which Lucia called Auskoperpapier (printing-out paper). It was very thin and had a brown tone.

WN: Is it possible that he created a negative photogram on this very thin paper, then printed the negative in contact with another sheet of paper? This is such a good picture that if they had a negative of it, why wouldn’t they make another print? this is the only surviving example.

JF: The inscription on the back of this print suggests that they made it for an exhibition, possibly Film und Foto in Stuttgart in 1929.

WN: But of all the other people who made photograms, only Christian Schad persistently created unique objects. Man Ray rephotographed his photograms, and they exist in multiple copies. Here is Moholy’s greatest early work! If he used a negative to create it, it seems highly improbable that he owuld not have made another print at some point!

KW: But I don’t thnk he was interested in repeating himself. Once the experiment was finished, he moved on to the next one.

Leland Rice [LR]: When Moholy did these photograms, he did many, many variations.

JF: It’s kind of misleading that this is called Photogram No. 1. It could mean that this is the first photogram for an exhibition.

KW: Right. There are variation on this photogram that were reproduced in European avant-garde journals. It may be “number one” of the variants.

LR: When your’e in the midst of discovering how you want to make a series of photograms, using objects that transmit light, you would rarely ever do just one and say, that’s the one. Particularly Moholy. I think his work procedure was to discover through the process of the activity of making numerous photograms, moving the elements around, pieces of paper. I have seen at least four variations on this same series of motifs. I think this particular image is unique, but enlargements of other images do exist.

JF: He used a positive version of this in Chicago for a Christmas card.

TB: I never have understood what they meant by a mirror. How would you use a mirror in this photogram?

JF: Maybe Lucia was mixing up the form, the shape of the mirror, and she didn’t really mean the reflections.

LR: I would suggest that if the elliptical shape is not a mirror, it is a glass element. As you know, Moholy was extremely interested in objects that would transmit light. That’s what his paintings were moving toward, as well as his photograms. What about the possibility that in this image the light is not coming fromoverhead but rather is being projected through glass objects of some sort, standing on edge, and that the light in this global area, which is of different gradations, is coming from the side?

TB: Well, I think the light comes from more than one source. In many photograms Moholy used glass objects. If you use a raking light, the refractions of the glass will print.

JF: But the forms are not like the clear-cut shapes you have in this photogram. I don’t think he used glass. It wouldn’t give the right form.

CH: In the article “A New Instrument of Vison,” from 1932, published inEnglish in 1936, Moholy calls the photogram “the real key to photography,” and says it’s “the most completely dematerialized medium which the new vision commands.” I think that’s a crucial point: it’s not about something physical, it’s about light. Whether it’s through glass or through an object or through cut paper is almost irrelevant. The light is crucial to him.

Moholy-Nagy’s work was by no means limited to photograms. He did many things in many different mediums. Below is one of his portraits, and below that are thumbs (click to enlarge) of two other photograms:

László Moholy-Nagy; Portrait of Lucia Moholy, c. 1926-29



1 Comment

  1. Wonderful to open a post and see those images; thank you.

    And the discussion in text is icing on the cake.

    I think the loss of photograms as part of every photographer’s experience is one of the real tragedies of the technological shift of photography away from wet silver to digital. I’m not knocking digital; just noting that with every leap forward something is also lost, and in the case of photography the photogram is one of them.

    – – – – –

    As a separate note … when I opened your post and saw LM-N’s The mirror, my initial first fraction of a second subconscious response was to think I was seeing Meret Oppenheim’s fur tea cup … this no doubt says more about me than about LM-N…

    Comment by Felix — May 2, 2010 @ 2:33 am

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