László Moholy-Nagy’s “Photography Unparalleled” (1927)
Translated from the German by David Britt. From Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of
Central European Avant-Gardes, 1910-1930. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 2002).
• • •
To date, all explanations of the means and ends of photography have been on the wrong track. Of all the plentiful topics available for consideration, the one chosen has invariably been that of the relationship between photography and art.
However, the fact of photography is not properly evaluated if it is classified either as a technique of notation of reality, or as an aid to scientific research, or as a means of capturing ephemeral events, or as the basis of reproduction processes, or as an “art.” The photographic process is unparalleled by any earlier optical means of expression. It is also unparalleled in its results. In those cases where it relies on its own inherent potential, the infinitely subtle gradations of light and shade that shape the phenomenon of light into an almost immaterial-seeming radiance would in themselves be enough to create a new art of seeing, an art of optical effect.
But there is infinitely more to the photographic process than this.
The prime task of present-day photography is to find a suitable technique based on the inherent laws of the medium. A relatively precise language of photography needs first to be evolved before genuine talent can succeed in elevating it into an “art.” the first precondition for this is: no reliance on traditional modes of representation! Photography has no need of that! No painting, past or present, is a match for the unique effects that photography makes possible. Why the “painterly” analogies? Why Rembrandt — or Picasso — imitations?
Without undue utopian enthusiasm, we can safely say that the immediate future will bring a major reevaluation of the objectives of photography. Exploration is already in progress, albeit often along separate lines:
a) conscious exploitation of chiaroscuro relationships (quantity);
b) light as active, dark as passive (quality);
c) use of the textures and structures (facture) of different materials;
d) reversals: positive-negative;
e) unknown forms of representation;
f) introduction of strong contrasts of form, position, direction, and motion.
The areas to be explored may be defined in terms of discrete elements within the photographic process:
1) unfamiliar views obtained by tilting the camera and by directing it vertically up and down;
2) experiments with a variety of lens systems: a technique that alters the proportions suggested by prior experience, and on occasion distorts them to the point of “unrecognizability” (concave and convex mirrors, shots of distorting mirrors, etc., were the first steps in this direction). This gives rise to the paradox of the mechanical imagination;
3) encirclement of the object (a continuation of stereoscope images on a single plate);
4) new kinds of camera designed to eliminate perspective;
5) incorporation of the lessons of x-ray photography, as applied to penetration and absence of perspective;
6) camera-less photographs taken by exposing the sensitive coating;
7) true sensitivity to color.
One day, only the work that combines all frames of reference, the synthesis of all these elements, will be recognized as true photography.
The evolution of photography receives a powerful impulse from the culture of tight that is so much cultivated in so many places today.
This is the century of light. Photography is the first form of the formal design of light, albeit in a transposed and — perhaps for that very reason — almost abstract form.
Film goes even farther in this direction — just as it can be said in general that photography culminates in film. In film, the exploration of a new optical dimension is carried to a higher power.
Shifting intensities and tempi of light. Variations of movement in space through light. Through light the whole mobile organism darkens and blazes out again. Release of the latent functional charge within our organism, our brain. Tangible light. Light motion. Light near and far. Penetrative and cumulative radiance: the strongest optical experiences available to man.
The groundwork done in still photography is indispensable to the evolution of cinema. A remarkable reciprocity: the master takes lessons from his apprentice. A reciprocal laboratory: photography as a field of experimentation for film, and film as a stimulus to photography.
[Originally published as “Die beispiellose Fotografie,” in internationale revue i-10 No. 3 (1927)]