What Would Laszlo Moholy-Nagy Do?

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A little while ago, I saw a review on Amazon.com, of a photobook no less, where someone had given the book three stars with the comment added “It was not exactly what I thought it would be.” In other words, someone had rated their own expectations, instead of the product in question.

I then realized that my own reaction to MoMA’s Ocean of Images was following along the same lines (watch the video only after having consumed a few cups of strong coffee first — otherwise, it’ll put you to sleep): instead of judging what was being presented, I was judging what I thought, well expected the museum’s curator to offer, to a large extent based on their department’s history. Really, my bad. Somehow, for reasons that I don’t want to publicly speculate about, they can’t or won’t do any better. Who am I to criticize that?

A few days later, after I had also criticized a show on view at the Guggenheim, a minor discussion ensued on Twitter, with Aperture’s Lesley Martin stepping in to defend these exhibitions. There was a little back and forth — again, part of it were my expectations, because my idea of “critical” seems to be different than other people’s. Ultimately, she asked “What we know as photography is always driven/disrupted by technology; why should now be any different? That’s the critical topic.”

A little aside: as I writer I try to be cognizant of what words mean and how they are being used. I can’t and won’t use the words “disrupt” or “disruption” because of the way it is employed by neo-liberal technology CEOs like Travis Kalanick. I personally refuse to adopt this kind of thinking in the arts. That’s just me.

But that aside, we all know that technologyy is playing a major role in the development of photography, and it always has. I’d be the last person to deny that (in part, because large parts of my previous career had direct;y or indirectly to do with that). Whether that fairly basic truism is a good basis for an exhibition in the photography department at the country’s most important museums is debatable. I think I could make a good point for that.

However, I would expect… Well, there we go again, my expectations. But I want to go there, because I think it’s only fair for me to finally spell out what irks me here. So I expect such exhibitions to not only put the bar somewhere high up, but also to cross it. In other words, an exhibition around changes brought to photography by technology, or around artists reacting to the plethora of photographs that now permeate essentially all parts of our daily lives, needs to acknowledge not just artists’ reactions. It also has to be critically cognizant of what’s going on in that vast part of photography outside of the artist’s studios (and curator’s offices). That is the bar to cross.

Two or three years ago, I found a Tumblr page, which unfortunately I have been unable to re-locate, despite spending considerable time on it (it might have been taken down). In it, a young woman spoke somewhat briefly about the condition from which she was suffering, making her pull out her own hair. She then proceeded to shave her own head, having asked a photographer friend to document it. I remember there being not too many words, and two or three photographs. But at the time, it was one of the most profoundly moving and touching experiences of looking at photographs for me.

The photographs made on this particular occasion clearly had a major role in the process, a large part of which was not just the young woman shaving her head, but sharing the process, using photographs and a popular website as tools. It’s very obvious how that act was clearly one of those changes brought about by new technologies.

To spell this out very clearly, because this is where my approach to the topic is coming from: this is the kind of photography, the kind of engagement with the medium, that non-artists and non-photographers have these days.  For me, any artist interested in “interrogating the medium” (add any of the other commonly used art phrases here) will have to take this young woman’s performance as a benchmark (I do in no way mean to demean or belittle the young woman’s actions by referring to it as performance art — quite on the contrary).

In other words, in a day and age where ordinary people, people who don’t view themselves as artists or photographers, use this particular medium in ways like that young woman, the bar for those of us who do view themselves as artists or photographers lies pretty damn high. Pushing a bunch of pixels around on the computer screen or creating an ironic still life in your studio doesn’t really quite cut it any longer to cross that bar. So that’s my first major problem here.

Actually, part of the reason why I’m so baffled by the constant claims of there being “too many photographs” in the world originates from me almost constantly finding images like the young woman’s: while there obviously is a lot of garbage around (online and, let’s face it, in commercial galleries, and museums), the treasures one can find are mind blowing. Often, what is at stake for their makers is frightening, and the kind of drama that some people are willing to face using pictures is astounding (the latter part really is not talking about art photography, just in case you were wondering).

As I have made clear repeatedly, I’m really not the biggest fan of the New Formalism craze. I just outlined a large part of the reasons for that. Photography has become a social medium. To basically cut off the social aspect and to see what you can get with the medium if you don’t leave your studio strikes me as… OK. OK as in “it’s an OK exercise.” But the claims made around it seem to be completely oblivious of what else is happening in the larger world of photography.

There is another aspect. The one thing I will always remember New Formalism for is that it made me engage very deeply with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. I had been more or less aware of this particular artist’s work, but I had never spent much time with it. I had known of the photographs, photograms, and montages (I have always been quite enamoured with the latter). But I had never looked at these images as anything other than ends, instead of as means towards an end.

With Moholy-Nagy, it is not that hard to find the artist’s intentions and ideas. So I set out to look for them. Eventually, I bought a paperback copy of Painting, Photography, Film, which, contrary to what I had expected, wasn’t that expensive at all (the book’s first version was published in 1925).

The first thing that struck me about the book (and most of what I found) was Moholy-Nagy’s optimism. Arguing essentially along similar, yet not the exact same lines that we hear about so much today, Moholy-Nagy was incredibly excited about photography’s potential, provided it was used properly. In the chapter on photography, he starts out saying that “nothing essentially new has been discovered in the principle and technique of photography since the process was invented.” (p. 27) That’s at odds with how people talk about photography today, in light of digital technologies.

But Moholy-Nagy then lays out how the medium’s future is bright, given that “often, however, it is a long time before the innovation is properly utilized.” (p. 27) Describing some of what he considers “proper” utilization, he then arrives at proclaiming that “in the photographic camera we have the most reliable aid to a beginning of objective vision. […] We may say that we see the world with entirely different eyes.” (pp. 28-29, emphasis in the original)

What struck me about Moholy-Nagy’s approach was not just the optimism. It was also that photography for him was more like a means, not an end. And it was about how the medium was being used, towards very specific, affirming ends.

Where is any of that thinking when you see the pushed pixels or ironic still lives of New Formalism, a movement that unlike Moholy-Nagy is not concerned with what the medium could be used for, but rather what it is?

This is then where for me Moholy-Nagy meets what you can find on Tumblrs. I’m convinced were Laszlo Moholy-Nagy alive today, he would be writing about what people do with photographs on their Tumblrs or on Instagram.

Note that it would be simple to argue that Moholy-Nagy was engaged in a lot of formalist exercises. But they were never done for the sake of doing them. There always was the idea to have them reflect not on the medium, but on what the medium can do, how it can help us engage with the world in a more meaningful way. I’m equally convinced that he would expect more than merely an “interrogation of the medium”: to what end is this being done? What is at stake?

I know what was at stake for that young woman who documented herself shaving her own head and making it public. I have no idea what’s at stake for New Formalists, beyond minor artistic quibbles. And that’s a big problem for me.

These days, the medium photography is not driven by to what extent you can manipulate images. Instead, it is driven by how photographs are being used. The medium has finally become fully social. This is true for photobooks as much as for the many multi-faceted ways mostly non-photographers make use of their images on sites like Tumblr.

There is an ocean of images out there. Instead of dipping your toes in, though, to then talk about it in hushed tones, dive in!