László Moholy-Nagy was a Hungarian artist, designer, writer, and teacher. He worked in Germany, England, and the United States. This portrait from 1926 maybe reveals something of Moholy’s disposition. He’s wearing a workman’s jumpsuit over a dress shirt and tie, looking like a hybrid worker-technocrat. He oriented himself more as a designer than an artist, although the distinction was fuzzy. He looks rather austere, but wasn’t—his friends called him “Holy Mahogany.”
Moholy was interested in photography. It was relatively new at the time and he recognized it as a contemporary way to make images. His photographic experiments often pushed at the edges of the medium. He exaggerated perspective and used unexpected vantage points to abstract the subjects he shot. He cut up prints and assembled collages. He gathered images into composites. And he made photograms. Here are two:
Photograms are images made directly from, or, in fact, by, an object. The object is placed directly on photo-sensitive paper and then the paper is exposed to light. The result is a contact print, a kind of light tracing. You might think of a photogram as seeing through an object to its essence. There’s a one-to-one directness to the print, where the object is reproduced at the same scale as the image made of it. The process is immediate and the result has an equally urgent quality. It is not dissimilar from printing.
American artist Man Ray developed the technique around the same time and he called them “rayographs.” Man Ray was born as Emmanuel Radnitzky, a Russian Jewish boy from South Philadelphia. He found his way to Paris, and made art. Lots of it. So, for example this is one of his photograms on the left. But he made many things other than rayographs, including poetry and even typography. I love this poster on the right which Man Ray designed for The London Underground in 1932, which seems to pick up a sentence mid-thought. It’s not a photogram, but who cares, it has something of that quality.
And even a good century before, British botanist Anna Atkins produced an extraordinary collection of photograms made with sunlight as cyanotypes of the different types of algae. These pictures were meant as an inventory of algae varieties found in England where they accompanied a text in what has been claimed as the first photographic book, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843).