The 1880’s marked significant developments in the field of photography, witnessing a remarkable growth for both amateur and commercial photography, with the invention of dry-plate photography that made it easier to make images and the fact that the process of mechanical reproduction of photographs became easier allowing a widespread distribution of images. This post will be discussing two influential photographers with totally different styles, who inspired millions with their own unique styles and approach to photography – Eugène Atget & László Moholy-Nagy, our research point for Exercise 1.3: Lines that can be found here:
Eugène Atget, a French photographer, started his career around 1890 when he started a small business of providing images, that he preferred to call documents, as a source material to be used by other artists in their work, similar to stock photos of today, known as “Documents pour artistes” (Documents for artists) in Paris. The images included categories such as animals, landscapes, monuments, flowers, reproduced paintings, etc. In 1900, Paris’s medieval neighbourhoods were transformed into new avenues and public parks, sparking not only a sudden interest in the old Paris in its pre-revolutionary, 18th-century form but also shifted the focus of Atget’s photographic interests. Though Atget’s feelings for vieux Paris (“old Paris”) had always formed an integral part of his photographic journey, the reshaping of the urban landscape of Paris at this time, made this interest take centre stage, and he preferred to establish himself as a specialist in images of old Paris. Having worked in and around Paris for some 35 years, he created an encyclopaedic photographic collection of a city transforming from an old world to a modern one.
His visionary work proved to be highly influential with first the Surrealists in the 1920’s and then with two generations of American photographers, from Walker Evans to Lee Friedlander. Though not well known during his lifetime, his popularity outside of France was further chiseled by The Museum of Modern Art, who purchased the entire contents of his studio comprising 5000 vintage prints and 1000 plus glass plate negatives from Berenice Abbott, assistant to American expatriate photographer, Man Ray, who together rescued his work from obscurity just before his death, thereby archiving the largest and most significant body of his work. (Dupêcher, 2017).
“The Atget prints are direct and emotionally clean records of a rare and subtle perception, and represent perhaps the earliest expression of true photographic art.”(Adams, 1931)
His photographs of the streets and buildings, parks and cafe’s of Old Paris, mostly photographed at dawn, are simplistic and real, yet being seductive and mysterious and the same time, imparting a sense of wide spaces and ambience. The sense of depth created within his photographs bring them to life and the diffused light adds to the frame. One can see the effective usage of lines in most of his works where the vertical framing and leading lines effectively draws the viewer’s eye within the frame. I particularly liked his frame within a frame style like in ‘The Panthéon‘ (Fig 1). The multitude of lines that flow within his work ‘Escalier — Hotel du Marquis de LaGrange — 4er 6 rue de Braque‘ (Fig 6) create a magnificent piece of art and I can co-relate it to my own work in Ex 1.3: Lines. Below are just a few of his works that inspired me to follow the techniques that I have in my exercise.
László Moholy-Nagy, a Hungarian-born American multi-dimensional artist, is famous for his experimental and nonrepresentational art that consisted of pure visual elements of form, colour, line, tone, and texture. He was a painter, a photographer, a sculptor, an artist, a poet, a designer as well as an art teacher who was exceptionally influential in both the fields of art – fine art and applied art. Having studied law and served in the World War I, he started to paint in 1917. He went to Berlin in 1921 where he headed the metal workshop in the famous and avant-garde design school known as the Bauhaus. He is renowned for his theories on art education during his years at the Bauhaus, that focused on developing student’s inherent natural gifts than to teach them specialised skills (Britannica, 2019).
He experimented predominantly with light in his art forms like photography and painting, creating photograms, where objects are placed directly onto the surface of a light-sensitive photographic paper, then exposed to light in a darkroom and then developed by using light-sensitive chemicals in the darkroom; constructed ‘light space modulators’ and oil paintings on transparent /polished surfaces including light effects. His contribution to the world of kinetic sculptures/ installations is noteworthy and holds a special place in the history of modern sculpture (Harvardartmuseums, 2020).
He is considered to be one of the most versatile artists to have emerged in post World War I Europe. His influence on experimental photography techniques, like the photograms and photomontage is exceptional, breaking the rules of what was considered to be straight photography, even though his own straight photography was especially fascinating and different, unique, enigmatic and contrasting. His images constituted frames where nothing was as it appeared, so much so that they were considered excessively bad by any academic standard. “Inevitably, the normal subject of the picture was half lost in a maze of apparently accidental forms, distorted by unfamiliar perspectives, and framed as though the photographer had not finally decided what his subject really was” (Szarkowski, 2009).
Moholy-Nagy’s life long fixation with the play of light is apparent in his photograms where the source of the composition is light itself. As much as he preferred to focus on his Photograms and architectural images, Nagy also explored diverse photographical styles, always believing that it was indeed the true medium of expression in the twentieth century, – “it is not the person ignorant of writing but the one ignorant of photography who will be the illiterate of the future” (Moholy-Nagy, 1926)
Some of his images like the “Puppen” (Fig 7) are also expressions from the horrors of the World War I , where he had served bravely, having lost a thumb even. The aerial perspective, the dramatic play of light and shadow, the odd angle but the straight clean lines push it almost to the boundary of Surrealism and into the realm of the extraordinary. As Karole Vail, curator of the Guggenheim’s Moholy-Nagy: Future Present exhibition in 2016, noted that Nagy believed that revolutionary and unpredicted angles could encourage new interpretations of the world and in that sense his image “Puppen” was a prototypical example of his exploration of photography as a craft (Seiferle, 2012).
His images, like the “ Berlin Radio Tower,” (Fig 8) had a purposefully disorienting vantage point, as the art historian Christopher Phillips puts it. The intricate interplay of lines and geometric patterns contrasted with the play of light and shadows and accentuated with a plunging vantage point makes it appear more of an abstract geometric painting than a photograph.It was also an image that portrayed or rather celebrated the onset of technology and industrial modern world. His series of photographs of the Berlin Radio Tower, a 450-foot-tall structure, epitomises his belief of photography being a medium to captivate the viewer into newer and unique ways of perceiving the reality (Seiferle, 2012).
Both these artists, though having explored contrastingly different styles, were pioneers in influencing photography as a medium. The interplay of lines and patterns, lights and shadows, unique and radical angles, inspired photography to become an expression of art in the twentieth century and still continuing till the present day.
Key points and learnings from Atget’s works-
- Depth & Perspective
- Mystical use of light
- Frame within a frame
- Importance of leading lines within a frame
- Importance of morning light
- How to utilise natural elements effectively into a frame like early morning light
Key points and learnings from Moholy-Nagy’s works-
- Effective usage of light in a frame
- Dramatic play of light sand shadows
- Importance of pure visual elements of form, colour, line, tone, and texture
- Unfamiliar and unique perspectives and vantage points
- Unique & enigmatic
- Flattening the pictorial space
- Abstract perspectives
- Straight clean lines
Fig 1 Atget, E. (1924) The Panthéon (Getty Museum) |The J. Paul Getty in Los Angeles. [Photograph] At: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/63469/eugene-atget-the-pantheon-french-1924/ (Accessed 02/05/2020).
Fig 2 Atget, E. (1925) Hôtel Scipion Sardini, R[ue] Scipion (Getty Museum) |The J. Paul Getty in Los Angeles. [Photograph] At: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/33769/eugene-atget-hotel-scipion-sardini-rue-scipion-french-march-1925/ (Accessed 02/05/2020).
Fig 3 Atget, E. (1908 or 1912) Vieille Cour, 22 rue Quincampoix (Getty Museum) |The J. Paul Getty in Los Angeles. [Photograph] At: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/33831/eugene-atget-vieille-cour-22-rue-quincampoix-old-courtyard-22-rue-quincampoix-french-1908-or-1912/ (Accessed 02/05/2020).
Fig 4 Atget, E. (1903) Le Pont Marie | Conversations. [Photograph] At: http://sauer-thompson.com/conversations/archives/2012/04/eugene-atget-le.html (Accessed 02/05/2020).
Fig 5 Atget, E. (1903) Rue Boutebrie, Paris (1900) | Artsy. [Photograph] At: https://www.artsy.net/artwork/eugene-atget-rue-boutebrie-paris (Accessed 02/05/2020).
Fig 6 Atget, E. (1901) Eugène Atget | Escalier, Hotel Du Marquis De Lagrange, 4 Rue De Braque (Circa 1901) | Artsy.net. [Photograph] At: https://www.artsy.net/artwork/eugene-atget-escalier-hotel-du-marquis-de-lagrange-4-rue-de-braque (Accessed 02/05/2020).
Fig 7 Moholy-Nagy, L. (1926) Puppen (Getty Museum) | The J. Paul Getty in Los Angeles. At: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/57551/laszlo-moholy-nagy-puppen-american-1926-1927/ (Accessed 03/05/2020).
Fig 8 Moholy-Nagy, L. (1928) Berlin Radio Tower | The Art Institute Of Chicago. At: https://www.artic.edu/artworks/55476/berlin-radio-tower (Accessed 03/05/2020).
Fig 9 Moholy-Nagy, L. (1926) Fotogramm |Metmuseum.org. At: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/265197 (Accessed 03/05/2020).
Fig 10 Moholy-Nagy, L. (1928) László Moholy-Nagy | Blick Von Radioturn Berlin 1928 (1973) | Artsy. At: https://www.artsy.net/artwork/laszlo-moholy-nagy-blick-von-radioturn-berlin-1928 (Accessed 03/05/2020).
Fig 11 Moholy-Nagy, L. (1895) Untitled (Self-Portrait)|Guggenheim. At: https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/34116 (Accessed 03/05/2020).
Fig 12 Moholy-Nagy, L. (1929) László Moholy-Nagy. Boats, Marseille. 1929 | Moma. | The Museum of Modern Art. At: https://www.moma.org/collection/works/83853 (Accessed 03/05/2020).