42nd Annual Meeting – Photographic Materials, May 31, "László Moholy-Nagy: Characterization of his Photographic Work at the Art Institute of Chicago and his Working Practices" by Mirasol Estrada

Mirasol Estrada, the Andrew W. Mellow Fellow in Photograph Conservation at the Art Institute of Chicago, studied the work of László Moholy-Nagy in the museum’s collection for two years. Her talk was a comprehensive look at the photographer’s working practices as well as the specific characteristics of his photographs in the collection at the Art Institute of Chicago. Ms. Estrada was drawn to the work of Moholy-Nagy because of the experimental nature of his working practices, and his philosophy of photography.
Moholy-Nagy always thought of himself as a painter but he also produced drawings, film and photographs. He came to Chicago in 1937 to direct the New Bauhaus, which then became the Institute of Design. He was an influential teacher, including teaching his philosophy about the practice of photography, published in his book “Vision in Motion”. This philosophy was summarized very nicely by Mirasol, who described Moholy-Nagy’s idea that there are eight varieties of seeing.
The first variety of seeing is “Abstract”, which includes photograms, which are direct records of shapes and shadows. The second is “Exact”, which is straight-forward camera photography. The next is “Rapid”, which shows motion, followed by “Slow”, his description for long exposures. “Intensified” was using chemical manipulation such as solarization. “Penetrative” described x-rays, “Simultaneous” was the term for his photomontages, and lastly, “Distorted” was the term for mechanical or chemical manipulation of a print or negative. This was an interesting summary of Moholy-Nagy’s ideas about the variety of seeing correlated to his photographic method – a good window into the photographer’s thinking process and the categorization of his themes.
Ms. Estrada then took us through the characterization, both physical and analytical, of the thirty-nine photographs in the Art Institute’s collection. She grouped the prints physically by their size, tonal range, surface texture, finishing (coatings) and thickness. These groupings were displayed in a very clear, easy to read chart detailing the characteristics, including thumbnail photos of each object overall and in detail to show tone, surface texture, etc. Analytical data for each object was also included (XRF, FTIR) to complement her visual observations. Using her chart, one could compare the date clearly and easily, looking at tone, texture, and subject of the image.
A few interesting observations that were made following the study were that Moholy-Nagy most likely did not process his own photographs – he has been known to have explained that he was allergic to the development chemicals. This may explain the diverse body of work and materials choices, since his students, wife, and daughter may all have been a part of the processing of his artwork. Moholy-Nagy used many different types of paper and other materials, especially noticeable on his move from Europe to the US, reflecting the marketplace at each time and place. Ms. Estrada offers that it was perhaps more important for the artist to express his ideas, his complex categories of “varieties of seeing”, in the Bauhaus tradition, instead of focusing on the fabrication of his artwork.