Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s experiments and work in color photography

In 1934 Laszlo Moholy Nagy spent a year doing advanced work with color film and photography in Amsterdam. His new position as typographical advisor to a large Dutch printing firm paid well and promised a chance to explore color photography. Moholy divided his workday between layouts for textile magazines and book covers, and laboratory and dark-room work with a color expert. In Feb 1934 he wrote to his wife Sibyle:

I’m learning my lesson like a good boy. I make tables of chemicals and exposures, and I work my way through a whole series of processes from a simple kodachrome shot to a very intricate multicolor print. As soon as I feel I have understood the technology of the thing, the real work will start. Up till now it’s nothing else but photography made complicated.

Two weeks later he wrote:

The only problem that matters for me in color photography is to go beyond nature. It starts to dawn on me that there is no such thing as natural color in photography because the chemical reactions and the mixture of artificial and natural light sources will always distort reality. What has to be tried is to find a photographic color process that permits controlled abstract color-combinations and their inexpensive correct reproduction.

in April he was beginning to see that working with color specialists wouldn’t teach him anything except skill. He dictated an article for an Austrian magazine:

All these experts aim at the closest possible imitation of natural color, and they know they always fall short of their goal. They’re delighted if they can picture an apple looking red instead of brown and the surface of a lake blue insetead of gtreen. That’s all right for scientific recording and reportage. But it has done great harm to photography as a creative process employing techniques unique to it’s concept. The language of gradation we’ve finally mastered in black and white is totally invalidated. We’re back where realistic painters stated in the Renaissance -the imitation of nature with inadequate means.”

He made a few color photograms but the results were unsatisfactory. Chemicals added to the developing solution colored the surface of the photogram, but control of hue and value was impossible and in time the picture faded. Moholy wrote to Sibylle in the summer of 1934:

I am convinced now that the new asepcts of color in photography have to come from kinetic experiments, from an interplay of color on film. There the third dimensionality, which after all is the essential nature of light, can be combiend with color. The superimposiitions and the interplay have to come from optical instead of chimical combinations. If I had money and a laboratory..

But he had neither. The Dutch printers had become tired of his persistence. They withdrew their permission for the experimental use of their color laboratories and insisted instead on an unreasonable amount of typographical work.

By 1937, when Moholy Nagy accepted the directorship of the New Bauhaus, he was well known in the United States— through the exhibition of his work at various New York museums, through his book The New Vision and through the various articles he had published. His influence on American art was felt broadly in several disciplines. Along with the other emigres from the Bauhaus, he succeeded in instilling a modern aesthetic into American design. His impact was perhaps felt most strongly by his students, who were encouraged to liberate their creative potential through disciplined experimentation with materials, techniques, and forms.

From 1936 to 1946 Moholy-Nagy dedicated himself to teaching as much as to his own work. In this time he worked extensively with his Leica camera producing many 35mm Kodachrome slides, many of which did not survive. These free and confident investigations in color highly engaged the artist in the last years of his career, but since the technology for color printing then available was unable to render the images to the artist’s satisfaction, very few were printed. In the color photographs shown in this exhibition, Moholy-Nagy’s study of abstract traces of light are are beautifully presented. It is striking that these images, taken in the late 30’s have such a contemporary feel.

References

Moholy-Nagy, Sibyl. Moholy- Nagy A biography. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1950.

Andrea Rosen Gallery. October 19, 2002. Accessed March 16, 2016. work, Copywritten. 2002. “Laszlo Moholy-Nagy – Exhibition – Andrea Rosen Gallery”. Andrearosengallery.com. http://www.andrearosengallery.com/exhibitions/2002_10_lyYszly-moholy-nagy.