Monday, September 17, 2018

Where credit is due

Readings and rereadings (1): Lucia Moholy, A Hundred Years of Photography

The chance purchase in a secondhand bookshop recently of three paperbacks form the late 1930s prompted me to think about a woman who, like many in the history of the arts, has been marginalised. She is Lucia Moholy, and among her publications is A Hundred Years of Photography, published by Penguin Books in 1939.

Lucia Schulz was born in Prague in 1894. A good linguist (like so many people in that city where it was an advantage to be fluent in both German and Czech), she qualified as a teacher of German and English, before studying philosophy and art history at university in Prague. She then worked as an editor in various publishing houses, including Rowohlt in Berlin, before marrying in 1920 the artist László Moholy-Nagy. He was developing his interest in photography and the couple explored this medium together. 

When Moholy-Nagy went to teach at the Bauhaus – first in Weimar then at its new school at Dessau designed by Walter Gropius – Lucia, now known as Lucia Moholy, joined him, working first as an apprentice and assistant in one of the Bauhaus photography studios, then as a Bauhaus-based freelancer. She collaborated closely with László on the experimental images (photograms, for example) made at the Bauhaus, but this work was published under his name only. She also made immaculate photographs of many of the objects created at the Bauhaus and at Dessau also photographed the buildings. It was Lucia Moholy’s photographs that introduced the Dessau Bauhaus to the world, that illustrated Bauhaus publicity, and that made Gropius’s designs of the school and the associated masters’ houses well known as leading examples of modernist architecture. For most people who could not go to Dessau for themselves, Lucia Moholy’s images of Bauhaus buildings and objects were the Bauhaus.*

By 1933 Lucia had split up with Moholy-Nagy, moved to Berlin to work in Johannes Itten’s school there, and had a communist boyfriend. Realising that her life and values would not appeal to Germany’s new National Socialist regime, she emigrated, travelling to Prague and Paris before reaching London, where she found work as a portrait photographer and wrote her history of photography for Penguin books. Allen Lane of Penguin was producing his Pelican series of non-fiction titles, their blue and white covers contrasting with the orange and white of the main Penguin list, which was mostly fiction. Books that seemed to have a pressing contemporary interest, like Anthony Bertram’s Design were published as ‘Pelican Specials’, and stood alongside ‘Penguin Specials’, which covered key subjects in the news or in contemporary politics. Photography, although it had been around for a century, was clearly developing quickly, with photographers responding to contemporary events, and taking their medium in interesting new directions, so Moholy’s book became a Pelican Special.§

The book is short, succinct, and covers the pioneers with authority and grace. Nicépohre Niepce, William Henry Fox Talbot, Louis Daguerre, Nadar – all are there, their significance explained with clarity. Perhaps Moholy allowed herself (or was allowed by Lane) too little space to cover the more recent photographers – some significant figures are mentioned only briefly. But her account would have been a useful primer for anyone engaged by photographic imagery but not sure of how it came to be, anyone who did not know their collodion from their silver nitrate, or their David Octavius Hill from their Roger Fenton. The short book and its three dozen pictures have just enough scope to show the amazing range that photographers had achieved by the 1930s, with everything from the Crimean war reportage of Fenton to a portrait by Cecil Beaton, from infra-red shots to high-speed photographs, from the clear imagery of Nadar to a portrait with the face daringly in shadow by Moholy herself.

Most of these images are scrupulously credited to their makers. Lucia Moholy was not so lucky with her own photographic work. At her hasty departure from Berlin, her beautiful glass-plate negatives of the Bauhaus were passed to Gropius, who used them widely in publications to showcase his architectural work without ever mentioning the photographer. Several times, when things were more settled, she asked Gropius to send the negatives back; several times he refused or ignored her requests. Meanwhile she carried on taking photographs, organising exhibitions, directing documentary films, and writing about art. She never did get all her photographs back from Gropius, although she was able to explain her work and that of her husband László in a bilingual publication, Moholy-Nagy Notes, which came out in 1980, nine years before her death.

Thanks to this later book, to contemporary archivists, to the internet, and to broadcasters such as Roman Mars, Sam Greenspan and the team at 99% Invisible,† Lucia Moholy’s story is much better known today. She has become one of many women in the history of the arts, once overlooked, who are now recognised for their achievements.¶ I was pleased to find out more about her story after listening to the 99% Invisible programme about her and the other week by buying a copy of her 1939 Pelican Special almost 80 years after it was issued, finding it in a secondhand bookshop here in Gloucestershire, priced at just one English pound.

Masters’ Houses, semi-detached house Kandinsky-Klee from north-west, architecture: Walter Gropius / photo: Lucia Moholy, 1926. Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin / © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016.
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* For much of the post-war period, most people could not go to Dessau, because for outsiders travel to East Germany was difficult if not impossible – and in any case photography at the Bauhaus building was banned between 1950 and 1980.

§ Lucia Moholy wrote the book in English.

† 99% Invisible, ‘a tiny radio show about design’, is exemplary; its website contains dozens of illuminating back episodes. The one on Lucia Moholy is here. There is more information about Lucia Moholy here.

¶ Some of these eclipsed women – for example, in music Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann, in architecture and design Charlotte Perriand, Ray Eames, and Eileen Gray – are now being given their considerable due.

1 comment:

Hels said...

Oh I love Bauhaus :) Female students were very welcome from the start of Bauhaus in 1919, right up until its closure. But even by 1926, the photo of the Bauhaus masters on the roof of the new Bauhaus building only showed one talented woman amongst all those talented men. So even though it was Lucia Moholy’s photographs introduced the Dessau Bauhaus to the world, I am not surprised she was rarely credited appropriately.