January 18: This date prompts a look at two approaches to photography; the considered, and the spontaneous. Both rely on the architectural environment.
Lucia Moholy was born on this date in 1894 and the Bauhaus-Archiv / Museum für Gestaltung is showing Lucia Moholy: The English Years until 27 February, a largely unknown part of her oeuvre.
Lucia Moholy, (née Schulz), studied in Prague before she moved to Germany to work in publishing, and in 1921, in Berlin, married László Moholy‐Nagy. It was to be—in her words—a ‘symbiotic’ relationship. After he joined the Bauhaus in 1923 she became the school’s first documentary photographer, and also portraitist, often using disconcerting close‐ups.
Lucia Moholy’s considered, understated, near‐abstract photographs of design products, and of the Bauhaus’s new buildings in Dessau (1926), were published worldwide, though largely uncredited. Her architectural photographs are sophisticated, painstakingly composed for sharp focus, rectilinear, or highlighting the dynamic visual diagonals of the buildings. They set forth Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius’ architectural innovations and ideals, for example, his dematerialisation of the Bauhaus building’s corners with steel and glass, which she reveals using an oblique angle and flat light. Her photographs are not neutral; they express modernist architectural goals.
Lucia Moholy also collaborated actively on many of the photographic works, such as the photograms, for which Laszlo Moholy-Nagy is usually credited and contributed valuable editorial help with his writings. In fact it was a collaboration in which the husband and wife built upon each other’s ideas, but depended entirely on Lucia Moholy’s darkroom and technical skills.
She had undertaken training with a local photographer after her husband was appointed to his position at the Weimar Bauhaus in April 1923 and then attended the ‘Principal Course in Reproduction Technology’ at the art academy in Leipzig which incorporated photography. She set up her first darkroom upon moving into the masters’ houses in Dessau with Moholy-Nagy in 1926:
The working arrangements between Moholy-Nagy and myself were unusually close, the wealth and value of the artist’s ideas gaining momentum, as it were, from the symbiotic alliance of two diverging temperaments…
Lucia Moholy’s photographic records of the Dessau Bauhaus building, the masters’ houses and of Bauhaus products, taken between 1924 and 1928, are an essential part of the Bauhaus legacy, which was largely formed after the school was closed in 1933 and when its protagonists had gone into exile, photographs forming the scant record of a momentous new direction in design that might otherwise have vanished under the overwhelming friction of fasicst revisionist historical erasure.
The Bauhaus reputation has in fact been created in exile out of its archival remains, a major part of which was visual and in the form of photographs, especially photographs taken by Lucia Moholy. Her straightforward, clean, spare, sachlich photographs served Gropius’ goals in garnering support for modern architecture in the United States in the nascent post-war period, when modernism was regarded hesitantly by some Americans.
It was only when divorced from Moholy‐Nagy in 1929, when she was again on her own, that she regretted the secondary role that she allowed herself to take, although this was the norm at the Bauhaus and in Weimar German society generally.
It is the photographs the artist took at the Bauhaus that have since made her famous.
The current Bauhaus-Archiv exhibition fills the gap in Lucia Moholy’s record by presenting the portrait, landscape and architectural photographs taken by Lucia Moholy in England – where she arrived in 1934, after fleeing from Nazi Germany, and where she continued to live until 1958.
There is not enough room here to do justice to her extraordinary career or to the effect that migration to England had on its trajectory. It is only in the last few years that her story, told by such researchers as Robin Schuldenfrei (to whom I give due credit for the information above), is being given the prominence it deserves.
The Australian Centre for Photography opens a new show today by Markus Andersen; a series of works produced between 2015 and 2016 in Cabramatta; spontaneous, impromptu, extemporaneous, they are quite the opposite of the cool sachlichkeit of Lucia Moholy.
This Sydney western suburb became Australia’s first and largest Hoa Vietnamese community following the Vietnam War. Of the 20,780 residents in Cabramatta (in 2011), 29.4% of people were born in Australia, while 32.6% were born in Vietnam, with the remainder mostly from Cambodia, China, Laos and Thailand. A variety of languages are heard in the street, with a mere 11.6% speaking only English. Its shopping centres are served by many Vietnamese-Australian and Chinese-Australian businesses and restaurants and take-aways offer Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese cuisines.
There is an edge; a reputation as a locale for drug-dealing which began in the 1990s, with street gangs, a heroin epidemic and Australia’s first political assassination. In 2001 the national broadcaster, the ABC, referred to Cabramatta as the ‘heroin capital’ of Australia. Cabramatta Chamber of Commerce and the municipal council formed ‘Cabramatta Against Crime’ to stop drug overdoses and combat corruption, ordering addicts into treatment and demanding police support. While drugs and turf wars remain an issue in the suburb, most police raids are now resulting in arrests for possession of cannabis, not heroin.
In interviews Andersen comments on the canyon-like narrow streets of Sydney and the effect of light bouncing off steel, glass and concrete; he exploits this harsh architecture and vertical sunlight for his street photography series in the solo exhibition and photobook Rage Against The Light last year at Black Eye Gallery, and in his other solos Mirrored in 2015 also at Australian Centre for Photography (in collaboration with Turkish photographer Elif Suyabatmaz), and Half Made Light (2014).
This is his first major venture into colour for an entire show, and Cabramatta is certainly a subject which demands it. He maintains the blackness of his shadows in this work too, reserving detail for the highlights. The shot above is an example, where the woman’s face is a mere profile beneath the shape of her hat brim, which emphasises the frieze-like quality of this ‘establishing’ image which sums up the suburb’s cultural contrasts. Shooting film, he mainly uses an early Leica M series with 28mm and 35mm lenses, but does not eschew photographing with his iPhone when necessary.
Like the great photojournalist Alex Webb, Andersen has an eye for the high contrast of silhouetted figures against brightly sunlit surfaces and is not afraid to shoot at the height of day.
In this, his work reminds me also of recently deceased and celebrated Dutch-Australian filmmaker Paul Cox’s 1970 book Human Still Lives from Nepal.
Cox shot on square medium format and as in the image above left, forms emerge mysteriously from an impenetrably black background, achieved in the printing by Alexander Brothers in Mentone in Melbourne who were able to offer him a warm duotone, a printing technology hard to obtain in the 70s.
Street photography requires guts, finely honed reactions and an habituation to one’s camera so thorough that it can be used without thinking about controls and knobs. Andersen’s excellent website hosts a generous and engaging video detailing his approach; watching it, one feels his self-confidence is perfectly justifiable (though it does border at times on hubris, as is the case with too many male – and some female – photographers), and underneath his street smarts one detects a warmth of spirit and a sympathy for his subjects.
Here, the neck of the busker’s guitar is cast in high relief against shadow within a slot of sunlight, while a scratched, painted steel pole also catches the sun to divide the street performer from his audience who are sunk to the waist in inky blackness. This is a carefully previsualised image. The busker is relatively static and could be framed in preparation for the selection and placement of figures on the right as they passed.
Exposing for sunlight simplifies shooting as long as the photographer is aware of the effect it will give and situates areas of bright detail strategically amongst the blacks, or behind, in instances where the silhouette is made a major subject. However, Andersen adapts his approach to more complex lighting situations.
This, one of his most impressive pictures, is shot at night in artificial light. He has squared his camera to the symmetry of the entry to this urban temple as a stage for layered figures, two of which bookend the frame, while others criss-cross in depth. A girl in pink under the white Buddha is the most distant figure and she is caught looking back at us. The man and woman in the foreground remain silhouettes and such is the nature of this phenomenon that we cannot be certain that the man is looking into the temple; he can be read also as looking intensely at the girl passing in front of us. All of this detail is seen through glass…perhaps shot by Andersen as he sat behind rows of incense sticks in another part of the temple, with his camera braced in his hands for the low light. The glass catches red reflections from behind him; ghosted candles and lights hover over the male and female black figures.
The misunderstood suburb Cabramatta has given Andersen subject-matter in which he has exercised photojournalistic discretion to construct a narrative, in this case a very positive story about a distinctive localised culture. He will be a photographer to watch as he begins to incorporate greater visual analysis of his content in the service of a decisive socio-political viewpoint.
Architecture is the framing context for the works of these two photographers situated nearly a century, and half a world, apart.