In the previous post we looked at some of the early developments of the modern aesthetics, its heritage under straight photography, and the use of motion and close-ups to discover new forms for a fresh and new way of viewing the world. In addition, we discussed the collision and collusion of photography with modern art movements in which photography ventured into in the early 1900s.
However, if any period encompassed the full potential of what could be done with photography, it would have to be the period between the two world wars. The search for The New Vision, as some artists called it, was a concentrated effort to discover new forms which would represent their new and modern world. Responding to greater economic issues and the involvement of intellectual, political, and social upheavals, many artists became conscious of the effects that technology, urbanization, cinema and the graphic arts had on Camera Expression.
The New Vision
This attitude, along with the idea of discarding old artist styles, opened fertile fields for all kinds of visual experimentation with a wide variety of techniques, styles, and approaches – all displaying unusual vigor. The invention of the first phase of Cubism known as synthetic cubism – which focuses on the analysis of form – led way for virtually all avant-garde movements of the 1900s. In 1908 Gorgeous Braque purchased an oil cloth with wood grain prints to use as reference for his cubist painting of a guitar. Instead of rendering the texture in pencil; he cut the oil cloth and pasted the piece of the factory-printed grain pattern right into his drawing. With this collage, Braque changed the direction of art for the next ninety years. His contemporary, Picasso, soon followed by creating Canning Chair, a collage with oil cloth and other elements such as rope to the mix.
Photo-Collages and Montages
While the two terms are often used interchangeably, Collages describe the combination of already exiting visual materials which are affected by pasting them together on a non-sensitized support and if desired photographing the results. Montages, on the other hand, refer to the combination of camera images on film or photographic paper that are put together in the darkroom/post-processing software. A number of artists, such as the Dada artists Raoul Hausman, George Grosz and John Heartfield claimed the invention of montages as their own. However, the possibility to create pictures out of cut-up materials was an idea whose time had come. The technique seemed to reflect some deep and fundamental human instinct to rearrange images. Owing to its flexibility, it could be structured to serve a variety of different styles both personal and political.
Photomontages became an immensely suitable medium for the provocative imagery of Dadaism. Dadaism was an effort to destroy the reasonable deceptions of man and recover the natural unreasonable order. Dadaists wanted to replace the logical nonsense of man with his illogically senselessness, irrationality and intuition. Dada– the first word of a child– they said, expressed their primitiveness and the beginning at zero, the new in their art. The movement was defined more by shared beliefs of reoccurring artist strategies – media pranks, scandals, chance arrangements and automatism – rather than by a common formal style.
Chance arrangement and unexpected juxtapositions of ready-made images were the equivalent in the form of photographs and photographic reproductions of fragmented reality and gave the Dada artists a most effective weapon with which to shock the public.
Another art movement that embraced Photo-montages was Constructivism. For constructivists such as El Lissitzky and Alexander Rodchenko, a new world had been born and they expressed a deeply motivated conviction that the artist could contribute to enhance the physical and intellectual needs of the whole society. Constructivists held that artists should enter in direct rapport with machine production, with architectural engineering, and with the graphic and photographic means of communication.
To these artist the visual arts was a means to embody social and political messages in a newly imaginative way, while for artist involved in personal fantasies, these techniques served to evoke witty, mysterious or inexplicable dimensions. Geometric forms, uniform areas of pure colours– as thought by these artist– had an aura of rational order about them and it was this order they wanted to impose on society instead of speculative activities of earlier artists.
Photograms and the Cameraless Image
While some artist’s chose collages and montages to discover The New Vision, some artists sort to create images without the use of a camera altogether. Light drawn images or Photograms became resurgent in the early 1900s. The technique had been enriched by modulating the light which was allowed to fall on the object-strewn paper to produce the projected image of textured objects. Sometimes the paper was first covered with glass on which abstract designs had been painted, or to which the texture had been applied.
Although the technique was employed by some of photography’s earliest practitioners such as William Henry Tablot, many consider that, along with El Lissitzky and Man Ray, Moholy-Nagy as one of its inventors. An advocate of “The New Vision”, Moholy-Nagy saw “the organization of light and shadow effects” as a way of “enrichment of vision”. He held that photographic images – cameraless and other – should not deal with conventional sentiments or personal feelings, that they should be concerned with light and form. He and his contemporaries placed three dimensional objects on light sensitive paper and not only were contours reordered and– in the case of translucent objects– textures as well, but also cast shadows.
Another photographer of note was Christian Schad of the Dadaist group. He is also widely was one of the earliest experimenters with photographic paper in 1918. He covered the paper with ordinary objects – often found on the streets – then exposed them to direct sunlight. The print-out paper, whose slow reaction to light allowed him to rearrange objects during exposure. This gave Schad the means to construct what he dubbed “Schadographs”, images alluding to the artists name and to the shadows that the objects seemed to leave on the light sensitive paper. These images were a play between everyday objects and abstract artist reality.
The above techniques served the use of the many art movements that sprouted during the period. With cubism at the forefront, the recreation and discovery of new forms became an idea suitable for exploration and experimentation during modern art and is still prevalent in today’s ever changing art landscape.
On the next blog post I will take a look at expressionism and abstract expressionism and how their relationship with abstract photography changed and developed during modernism. Again we will look at what the various artists and what they had to say, and to what extent is their message is still prevalent in today’s art landscape… Stay tuned