The Discovery of Photography

The medium was emerging in the 1920s, becoming a favorite area for experimenting at the Bauhaus

By Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau

Sea urchin and shadow of a crab claw (1928, 1983) by Lotte Collein (née Gerson)Bauhaus Dessau Foundation


In the mid-1920s an epidemic ravaged the Bauhaus. Among the Bauhaus teachers and students it quickly had a name. As Lotte Collein, who studied at the Bauhaus in Dessau from 1927 and, like many of her fellow students, took up photography, put it, “With a touch of self-irony we said that ‘photographitis’ had broken out at the Bauhaus.” It was only two years earlier that Leica had put their handy 35 mm camera on the market, revolutionising photography in a similar way to the mobile phone with an integrated camera a few decades later.

Untitled (Bauhauslers on the shore of the Elbe, including: Hinnerk Scheper, K. Wiegand, Ernst Neufert, Marcel Breuer, Herbert Bayer, Xanti Schawinsky, László Moholy-Nagy) (1921-05-21) by Irene Angela Bayer (née Hecht)Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

The Bauhaus members experimented with the camera with enormous passion and clearly a whole lot of fun. Bathrooms were turned into darkrooms, students became models and everyday life became a subject.

One of their favourite themes was documenting the special community that existed between teachers and students at the Bauhaus. We can see this here in this photo, for example, which shows the foundation course teacher László Moholy-Nagy with students and young masters on the Elbe bathing beach.

Untitled (students on the terrace of the Bauhaus building, Dessau, behind the canteen. From l. to r.: Moses Bahelfer, Hilde Reiss, unknown, Jean Weinfeld, Selman Selmanagic, unknown) (1931) by unknownBauhaus Dessau Foundation

A favourite subject and preferred background was the Bauhaus building itself. “You would find Bauhaus people everywhere,” according to Lotte Collein. “They would gather on the roof terrace of the Prellerhaus studio building to sunbathe or talk, or you would find others in the lecture theatre, canteen or working in the workshops. Of course, we tried to take photos of as much of all that as possible.”

Untitled (Bauhauslers on the shore of the Elbe) (1925-05-21) by Irene Angela Bayer (née Hecht)Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

Even if most of the photos were just snapshots for the album ...

Untitled (Elsa Franke and an unknown person, smoking in the Bauhaus Dessau) (undated (1929/1931)) by unknownBauhaus Dessau Foundation

... their quality improved steadily. As Lotte Collein put it, “The Bauhaus teaching methods enabled us young people to develop new skills in observing and understanding people, objects and our environment.

Untitled (Portrait of Elsa Franke and Gerhard Kadow at the Bauhaus Dessau) (undated (1929)) by unknownBauhaus Dessau Foundation

That in turn led to us not just taking snapshots but actually starting to do real photography. We consciously used the almost unlimited possibilities the camera held.“

Mask photograph No. 6 (ca. 1930) by Gertrud Arndt (née Hantschk)Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

One of the students who discovered her passion for the camera early on was Gertrud Arndt. She was trained in the weaving shop from 1923 to 1927, but never again had anything to do with textiles after graduating. Instead she turned more to photography.

Her photographic oeuvre includes 43 self-portraits as ‘mask portraits’. This here is Number 6. The pictures were taken out of ‘boredom’.

At the time, she was the wife of the architect and Bauhaus teacher Alfred Arndt and lived in one of the Master Houses. She had to do something “to kill time”. Today she is seen as one of the pioneers of self portrait photography.

Portrait Wera Meyer-Waldeck (1930, 2012) by Gertrud Arndt (née Hantschk)Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

This unusual portrait of her fellow-student Wera Meyer-Waldeck is also part of Arndt’s oeuvre.

Bauatelier Gropius (Gropius architecture studio with Kurt Stolp, Hermann Bunzel and Hermann Trinkaus) (1927/1928) by Edmund ColleinBauhaus Dessau Foundation

This photo is by Edmund Collein, who studied at the Bauhaus from 1927 and four years later married Lotte Gerson, who has already been quoted above. It is seen as an icon of Bauhaus photography.

Collein completed the foundation course under László Moholy-Nagy and took carpentry with Marcel Breuer, painting courses with Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky and studied building with Hannes Meyer,

Friend, double exposure (1928, 1983) by Edmund ColleinBauhaus Dessau Foundation

but all that has been preserved from his whole time at the Bauhaus are his photographs.

Marcel Breuer with his Harem (from l. to r.: Marcel Breuer, Martha Erps, Katt Both, Ruth Hollos) (1926) by Erich Consemüller (Photo)Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

Also an icon of Bauhaus photography: Marcel Breuer with his "Harem" by Erich Consemüller, student from 1922 to 1929.

Ruth Hollos on loom in self-woven dress (1931/32) by Erich Consemüller (Photo)Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

His 300 interiors from the Bauhaus shape the image of the avant-garde school to this day.

Walter Gropius in front of his home in Dessau (1926/27) by unknownBauhaus Dessau Foundation

Photography under Gropius

It seems entirely logical that photography should have been so popular at the Bauhaus. The avant-garde were naturally completely open to new media, as photography was at that time. In 1923, Bauhaus Director Walter Gropius announced a new motto: ‘Art and Technology – a new Unity’. And where, if not in photography, can the two be combined in the most creative way? It is all the more surprising, then, that photography was not even taught at the Bauhaus for the first ten years.

Multi-purpose cupboard made from wood. Bauhaus Dessau, cabinetmaking workshop (1928/1929) by Edmund ColleinBauhaus Dessau Foundation

Photography was primarily a means to an end. It was used to photograph the institution’s own products. In 1921 Gropius asked his colleagues to set up a photo archive “of all the works and products that are typical of our work and of good quality”.

Bauhaus, workshop wing (Bauhaus building, Dessau) (1926) by Lucia Moholy (née Schulz) (Photo)Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

From 1923 there was even a professional photographer at the Bauhaus in the shape of Lucia Moholy. She took photos in all the workshops and with her pictures took stock for the first time of the school and its work. Of course, she was using a plate camera, and preferred to work without additional light (this is her picture of the Bauhaus building in Dessau).

Untitled (László Moholy-Nagy on the shore of the Elbe) (1925-05-21) by Irene Angela Bayer (née Hecht)Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

New Vision

Even if photography was not at first a study subject in its own right, it nonetheless played a part in the foundation course that was compulsory for all Bauhaus students. From 1923 this course was led by the Hungarian universal genius László Moholy-Nagy.

Fotogram, untitled (1922/1926, 1979) by László Moholy-NagyBauhaus Dessau Foundation

In 1922 Moholy-Nagy began experimenting with the photogram – ‘painting with light’ – that was to occupy him for the next two decades.

A photogram is a picture created entirely without using a camera. Objects are placed on a light-sensitive surface (such as film, photographic paper or a photographic plate) and then exposed to light.

Self-Portrait (1926, 1979) by László Moholy-NagyBauhaus Dessau Foundation

Moholy-Nagy’s photograms mark a turning point in the development of photographic images: until then, the photo and the object had been congruent.

Portrait of Rudolf Blümner (1922/1923, 1979) by László Moholy-NagyBauhaus Dessau Foundation

Here, they now seem to be going their own ways. They are only remotely, if at all, like their subjects.

Fotogram, untitled (1922/1923, 1979) by László Moholy-NagyBauhaus Dessau Foundation

So, the photogram is a rejection of the basic law of photography as a true likeness, as depiction of the world.

Eiffel Tower (1925) by László Moholy-NagyThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

From 1925 László Moholy-Nagy turned to photography with the camera. Here, too, he used abstract compositions which undermined conventional ways of seeing with tilted perspectives, strong light-dark contrasts and multiple exposures.

The slices of reality are often only recognisable at a second glance, as here the Eiffel Tower, which Moholy-Nagy photographed on his first trip to Paris in 1925.

Untitled (photogram 109) (1925/1926-2014) by László Moholy-NagyBauhaus Dessau Foundation

“No dependence on traditional ways of representation! Photography does not need that,“ stated László Moholy-Nagy in 1927 – and was not alone with this opinion. New photographic ways of seeing were in vogue at the end of the 1920s. ‘New Vision’, as propagated by Moholy-Nagy, had become an anarchistic and subversive movement going against all conventions.

Leda and the swan (1925, 1979) by László Moholy-NagyBauhaus Dessau Foundation

As well as the photogram, Moholy-Nagy also invented another genre, photo-sculpture ...

... a combination of photo-montage, collage and painting.

My name is hare (1927, 1979) by László Moholy-NagyBauhaus Dessau Foundation

According to Moholy-Nagy, this involves the creation of “unexpected tensions from the joining of photographic elements with lines and other additions, which go far beyond the meaning of the individual parts ...

... for it is precisely by intertwining photographically reproduced event elements with overlappings ranging from simple to complex that a remarkable unity is formed.

This unity can have an effect that is hilarious, moving, devastating, satirical, visionary, revolutionary, etc.“

Dessau (1925 - 1928) by László Moholy-NagyThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The photographers’ house

The Moholys lived in one of the Master Houses, in one half of a semi-detached house next door to the Feiningers. The painter and graphic artist Lyonel Feininger was Master of Form in the printing shop at the Bauhaus in Weimar. In Dessau, however, he had no teaching commitments and was able to devote all his time to his art. His sons showed him how to use a camera, with which they were already very proficient, and soon their father was an enthusiastic photographer as well.

Statue Of Liberty (1942-03) by Andreas FeiningerLIFE Photo Collection

His son Andreas later worked in the USA as a photo-journalist for the renowned LIFE Magazine and published more than 50 photography textbooks and books of pictures. His work (such as this photo of the Statue of Liberty) are classics of photographic history. Son Theodore, who was so fascinated by photography that he adopted the second forename of Lux, took wonderful photos of everyday life at the Bauhaus.

With the Feiningers and the Moholys, then, five Bauhaus members lived in that Master House who were involved with photography, and it was quickly dubbed the ‘Photographers’ House’. It was one of the first places to see a concentration of the photographic creativity of the Bauhaus.

Portrait of Hannes Meyer (1928, ca. 1990) by Lotte Collein (née Gerson)Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

Photography as a teaching subject

When Hannes Meyer succeeded Walter Gropius as Director in 1929, he put photography on the curriculum. It was not, however, to be taught as ‘free photography’ but in a utilitarian context including typography, advertising and trade fair construction. Incidentally, Meyer himself, photographed here by Lotte Collein, was fond of experimenting with the camera ...

Co-op. Construction 1926/1 (1926) by Hannes MeyerBauhaus Dessau Foundation

... as we can see in his ‘co-op’ series.

Fabric with fountain pen (1933, 1978) by Albert HennigBauhaus Dessau Foundation

The teacher appointed for photography was Walter Peterhans – a surprising choice, for as a trained professional photographer he was rather unknown and fully committed to depicting reality. He was no great fan of the experimental photography pursued by the likes of Moholy-Nagy, who left the Bauhaus in 1928 due to differences with Meyer.

Peterhans was a man of New Objectivity rather than New Vision.

Untitled (Still life with tulle, fish and twine) (ca. 1929) by Walter Peterhans (attributed to)Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

He often worked for hours on end on his carefully staged still lifes, which were material studies in the tradition of trompe l’oeil painting with surrealistic effects ...

... to place the objects painstakingly with tweezers into the correct light to bring out the shadows and the finest differences in materials.

Untitled (photograph of textile, heavy curtain fabric made from rayon and cotton) (1933) by Albert HennigBauhaus Dessau Foundation

Typical assignments in Peterhans’ classes included material studies of glasses, fabrics and tableware.

The objects were to be depicted as neutrally as possible. The lighting played a crucial role.

What were created were technically-perfect photographs of impressive quality and depth of focus.

By Bernard HoffmanLIFE Photo Collection

Walter Peterhans stayed with the Bauhaus until it was closed in 1933 in Berlin.

In 1938 he emigrated to the USA where he was given a professorship in the Department of Architecture at what was later to become the Illinois Institute of Technology and taught Visual Training, Analysis and Art History.

Professor Moholy-Nagy And Friend Sweeney (1937-09)LIFE Photo Collection

This, incidentally, was the same place as László Moholy-Nagy established his legacy. In 1937 Moholy-Nagy founded The New Bauhaus in Chicago, which was shortly afterwards renamed the School of Design and in the next few years was set to do great things in one area in particular – photography.

Credits: Story

Text / Concept Realisation: Cornelia Jeske

Editing: Astrid Alexander, Cornelia Jeske

Translation: Catherine Hales, Stephan Schmidt

© Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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