Bauhaus photography

On the present state of photography

Walter Peterhans
Red 5, special issue on
the Bauhaus

The transformation that is taking place before our eyes in photographic methods and their effects is critical. What does it consist of?

It is striking in the seeming unity and forcefulness of working methods and results. But really it does not exist. The illusion of similarity is based only on a rejection of traditional techniques and pictorial methods and on a turn away from the facile, and thus convincingly boring and accurate likeness of Mr. X. It is based too on a shared avoidance of manual procedures that, after the fact, deny photography’s technical principle — detailed, precise reduction of the image in the film — and in its place substitute mechanical coloring. We fail to recognize the magic of its precision and detailing, thus allowing what we already possessed to disappear — all in an attempt to make it the equal of the graphic arts, which rightly display other qualities arising from their different technical means. Hence we have not even noticed that photography is capable of giving us its own new vision of things and people, a vision of upsetting forcefulness, and that it gives this through its own characteristic selection from among the abundance of existing facts, a selection made possible by the decided individuality of its technique.

Consider a ball on a smooth plane. It presents us with various views according to the illumination and the play of shadows. It is a combination of individual properties that we join out of habit. The combination changes. It is always the ball on the given plane, though our eye does not experience the intense harmony to which it gives rise. This occurs, rather, through understanding, through the concept of the ball; in other words, the combination, for the eye, is fortuitous. With manual procedures it is possible to stress the rudiments of a picture and to allow what is not appropriate to disappear. Through exaggeration, deformation, suppression, and simplification manual procedures effect the selection, the transition from object to picture. This is the process of combination from memories, from fixated portions of various views. The transplantation of this method into photography is called chromolithography and bromoil print. But, whereas there the exploitation of the brush is the technique itself, in the pigment process it interrupts the work of the quantities of light that are active at every point and obliterates the activities appropriate to each of these two different technical methods. Continue reading