Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

The New Vision of Photography

Thematic Essays

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The explosive development of photography as a medium of untold expressive power and as a primary vehicle of modern consciousness occurred during the two decades immediately following the Great War. In the aftermath of this first totally mechanized conflict, avant-garde artists, commercial illustrators, and journalists turned to photography as if seeking to discover through its mechanisms and materials something of the soul of contemporary industrial society.


Photography's long-acknowledged power to mirror the face of the world was by no means abandoned, but in the 1920s and '30s a host of unconventional forms and techniques suddenly flourished. Abstract photograms, photomontages composed of fragmented images, the combination of photographs with modern typography and graphic design in posters and magazine pages—all were facets of what artist and theorist László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946) enthusiastically described as a "new vision" rooted in the technological culture of the twentieth century.


Photography's long-acknowledged power to mirror the face of the world was by no means abandoned, but in the 1920s and '30s a host of unconventional forms and techniques suddenly flourished.

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An influential teacher at the Bauhaus in Germany, Moholy-Nagy championed unexpected vantage points and playful printing techniques to engender a fresh rapport with the visible world (1987.1100.499). Other photographers in Germany, such as August Sander (1876–1964) (1987.1100.82) and Albert Renger-Patzsch (1897–1966) (2005.100.147), emphasized a rigorous objectivity grounded in the close observation of detail. And with the advent of the 35mm camera in the early 1930s, photojournalism and street photography became possessed of a new grace, deftness, and mobility.


In France, Surrealism was the gravitational center for avant-garde photography between the wars. Launched in 1924 by the poet André Breton, the Surrealist movement aimed at the psychic and social transformation of the individual through the replacing of bourgeois conventions with new values of spiritual adventure, poetry, and eroticism. Essentially a philosophical and literary movement, Surrealism was greatly indebted to the techniques of psychoanalysis, and Freud's research into free association and dream imagery. Surrealist photographers made use of such techniques as double exposure, combination printing, and reversed tonality (1987.1100.81) to evoke the union of dream and reality.


In Russia, the Revolution of 1917 imposed transformation through a reordered society. It enlisted the enthusiastic participation of artists like El Lissitzky (1890–1941) and Aleksandr Rodchenko (1891–1956), who saw in photography the most efficient way to express the dynamic reshaping of their country. In their photographs, they used a repertoire of defamiliarizing devices—extreme up and down angles (1987.1100.5), tilted horizons, fragmentary close-ups, abstracted forms—as part of an attempt to break old habits of perception and visual representation.


The late 1920s saw a series of international exhibitions devoted to new vision photography. The most significant of these was Film und Foto, an exhibition held in Stuttgart, Germany, in May–July 1929, which included approximately 1,000 works from Europe, the Soviet Union, and the United States.


The rise of Stalinism and Fascism in the 1930s would disillusion and silence many of the photographers associated with the new vision. By turns euphoric and despairing, prey to utopian optimism or deep spiritual disarray, the short period between the two world wars remains one of the richest in photographic history.


Department of Photographs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art