Photographing Bauhaus: How Architectural Photography Drove the Movement
The resurgence of interest in the Bauhaus has in part been fuelled by the rise of image-heavy platforms such as Instagram and Pinterest. But what role did photography play in establishing and promoting the original school during its brief period of existence? Patrick Kingsland goes back in time with historians Rolf Sachsse and Jeannine Fiedler
Its influence on architecture and design and objective of uniting art, craft and technology into a single practice has been the subject of countless books, courses and exhibitions stretching back decades. But there is one discipline that the short-lived Bauhaus school, founded in 1919 in the German town of Weimar, is far less well known for: photography.
Today, images of Bauhaus objects, buildings and students can be shared thousands of times on social media platforms like Instagram. Accounts like Bauhaus Movement have hundreds of thousands of followers and have helped drive the resurgence of public interest in the movement, which will celebrate its centenary next year.
But few know much about who took these pictures and what role photography played in the wider school. Perhaps that isn’t surprising. Those who have studied photography at the Bauhaus say it defies easy classification, and that the concept of a definitive Bauhaus photographic style is a largely a myth.
“Everybody talks about Bauhaus style or Bauhaus photography but there is nothing like it,” says the author and historian Jeannine Fiedler. “You had so many different approaches and attitudes towards photography.”
Credit: Lucia Moholy Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
Documenting the Bauhaus
Photography was first used at the Bauhaus as a form of documentation. Walter Gropius, the German architect who founded the school, had been using a camera to record his own work prior to World War One. He believed, says the photo historian Rolf Sachsse, that “everything that happened in the school needed to be documented”.
“ 1923 was the start of photography at the Bauhaus. We had hyperinflation in Germany at the time and the school needed to sell things. ”
At first this proved difficult. Photographic materials were hard to get hold off and the quality of the documents produced were poor. What emerged at the time, according to Sachsse, was an “incidental collection of photographs,” taken when there was material at hand.
But slowly this changed as the need to represent the school to the public grew. In typography and graphic design workshops, students were inventing books, brochures and posters that needed photographs to illustrate them. In July 1923, a major Bauhaus exhibition in Weimar was planned. Professional pictures were a requisite.
“1923 was the start of photography at the Bauhaus,” says Sachsse. “We had hyperinflation in Germany at the time and the school needed to sell things. Gropius understood that industrial design was necessary to help the Bauhaus survive.”
Bauhaus Building in Dessau, designed by Walter Gropius, 1925-1926. Credit: Lucia Moholy Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
The experimental phase
The arrival of Lucia Moholy in 1923 had a major influence on photography at the Bauhaus. An intellectual who had trained in photography in Leipzig, Maholy joined the school after her husband, László Moholy-Nagy, was hired as a teacher. Her pictures of Bauhaus buildings, objects and students would become some of the movement’s most valuable documents.
Though not formally trained in photography, Moholy-Nagy also had his own ideas about the discipline. According to Fiedler, he was the “big experimenter”, a champion of the New Vision movement, which saw photography as a medium of untapped expressive potential.
“ It was not a class, nothing organised, just something that happened. ”
“They wanted to use the camera in never-before seen ways: new angles, new perspectives, new techniques,” says Fiedler. “They wanted to liberate the machine.”
A born teacher, Moholy-Nagy’s ideas rubbed off. A new, experimental phase of photography emerged at the Bauhaus, as students practiced the discipline on an amateur basis with Lucia Maholy on hand to offer advice on techniques and materials.
“They played around with the instruments and apparatus,” says Sachsse. “It was not a class, nothing organised, just something that happened.”
The young students used photography as a means to discover themselves and their work. Fiedler says a comparison can even be drawn with the – albeit less sophisticated – craze for selfies.
“It was a very important device for gaining some kind of self-confidence,” she says. “It was something on a private level that the students did to discover themselves.”
László Moholy-Nagy, Bauhaus balconies in Dessau, 1927. Credit: bauhausarchiv museum für gestaltung
“Back to solid ground”
Eventually in 1929, ten years after the Bauhaus was founded, photography became part of the curriculum with a workshop in Dessau led by the Berlin photographer Walter Peterhans.
Employed by the second Bauhaus director, Hannes Meyer, Peterhans’ emphasis was on product photography and teaching aesthetic and technical skills.
“For the first time there was a very school-like, pedagogical approach to photography,” says Fiedler. “Students were taught about lighting and chemistry for example.”
“ For the first time there was a very school-like, pedagogical approach to photography. ”
Many students started following the New Objectivity movement, Fiedler adds, which pushed back against the more experimental phase of the mid-1920s.
“The experimental aspect lost its strength,” she says. “They wanted to train future designers, magazine editors and photographers and so they brought the New Vision back to some solid ground.”
Quantifying the influence photography at the Bauhaus had on future generations isn’t easy as there was no one discernible style and little in the way of organised learning until 1929.
But with so many of the photos now online, Fiedler says its impact “might be much bigger than any stage over the last forty years.”
“It is very easy to find this stuff on the internet now,” she adds. “You can look at it, learn from it and use it to draw inspiration.”