Home to photographic luminaries such as László Moholy-Nagy, Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind, Chicago’s Institute of Design (ID) was founded in the 1930s as an outpost of Germany’s Bauhaus and within a short time became one of the most important schools of photography in 20th-century America. During its history, the ID has provided training and inspiration to an impressive number of students who rank among the best fine art photographers in the country. Taken by Design: Photographs from the Institute of Design, 1937–1971, on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) from July 20 through October 20, 2002, is the first museum exhibition to examine comprehensively the ID’s significant contribution to the history of American photography.
Featuring some 150 images by approximately 65 photographers, Taken By Designcovers the groundbreaking achievements of the ID during its formative and peak years, from the school’s founding by Moholy-Nagy in 1937 through the teaching tenure of Callahan from 1946 to 1961 to the departure of Siskind in 1971. In addition to presenting photographs by Moholy-Nagy, Callahan and Siskind, the exhibition showcases works by Linda Connor, Eileen Cowin, Barbara Crane, Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Joseph Jachna, Kenneth Josephson, György Kepes, Nathan Lerner, Ray K. Metzker, Richard Nickel, Arthur Siegel, Art Sinsabaugh and others. An illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition and is available in the SFMOMA MuseumStore for $45.
Taken by Design: Photographs from the Institute of Design, 1937–1971 is organized by David Travis, curator of the department of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago. Overseeing the SFMOMA exhibition is Sandra S. Phillips, senior curator of photography. Following its presentation in San Francisco, the exhibition will travel to the Philadelphia Museum of Art from December 2, 2002, through March 3, 2003.
The Institute of Design, with its emphasis on experimental learning and the introduction of the focused thesis project, radically changed the way photography was taught and practiced in this country. Moholy-Nagy’s photograms, Callahan’s high-contrast landscapes, Siskind’s wall abstractions and a wide range of student pictures set new standards for both formal and technical exploration in photography. In addition, the school educated generations of photographers who would in turn become teachers, thus ensuring a lasting legacy of ID artistic principles and educational philosophy.
Taken by Design is divided chronologically into three sections. The first concentrates on the investigational nature of Moholy-Nagy’s Bauhaus approach and the importance his teachings placed on photography’s role in of the preparation of the “complete designer.” The second shows students’ formal and abstract camera explorations under Callahan and Siskind as students applied principles of experimentation to a new kind of individual, photographic subjectivity. The third focuses on the conscious references to the processes of the photographic medium itself.
Photography and the Founding Generation, 1937–1946
In 1937 László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946), a Hungarian Jew fleeing Nazi Germany, was brought to Chicago by the city’s industrial leaders to establish a school of industrial design to be modeled after the original Bauhaus in Germany, the pioneering school of art, design and architecture where Moholy-Nagy had taught previously. Although the New Bauhaus lasted only one year (1937–38), it was quickly reorganized as the School of Design (1939–44) and eventually became the Institute of Design (1944–present).
The photographs produced in the ID’s early years were controlled studio experiments, more concerned with form and materials than with imitating works by photography’s masters or documenting the world. Moholy-Nagy’s photograms, for example, are elegant light studies that reveal the complete scale of gray between black and white and illustrate photography’s abstract potential. Along similar lines, faculty member György Kepes (1906–2001) produced an extensive series of photographs of his wife in which he explored solarization and negative exposure and even painting on the picture’s surface. Nathan Lerner (1913–1997), a student and later teacher at the ID, worked with refractive lenses and photomontage and used his light box to test the pictorial effects of pure light. Another student, Milton Halberstadt (1919–2000), produced a triple-exposed portrait to showcase photography’s capacity for simultaneous vision. At a moment when American photography was largely confined to more conventional portraiture, landscape or documentary reportage, these experimental and abstract pictures revealed the enormous creative potential of the medium.
Callahan, Siskind and the Rise of a Program, 1946–1961
As the ID grew Moholy-Nagy hired Arthur Siegel (1913–1978) and Harry Callahan (1912–1999) to teach at the school. After Siegel resigned, Callahan hired Aaron Siskind (1903–1991), and the two formed a superbly effective teaching team that is now legendary. Under their leadership, the program’s emphasis shifted from experimentation toward the development of individual vision and subjective expression. The two added to Moholy-Nagy’s curriculum their own exercises in photography: some were concerned with camera vision, such as exercises contrasting deep and shallow focus, while others required students to portray evidence of human presence without actually showing a person. Callahan invented problem-related exercises such as documenting the alphabet in the environment to encourage students to work in series, and Siskind developed an exercise to discover forms in plants. Students worked in groups to create documentary projects and individually to create sustained photographic series for their theses.
Callahan made some of his most enduring images during his years in Chicago, including studies of plant forms seen against snow and an intimate series of his wife, Eleanor, and their daughter, Barbara. Siskind’s photographs concentrated on local architecture and the abstract forms of walls covered with paint and graffiti. Many of the ID students also hit their photographic stride in their thesis projects, including Joseph Jachna (born 1931), who studied the changing forms of water; Yasuhiro Ishimoto (born 1921), who made pristine recordings of Chicago’s streets; and Ray Metzker (born 1931), who turned his camera on pedestrians and shadows in Chicago’s Loop.
Photography on Its Own, 1961–1971
During the 1960s, the ID felt the effects of the country’s changing attitudes toward sex, politics, drugs and the environment. Photographs made during this period reflect these changes, with a new emphasis on the body (especially the nude) and an overriding concern with the mechanisms and language of photography itself. Concurrently, photography education programs proliferated across the country, making the ID uniquely positioned to supply teachers.
During these years Aaron Siskind defined the graduate photography program, allowing students a great deal of latitude in their choice of thesis projects. Students and graduates pursued a range of photographic approaches, from straight documentary to highly experimental work. Kenneth Josephson (born 1932) and Linda Connor (born 1944) placed images within images, calling attention to the constructed nature of photographic space and vision. Barbara Blondeau (1938–74) and William Larson (born 1942) pushed the picture beyond the single frame into strips of film, while others embraced multiple exposure and collage to expand the boundaries of the photograph.
Taken by Design: Photographs from the Institute of Design, 1937–1971 has been organized by The Art Institute of Chicago and has been made possible by LaSalle Bank.