In 1933, photographer Henry Holmes Smith (1909–1986) encountered The New Vision (1928), a book written by Hungarian photographer and Bauhaus professor László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946). Throughout that groundbreaking text, Moholy called for a new type of photographic practice: one that not only foregrounded the technological advances of the early twentieth century but also disrupted the established rules of visual representation. He believed this could be achieved with a more holistic integration of art, design, education, and science. Rather than continuing to embrace photography as a mere reproduction of reality, Moholy urged practitioners to pay greater attention to the relationships between “volume, material, mass, shape, direction, position and light.”1
The New Vision articulated many of Smith’s own concerns about the conventions of subject matter; in particular, the notion that photographs should function solely as emblems of truth or as vehicles of reportage. Smith had already departed from the leading documentary style of the interwar period, instead pursuing the use of color plates, abstract forms, and light modulations (fig. 1). The two photographers’ worlds merged in 1937 when Smith moved to Chicago and invited Moholy to visit the color photo lab he managed at Marshall Field's department store. Sensing their kinship, Moholy asked Smith to join the faculty at the New Bauhaus, a design school founded that year to continue the work of its German antecedent. Smith managed the photo lab and taught a course on light modulation, launching his career in photography education, thirty years of which were spent as a professor at IU.
As an educator, Smith imparted the idea that one should read a photograph as one reads a text. He sought to shift the focus of photographic education from scientific and indexical to aesthetic and transcendental. Smith’s work in this field resulted in countless published articles, two noteworthy academic workshops, and the establishment of the Society for Photographic Education (SPE).2 These experiences provided him with a consistent platform to test his theories on photography and pedagogy, with the goal of increasing the medium’s humanist potential.
Smith believed in photography’s capacity to provoke emotional and psychological responses through variations in light and color. He set his camera aside and focused on alternative materials and processes, including photomontage, photograms, solarization, and multiple exposure prints.3 In parallel to Moholy’s work, Smith began projecting light through materials like glass, mirrors, prisms, and mesh screens, as exemplified in his Light Studies (figs. 2–3). As early as 1936, Smith added vibrant, colorful hues through dye-transfer, a photographic process used to prepare color prints by operating three matrices with separate cyan, magenta, and yellow dyes.4 At this time, color photography was ascribed to the world of commercial advertising; Smith’s retreat from the clean lines of black-and-white photographs was in direct opposition with many of the medium’s earliest champions: Alfred Stieglitz, Walker Evans, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. It would be decades before the use of color gained wider acceptance in fine art photography.
Smith’s investigation of materials reached an apex when he began experimenting with Karo corn syrup, water, and glass or Plexi sheets. After pouring the viscous mixture onto the support, Smith beamed a theatrical spotlight through the “lens,” generating an exposure on light-sensitive paper. These refraction—or “Liquid-and-Light”—prints echo the early principles of photographic experimentation and even reference the medium’s Latin etymology: photo- + -graphy, or light drawing. The refraction prints are also some of Smith’s earliest photographic investigations of archetypal imagery, which masterfully straddle the line between figuration and abstraction. In Mother and Son (fig. 4), two spectral figures materialize side-by-side, both enigmatically composed of and enveloped by delicate liquid striations. Similarly, Growing Up (fig. 5) plays with the viewer’s understanding of the visual plane; flat forms interact with light, almost shattering and emerging from the print’s two-dimensional format.
In the 1970s, Smith’s studies of light, liquid, color, and scale converged. He began copying his earlier black-and-white refraction prints onto matrix film, allowing him to produce multiple series of color images by layering mats and dyes. Even with hundreds of variations on the same image, no two prints are exactly identical. The lustrous amber glow that emits from Giant (fig. 6) illustrates Smith’s dexterity with color. In the center, light vibrates through an anthropomorphic figure, as if submerged in an undulating liquid. Works like this one epitomize Smith’s desire to both upend photography’s association with realism and magnify its expressive and emotive capabilities.
Acquired directly from Smith in 1979, the Henry Holmes Smith Archive at the Eskenazi Museum of Art is home to the largest public collection of Smith’s works, as well as the largest holding of works by an individual artist in the museum’s collection. In addition to photographic objects, Smith made drawings and cartoons, watercolors, and silkscreen prints and matrices. Historical material and exhibition ephemera associated with Smith’s career are additional components of the archive, offering scholars and visitors a comprehensive vision of Smith’s practice.
Beyond Smith’s work, the archive features more than 1,500 works by other artists, including Smith’s circle of American modernist photographers (Minor White, Aaron Siskind, and Edward Weston), students (Jack Welpott, Jerry Uelsmann, and Betty Hahn), and Roy Stryker’s own study collection of Depression-era photographs for projects commissioned by the New Deal. This sub-collection includes images made by Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, and Ben Shahn, among others, for such government agencies as the Resettlement Administration, Farm Security Administration, Office of War Information, and Office of Emergency Management. In total, the archive is comprised of more than 5,000 objects that tell an unexplored facet of American photography at mid-century. With significant support from the Henry Luce Foundation, the Eskenazi Museum of Art has the resources necessary to closely examine the archive's contents, conduct scholarly research, and conceptualize a traveling retrospective exhibition with an accompanying catalogue. Until now, Smith’s influence has been overlooked in favor of more canonical figures who achieved greater commercial success; however, his early investigations of color, alternative processes, and the medium’s psychological potential distinguish him from his peers and urge a reexamination of his impact on photographic history.
Assistant Curator of Photography
The IU Eskenazi Museum of Art would like to thank the Henry Luce Foundation for their generous support of the museum's work on the Henry Holmes Smith Archive, including support for the Assistant Curator of Photography. To learn more about their support for this work, read the press release.
1 László Moholy-Nagy, The New Vision 1928 Fourth Revised Edition 1947 and Abstract of an Artist (New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, Inc., 1949), 52.
2 Smith co-founded this organization with Nathan Lyons, Art Sinsabaugh, Sol Mednick, and Clarence White Jr. during a 1962 conference at George Eastman House. SPE committed to further developing professional services for photography students from diverse sub-disciplines. The organization still exists today with more than 1,800 members.
3 Photomontage refers to the process of collaging preexisting photographs to make one composite image. Photograms are photographic images made without a camera by placing objects onto the surface of light-sensitive paper and exposing it to light. Solarization refers to a photographic process that produces a “halo effect,” forcing lighter tones to darken and vice versa. After making a correct exposure, the negative is removed and a secondary, brief exposure to light is performed.
4 Howard Bossen, Henry Holmes Smith: Man of Light (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1983), 44. Before 1945, the dye-transfer process was known as wash-off relief imbibition printing.
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Richman, Lauren. "The Henry Holmes Smith Archive" Collections Online. Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2020. https://artmuseum.indiana.edu/collections-online/features/henry-holmes-smith-archive.php.