When the National Socialist Party shuttered the Staatliches Bauhaus in 1933, they did not foresee the revolutionary, diasporic effect of their actions. Founded by German architect Walter Gropius (1883–1969) fourteen years earlier, the Weimar-based design school completely transformed the study of art, architecture, and industrial and graphic design by fusing artistic expression with mass production. Conceived as a kind of creative guild, students were immersed in an educational philosophy that both championed experimentation and upheld design as a means for societal progress. In opposition to Nazism’s dogmatic nature, the Bauhaus’s celebration of individual vision posed fundamental ideological threats. Following the school’s closure and resulting dispersal of émigré instructors and students, Bauhaus theory eventually reached the United States.
In the Midwest, design coursework was primarily limited to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, supported by the Association of Arts and Industries (AAI). However, in 1937, AAI director Norma K. Stahle intervened by withdrawing funding and proposing a new art and design school more closely aligned with Bauhaus tenets. She invited Gropius to take the helm, but because he had recently accepted a professorship at Harvard University, Gropius strongly recommended artist and former Bauhaus professor László Moholy-Nagy (Hungarian, 1895–1946) for the position. A few months later, the New Bauhaus/American School of Design was born under Moholy’s visionary leadership.
Department store heir Marshall Field III donated his grandfather’s south side mansion for the sole purpose of accommodating a new design school. With renovations led by architect Henry K. Holsman and Moholy, the Second Empire style building transformed into a modernist emblem: travertine marble framed the entrance; Bauhaus alumnus Herbert Bayer’s original sans-serif typeface stretched across the doorway; the original rounded glass façade was reshaped by cement block; and the curved, walnut staircase in the center of the building was enshrouded in plaster (figs. 1-3). Such architectural modifications were vital to propagating the comprehensive, Bauhausian perspective on everyday design.
Despite inaugurating three departments—architecture, light workshop, and product design—Moholy required new students to participate in a cross-media foundation course. This class stressed complete emotional and psychological freedom as well as the pursuit of experimental techniques as essential to creative work.1 Although lens-based media was not the central focus of either Bauhaus iteration, Moholy had already received substantial recognition in avant-garde photography. He stunned audiences with Film und Foto, his landmark installation of more than one thousand experimental photographs for the 1929 German Werkbund exhibition.2 Moholy’s own practice emphasized photomontage (fig. 4), cameraless photography, solarization, and multiple exposures. Such modern approaches to the medium became known as Neues Sehen (New Vision), a countermovement to the conservative Pictorialist style.3 At the New Bauhaus, Moholy desired to continue pushing the medium’s intellectual and technical boundaries, beginning with an instructor who shared these ambitions.
After visiting the commercial photography lab managed by Henry Holmes Smith (American, 1909–1986) in Chicago, Moholy hired Smith to teach the first light workshop at the New Bauhaus.4 As early as 1933, Smith had conceptualized and taught a photography course for design students at the Ohio State University, where such classes were historically limited to engineering students. Inspired by Francis Bruguière’s (American, 1879–1945) experiments with cut paper, Smith began thinking about the structure of light as well as its gradation and modulation (fig. 5). On the first day of class, he instructed his students to create a photograph by making an assemblage of found studio objects, placing them on “printing-out paper,” and allowing natural light to develop an image (fig. 6).5 By removing the onus from darkroom production, Smith’s assignment established the photogram as the foundation for image-making. This encouraged students to examine light’s behavior with assorted materials, textures, surfaces, and volumes.
Soon after, Smith’s exercises evolved into “light volume studies” and “virtual volumes,” which investigated light sources from various distances and captured objects in motion using open shutters. Nathan Lerner (American, 1913–1997), Smith’s student and a future collaborator, conceptualized the “light box”: a cardboard structure punctured with holes to allow light to pass through or aid in suspending objects (fig. 7). Lerner integrated bent and perforated paper, dowels, eggs, and mirrors in order to manipulate the manifestation of light and form. Smith and Lerner’s dialogues about articulating light continued for more than a decade, resulting in a few lectures and a survey on reflection and refraction.
Despite robust enrollment, the New Bauhaus closed in autumn 1938 due to insufficient funding. This caused Smith to reevaluate his next chapter. Ultimately, he returned to Bloomington, Illinois, to concentrate on his writing, both photographic theory and fiction. By 1939, Moholy secured enough support to reestablish the institution as the School of Design in Chicago. In 1944, the school became known as the Institute of Design and in 1949, it was incorporated into the Illinois Institute of Technology, where it remains today. After serving in the Pacific theater during the Second World War, Smith accepted a fine arts teaching position at Indiana University in 1947. His time at the New Bauhaus—albeit brief—undoubtedly impacted his thirty-year teaching career. Smith established one of the first Master of Fine Arts in Photography programs in the country, training generations of students in experimental photographic techniques.
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 Institute of Design, Foundation Course (general program), box 2, folder 6, Institute of Design records, 1937–ca. 1962, University Archives and Special Collections, Paul V. Galvin Library, Illinois Institute of Technology.
2 In addition to showcasing experimental techniques, Moholy included historical photographs, x-rays, and other images produced by municipal institutions, including the police, news and picture agencies, and other scientific organizations.
3 Pictorialists like Alfred Stieglitz, Clarence White, and Gertrude Käsebier produced representational photographs with painterly qualities achieved through lavish and skillful printing techniques.
4 Moholy first asked former Bauhaus student György Kepes (Hungarian, 1906–2001) to teach the photography course; however, he was not able to be in Chicago for the first semester of classes. When he arrived later, he and Smith collaborated on the light workshop curriculum. Lloyd C. Engelbrecht, “Educating the Eye: Photography and the Founding Generation at the Institute of Design, 1937–1946,” in Taken by Design: Photographs from the Institute of Design, 1937–1971, ed. David Travis and Elizabeth Siegel (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2002), 22.
5 Introduced by the Ilford Company in 1891, “Printing-out Paper (P.O.P.)” was a type of paper treated with a light-sensitive substance. After creating a contact-print with a negative, the sun (or a UV lamp) slowly generated an image. The prints required fixing, but no chemical processing or darkroom was necessary. Since unfixed P.O.P. darkened completely over one to two weeks, portrait photographers often used it for proofs, encouraging customers to order final prints.
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Richman, Lauren. "The New Bauhaus." Collections Online. Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2020. https://artmuseum.indiana.edu/collections-online/features/new-bauhaus.php.