Taken by Design
by Anita Douthat
Taken By Design: Photographs From The Institute Of Design, 1937-1971
Edited By David Travis And Elizabeth Siegel
In the foreword to the catalogue for the exhibition Taken by Design: Photographs from the Institute of Design, 1937-1971, James N. Wood, director and president of The Art Institute of Chicago, states: "Ask nearly any American photographer today whom he or she trained with, and you will likely be able to trace his or her education back to the Institute of Design." In all fairness, I must begin this review by admitting that this statement includes me. I received an undergraduate degree in design with an emphasis on photography from the Institute of Design (ID), studied art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and later pursued an M.F.A. at the University of New Mexico. Seeking a warmer climate and a different photographic point of view in Albuquerque, I found myself studying with Thomas Barrow, an ID graduate, and Betty Hahn who trained with Henry Holmes Smith at Indiana University. Smith, in turn, taught at the New Bauhaus with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.
The reach of the Institute of Design is broad indeed, leaving generations of its photographic progeny with a firm foundation to work from and, in some cases, a set of principles to rebel against. In the world of academic photographic training, you can leave Chicago, but you can never get away!
The Art Institute of Chicago presented its extraordinarily elegant version of the exhibition Taken by Design from March 2 through May 12, 2002. It traveled to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (July 20-October 20, 2002) and The Philadelphia Museum of Art (December 7, 2002-March 2, 2003).
Even if you are familiar with the work of key figures such as Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Gyorgy Kepes, Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind and their numerous well-known students, startling surprises abound. The project includes 200 images by 75 photographers. One of the highlights of Taken by Design is its highly egalitarian nature. Each section of the exhibition and accompanying catalogue includes photographers who have never received the attention they deserve along-side the most established figures. For instance, Arthur Siegel, whose on-again, off-again relationship with the ID spanned 40 years and whose work was never easy to categorize, is featured prominently. Due to this breadth, the viewer gets a more complex picture of an extremely fertile program.
Because the exhibition is not traveling to the Houston area, this article emphasizes the accompanying catalogue. Just as the exhibition is visually stunning, the publication, edited by David Travis and Elizabeth Siegel, respectively curator and assistant curator of photography at The Art Institute of Chicago, is a major contribution to the field of photographic scholarship. It marks the culmination of five years of research and serves at least three very important func-tions.First, it beautifully reproduces the photographs found in the exhibition, bringing together the most extensive collection of ID-related imagery published to date.
Second, it traces the development of the country's first institution to offer a graduate degree in photography, a phenomenon we now take for granted. The New Bauhaus founded by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy in 1937 became the School of Design (1944-1946) and then the Institute of Design, which became associated with the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1955. In encyclopedic detail, essays by Lloyd C. Englebrecht, Keith F. Davis and John Grimes recount the various stages of the school's founding, the rise to prominence of its photography department, and the department's inevitable decline. Further perspective is added by Hattula Moholy-Nagy's affectionate tribute to her father, Larry Viskochil's essay on the larger photographic scene in Chicago during the years 1937-1971, and Elizabeth Siegel's article on the interrelationship between film and photography at the ID.
Third, the project may act as a catalyst for further exploration. The exhibition and catalogue cover a tremendous amount of ground, but they suggest many avenues for more detailed research.
Visually, the catalogue is quite handsome. The exhibition's images, chosen by David Travis, are beautifully sequenced and reproduced. They are nicely interspersed, in roughly chronological order, between the essays and other visual ephemera such as reproductions of school catalogue covers, illustrations of ID assignments and photographs of people involved in the institution.
The publication's frontispiece boldly quotes Laszlo Moholy-Nagy from Vision in Motion: "The enemy of photography is the convention ... the salvation of photography is the experiment." The initial section of the catalogue covers the years 1936-1946, from the founding of the New Bauhaus through the untimely death of Moholy-Nagy. It commences with a rich selection of experimental images such as photograms and photomontages, techniques linked to the European and Russianavant-gardes of the early 20TH century including the original Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany. Transplanting of these ideas and techniques occurred because Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Gyorgy Kepes fled from Germany to the United States via London just before the outbreak of World War II. They brought with them their Utopian idealism, their fascination with light and their multi-disciplinary approaches. They found American photographic allies in Arthur Siegel, Nathan Lerner and Henry Holmes Smith at a time when photography in this country was dominated by more traditional approaches.
Kepes' portraits of his wife, such as Unfitted (Juliet with Peacock Feather and Red Leaf), provide the biggest surprise in this section. Such sophisticated layering of hand-painting on a photographic surface seems strikingly contemporary. These exquisite portraits date from 1937-1938! Kepes later founded the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT.
The second section dates from 1946-1961, the years following World War II, in which the major figures in the photography department were the quiet, self- effacing Harry Callahan, who joined the school in 1946, and the gregarious, articulate Aaron Siskind, who was hired in 1951. Their approaches to photography were much more introspective, with an emphasis on what became known as "camera vision." They each developed personal modes of semi-abstraction. Callahan's proto-mini-malism focused on his family and the Chicago environment, but with a style that radically departed from traditional portraiture or landscape photography. Siskind's animistic compositions of peeling paint, muscular rock formations and soaring divers were closely associated with Abstract Expressionism. They were prolific artists who were widely exhibited and published.
As Keith Davis explains, for ten years "HarryandAaron" comprised a superb teaching team whose noted students included Ray Metzker, Joseph Jachna, Art Sinsabaugh, Charles Swedlund, Joseph Sterling and Yasuhiro Ishimoto. This section makes clear that while the sophisticated formalism associated with the Institute of Design flowered during this period, there were also several other strains of photographic activity occurring simultaneously. Siskind's association with the Photo League ended, but he encouraged the social documentary work of his students, including Sterling, Ishimoto, Marvin E. Newman and Wayne Miller. He also encouraged architectural photography best exemplified by Richard Nickel's images of Louis Sullivan buildings.
The ID's graduate program was introduced in 1950 and the first M.S. degrees were awarded in 1952. The students were required to present an exhibition and write a thesis. This was the birth of the now ubiquitous concept of the "body of work" in photography. In 1961, Harry Callahan left the Institute of Design for a position at the Rhode Island School of Design, marking the end of another era in the institution's life.
Throughout the 19605, Aaron Siskind headed the department mentoring yet another generation of photographers including Thomas Barrow, Barbara Crane, Kenneth Josephson, Linda Connor, Cal Kowal, Eileen Cowin, William Larson and Charles Traub. In this section, as the student body increased, the work began to take on a transitional feeling. Many photographs are self-reflexive, i.e. photographs about photography. Although the initial "experiment" seemed to be losing steam, many threads found in the most contemporary photography made early appearances here including conceptual sequences, multiple imagery, mixed media, family and identity issues.
In the essay describing this time period, John Grimes takes on the daunting task of placing the ID within the context of a general boom in interest in the photographic medium, not to mention a tumultuous decade in the life of the United States. He closes with the painful story of Aaron Siskind's forced retirement in 1971, surely one of the most distressing cautionary tales in academic history. Siskind left Chicago to join Callahan in RISD, reuniting the legendary teaching team. This departure profoundly impacted the department, and this essay is to be commended for not whitewashing the story.
Taken By Design ends with the students who graduated in 1971, but the rich legacy lives on in their teaching and the work they have produced to date. In his epilogue, John Grimes recounts the numerous changes the photography department and the Institute of Design have gone through during the last 21 years. As of next year, the photography will completely dissolve into the design department, which is where it all began in 1937.
One might ask, why this exhibition and catalogue now? There are very good reasons for this current assessment. Although photographs by the most established figures are well known, the more obscure work has reached few audiences outside Chicago. Many of the ID's students who have gone on to celebrated careers as artists and educators are retiring from their teaching posts. This is a good time to view their early work and record their stories. Although there are a few puzzling omissions and occasional glitches in the biographical information, Taken by Design is a most impressive publication.
In the history of photography, as in the history of all the arts, the balance in emphasis between form and content tips back and forth, with each period reacting against what immediately precedes it. Postmodern critique of mass-media imagery characteristic of the 19805 and the emphasis on identity politics of the 19905, weighed heavily on the side of content. In many ways, this work can be seen as the antithesis of the cooler, more formal vision of the ID. Perhaps now that these more contemporary approaches have received considerable recognition, we may look afresh at the Institute of Design and appreciate its innovations. '
1. For a critical analysis of photography from the Institute of Design, see Abigail Solomon Godeau's essay The Armed Vision Disarmed: Radical Formalism from Weapon to Style, published in 1991 in Photography at the Dock: Essays on Photographic History, Institutions, and Practices.
ANITA DOUTHAT IS A PHOTOGRAPHER LIVING AND WORKING IN ALEXANDRIA, KENTUCKY.