Light: A medium of plastic expression 

From Broom, IV, 1923. Reprinted in Richard Kostelanetz (ed.), Moholy-Nagy: An Anthology, New York 1970, pp.117–18.

Since the discovery of photography virtually nothing new has been found as far as the principles and technique of the process are concerned. All innovations are based on the esthetic representative conceptions existing in Daguerre’s time (about 1830), although these conceptions, i.e., the copying of nature by means of the photographic camera and the mechanical reproduction of perspective, have been rendered obsolete by the work of modern artists. Despite the obvious fact that the sensitivity to light of a chemically prepared surface (of glass, metal, paper, etc.) was the most important element in the photographic process, i.e., containing its own laws, the sensitized surface was always subjected to the demands of a camera obscura adjusted to the traditional laws of perspective while the full possibilities of this combination were never sufficiently tested. The proper utilization of the plate itself would have brought to light phenomena imperceptible to the human eye and made visible only by means of photographic apparatus, thus perfecting the eye by means of photography. True, this principle has already been applied in certain scientific experiments, as in the study of motion (walking, leaping, galloping) and zoological and mineral forms, but these have always been isolated efforts whose results could not be compared or related. It must be noted here that our intellectual experience complements spatially and formally the optical phenomena perceived by the eye and renders them into a comprehensible whole, whereas the photographic apparatus reproduces the purely optical picture (distortion, bad drawing, foreshortening). One way of exploring this field is to investigate and apply various chemical mixtures which produce light effects imperceptible to the eye (such as electro-magnetic rays, Xrays).

Another way is by the construction of new apparatus, first by the use of the camera obscura; second by the elimination of perspective. In the first case using apparatus with lenses and mirror-arrangements which can cover their environment from all sides; in the second case, using an apparatus which is based on new optical laws. This last leads to the possibility of ‘light-composition,’ whereby light would be controlled as a new plastic medium, just as color in painting and tone in music.

This signifies a perfectly new medium of expression whose novelty offers an undreamed of scope. The possibilities of this medium of composition become greater as we proceed from static representation to the motion pictures of cinematograph. I have made a few primitive attempts in this direction, whose initial results, however, point to the most positive discoveries (and as soon as these attempts can be tested experimentally in a laboratory especially devised for the purpose, the results are certain to be far more impressive). Instead of having a plate which is sensitive to light react mechanically to its environment through the reflection or absorption of light, I have attempted to control its action by means of lenses and mirrors, by light passed through fluids like water, oil, acids, crystal, metal, glass, tissue, etc. This means that the filtered, reflected or refracted light is directed upon a screen and then photographed. Or again, the light effect can be thrown directly on the sensitive plate itself, instead of upon a screen. (Photography without apparatus.) Since these light effects almost always show themselves in motion, it is clear that the process reaches its highest development in the film. 

In answer to your interview 

Originally published in The Little Review, vol.12, May 1929, p.2. Reprinted in Krisztina Passuth, Moholy-Nagy, London 1985, pp.403–4.

1 What should you most like to do, to know, to be? (In case you are not satisfied.)
2 Why wouldn’t you change places with any other human being?
3 What do you look forward to?
4 What do you fear from the future?
5 What has been the happiest moment of your life? The unhappiest? (If you care to tell.)
6 What do you consider your weakest characteristic? Your strongest? What do you like most about yourself? Dislike most?
7 What things do you really like? Dislike? (Nature, people, ideas, objects, etc. Answer in a phrase or a page, as you will.)
8 What is your attitude toward art today?
9 What is your world view? (Are you a reasonable being in a reasonable scheme?)
10 Why do you go on living?

When I was a school-boy, in the Latin hour, we used to pass around secretly a ‘confession-book’ … in it each one had to answer truthfully certain questions. The most important questions were usually the following:

Do you believe that friendship can exist between man and woman?
Are you in love?
Where did you meet her?
Each chose for this purpose a pseudonym: Apollo, Hephaistos, ‘Lederstrumpf’ –
‘Dowegofarther’ was chosen by one.
In that confession-book we all lied in chorus.

This memory still makes me happy; the world is a ball; the questions of the confession-book again roll around to me. I shall rise to my heights – a chance to lie. One thing however I know today better than in my school-days; if I now wish to lie, it is because I am still unripe.

1 I am a Hungarian and besides Hungarian I know only German. But I should like to know French, English, Italian and Spanish. Then I should be at home everywhere.
2 When I was a child I thought that I was a king’s son, who had been exchanged for another, but who later would come into his own. Today I know that one is what one is … chicken stays chicken … I am satisfied with my fate. More, I am happy to be as I am. What could I do if I were better than I am? My failings give me impetus in the fight, they sharpen my effort.
3 What do I expect? That some time I will be able to comprehend society, social relations, the relation of individual to the mass better than I do today. Till now I have been guided in this largely by my feelings. But this feeling is much duller today than formerly, when I really had pangs of conscience if I took a good drink or rode in an automobile.
4 Subjective! That out of gratitude, out of mistaken kindness, I can be forced to make concessions. I know the feeling of being good out of weakness: to let things drag on, in order not to give pain to another, although that other has long since known that all was ended. Objective! That men will again make war instead of working on themselves.
5 I was still a small boy when a friend pressed into my hand a paper in which my first printed poem appeared – I am in general quite happy; but when one wishes really
to get at something, has it been that childish ambition or an incident of the war? That is a whole novel, but I will make it short: It was in a retreat, after a neverending march over soaked ground, mud to the knees, face beaten by wind and hail, half blind, every step more falling than advancing, I could go no farther. I was left behind in the dark, on the open field alone, without strength. Suddenly my horse appeared: I wept and kissed him overcome with joy. I have never, strictly speaking been deeply unhappy. Of course I have been very, very sad, once when I was able to overcome my jealousy through the recognition of it.
6 It is difficult for me to make up my mind not to want to please everyone. My strongest characteristic: that I am optimistic. I like most about myself that I can be happy; the least; that I have a tendency to become a fanatic.
7 To be clean inside and out. I like least, people who cannot stand me.
8 I do not believe so much in art as in mankind. Every man reveals himself; much of it is art.
9 I find the actual world scheme, in respect of the social system, most incomprehensible and gruesome. I have slowly formed the opinion that, seen in perspective, everything develops organically. This does not necessarily mean that one can accept the present system without opposition.
10 I live because it makes me enormously happy to live.

Designing is not a profession but an attitude 

László Moholy-Nagy, Vision in Motion, Chicago 1947, p.42.

Design has many connotations. It is the organization of materials and processes in the most productive, economic way, in a harmonious balance of all elements necessary for a certain function. It is not a matter of façade, of mere external appearance; rather it is the essence of products and institutions, penetrating and comprehensive. Designing is a complex and intricate task. It is integration of technological, social and economic requirements, biological necessities, and the psychophysical effects of materials, shape, color, volume, and space: thinking in relationships. The designer must see the periphery as well as the core, the immediate and the ultimate, at least in the biological sense. He must anchor his special job in the complex whole. The designer must be trained not only in the use of materials and various skills, but also in appreciation of organic functions and planning. He must know that design is indivisible, that the internal and external characteristics of a dish, a chair, a table, a machine, painting, sculpture are not to be separated. The idea of design and the profession of the designer has to be transformed from the notion of a specialist function into a generally valid attitude of resourcefulness and inventiveness which allows projects to be seen not in isolation but in relationship with the need of the individual and the community. One cannot simply lift out any subject matter from the complexity of life and try to handle it as an independent unit.

There is design in organization of emotional experiences, in family life, in labor relations, in city planning, in working together as civilized human beings. Ultimately all problems of design merge into one great problem: ‘design for life’. In a healthy society this design for life will encourage every profession and vocation to play its part since the degree of relatedness in all their work gives to any civilization its quality. This implies that it is desirable that everyone should solve his special task with the wide scope of a true “designer” with the new urge to integrated relationships. It further implies that there is no hierarchy of the arts, painting photography, music, poetry, sculpture, architecture, nor of any other fields such as industrial design. They are equally valid departures toward the fusion of function and content in ‘design.’

The function of art 

László Moholy-Nagy, Vision in Motion, Chicago 1947, p.28.

Art is the most complex, vitalizing and civilizing of human actions. Thus it is of biological necessity. Art sensitizes man to the best that is immanent in him through an intensified expression involving many layers of experience. Out of them art forms a unified manifestation, like dreams which are composed of the most diverse source material subconsciously crystallized. It tries to produce a balance of the social, intellectual and emotional existence; a synthesis of attitudes and opinions, fears and hopes. Art has two faces, the biological and the social, the one toward the individual and the other toward the group. By expressing fundamental validities and common problems, art can produce a feeling of coherence. This is its social function which leads to a cultural synthesis as well as to a continuation of human civilization. Today, lacking the patterning and refinement of emotional impulses through the arts, uncontrolled, inarticulate and brutally destructive ways of release have become commonplace. Unused energies, subconscious frustrations, create the psychopathic borderline cases of neurosis. Art as expression of the individual can be a remedy of sublimation of aggressive impulses. Art educates the receptive faculties and it revitalises the creative abilities. In this way art is rehabilitation therapy through which confidence in one’s creative abilities can be restored.