ID Photography of the Past

by New Idiom


Many students at the Institute of Design have taken a photography class, namely the foundation photography course, so often taught by John Grimes. With assignments like color strategy, quality of light, gesture, and portraits; students learn to see everyday life with new eyes. It is sometimes difficult to understand why certain assignments are given to students. After completing a course and realizing that you think differently, like a designer perhaps; the assignments are not only understandable, but appreciated. Therefore, I thought it interesting to learn how photography was taught during Laszlo Moholy Nagy’s time…

State StreetMoholy began the “New Bauhaus” in Chicag0 in 1937. He came from the Bauhaus in Germany with many ideas and techniques about photography and design in general. The “Light Workshop” was a photography class where light was the medium with which students designed.  It was also during this time that Moholy with Gyorgy Kepes (pronounced Keppish) created the film “Black White Gray.” This film, which recently showed at the Gene Siskel Theater on State Street , is a series of projected shapes and patterns created by light and shadow. It was this kind of experimentation with light among other things that Moholy imparted to his students.

Due to the newness of the school and the experimental nature of the photography program, assignments created by Moholy and taught by Kepes had never been given to students. Therefore, Henry Holmes Smith, (affectionately known as “Uncle Henry”) who was a lab assistant at the school, completed all the assignments prior to giving them to students to make sure they were useful and possible.

The board came to Moholy in 1944 wanting to change the name of the school to “Institute of Design”. He asked, “Why an institute of design, why not an institute of light?” Though Moholy, often called “Holy Mahogany” by students, did not directly teach photography classes, he designed the assignments and critiqued students’ work. Such assignments involved shadowgrams (also known as photograms*), close-up photographs, bird’s eye views and experimental techniques. These techniques included using mirrors, long exposures, multiple exposures and fast and slow shutter speeds.


Moholy passed away in November of 1946. Harry Callahan and Arthur Siegel ran the photography program from 1946 to 1949. It was during this time that the school was accredited. Callahan and Siegel restructured the program with Moholy’s vision in mind. In his early writings, Moholy described his “new vision” in the teachings of photography as the following series: black and white to color pigment, color pigment to color light, color light to color light in motion. Students started with photograms* freshmen year, moving on to color and color prints sophomore year. During the junior year, students learned film and animation, often in the form of light shows. Senior year was spent on multi-media (multiple projections). In 1951, the Institute of Design began a graduate program.

Jay Doblin was hired in 1955. His primary interest was industrial design, so he let the photography department do what it wanted. It became a sort of mentor program, with students conducting their own experiments in photography, seeking guidance from instructors, Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskin, who imparted their expertise to the students. During this time the photography program thrived.

This provides a sense of the past; an insight into the unique history of the photography program at the Institute of Design.  The underlying theme of experimentation and change at the school continues today.

I would like to thank John Grimes for his wealth of photographic history knowledge he shared with me.

Image 1 - Moholy 1941, Untitled

Image 2 - Moholy, City Lights

(Both images from Taken by Design: Photographs from the Institute of Design ,1937-1971)