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The Rise of the New Vision in Photography in The Netherlands
Ever since my study in art history at the University of Amsterdam, I have become greatly interested in the history of photography in general and that of Dutch photography in particular. In this hub I would like to take you back to 1937, an important year for Dutch photography.
It is well known that photography, being a relatively new medium, had to emancipate itself from the other visual arts like painting and graphic arts. This emancipation process started in the early 1920s when it became apparent that the use of photography in different fields such as advertising and science was bringing all sorts of new possibilities. As a result, photography was rediscovered as a medium in itself, with its own unique properties. In this hub I would like to give a brief insight in the way how this awareness got hold in The Netherlands and in what way it was introduced to a larger audience.
“We have fought over the question whether photography can be art or not... These questions are not important since all discussion based on misunderstanding is unimportant... Photography is neither purely scientific, nor an esthetic problem, but it is a problem of social and economical significance with far-reaching and growing meaning." - Piet Zwart (1929)
New insights in photography
The 1920s saw an increasing criticism against the frequent use of the artistic printing techniques in photography, including printing on gold or platinum toned papers, through which photographers tried to achieve painterly graphic effects. This kind of manipulation of the image was seen as an admission of weakness on the side of photographers, because they took such great pains to make the end result look as little as possible like the product of a camera. Photographers like Albert Renger-Patzsch (1897-1966) and Lazlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) criticized these processes by arguing that photography had a technique entire peculiar to itself, and with specific visual means. They argued it was nonsense to want to compete with painting and graphic arts, because the competency of photography lay outside these fields. In their opinion it was precisely photography, as an independent profession and unhindered by artistic limits, that could fulfill the demands of modern times. Through its multitude of applications, photography was seen as the medium that could play a great role in society, for instance in advertising or science. In the future the true illiterates would no longer be those who could not read or write, but those who could not interpret photographs.
In this period two points of view arose with regard to photographic representation, which to a great extent supplemented each other. First there was that of Renger-Patzsch, who argued that the object must be photographed in such a way that its formal aspects – shape, material and surface – were emphasized optimally. The photographs that he made at the Folkwang Archives in Hagen for the book series Die Welt der Pflanze (The World of Plants), from which his exceptional fascination for the ding an sich can be read, are good examples of this approach. The second principle, developed by Moholy-Nagy at the Bauhaus, reflected the rise of a ‘new vision’, of which he argued that “the consciousness of [formal photographic qualities] has led to existences that cannot be perceived with our optical instrument, the eye, or which are not capable of being observed, becoming visible with the aid of the photographic apparatus; in other words, photographic apparatus can perfect our optical instrument, the eye, by supplementing it.”
Both points of departure are based on the idea that photography can fulfill the need to be ‘objective’. However, using the camera as an extension of the eye demands a radical different manner of dealing with photographs than we are used to. Precisely because the photographic image is always first and foremost a rendering of reality, people almost automatically go in search of the story behind it. The image becomes part of a story: How did those shoes end up there? What is going on? Looking at the work of the photographers who were exploring the new possibilities in photography in the 1920s and early 1930s, it is remarkable to discover that these questions seem much less relevant. What they tried to show was the ‘existence’ of the object itself in all its clarity, detached from its surroundings. The question here is primarily form: how something is put together, exceptionally close-up. This fascination is even to be found in subjects for which looking at them in this manner is absolutely not the obvious thing to do, such in the case of portrait photography.
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Introduction of the New Vision in The Netherlands
Within several years the visual structures of the ‘New Photography’ were fully developed, which led to large exhibitions like the famous international show Film und Foto (Fifo) held in the German city of Stuttgart in 1929. Fifo was generally acknowledged as a milestone for a photography that had liberated itself from the other visual arts. At that point though, The Netherlands did not yet make any important contribution. There certainly were Dutch photographers represented at Fifo who followed the international avant-garde movements, such as Piet Zwart, Paul Schuitema, Jan Kamman and Gerrit Kiljan, but they were taken totally off guard by what they encountered in Stuttgart.
Once back in their own country they did all they could to pass on the vision of the New Photography. This resulted in the photo exhibition Foto ’37 that was held in 1937 in the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art in Amsterdam. Foto ’37 was an important international exhibition, whose organizers wanted to show the latest in the field of photography. Back then, much more than is the case now in our world of mass communication, exhibitions played an important role as a vital link in the dispersion of new ideas to a wider field. More than had been the case for the Fifo in Germany, Foto ’37 was oriented to the specialities of photography in various fields such as advertising, reportage and science. Thus Paul Schuitema could write with conviction in the catalogue that “man’s possibilities for seeing are enlarged by photography, so that it is possible to see the world from all sides… that the stationary has yielded to the dynamic, that we have liberated ourselves from the pose, have dared the leap into space, that people move and that this movement can be recorded at the moment most typical of it, and then sharply observed.”