“These negatives are irreplaceable documents which could be extremely useful. Now more than ever.”
Like many women of her time, Lucia Moholy often found herself in the shadow cast by her more conspicuous male peers—one of whom happened to be her husband, the photographer László Moholy-Nagy. After marrying in 1921, the couple moved to Weimar, Germany, so that he could begin a professorship at the Bauhaus, the influential German school of architecture, design, and applied arts. While László taught, Lucia undertook photography training, serving as an apprentice in Otto Eckner’s Bauhaus photography studio. By 1926 she had mastered a wide range of techniques, installed a darkroom in their home, and begun collaborating with her husband on experimental forms of cameraless photography.
As part of her photographic practice, Lucia began documenting the people and architectural spaces of the Bauhaus. Many of her images focus on the women who either supported or participated in the school’s activities. Edith Tschichold (1926), for instance, depicts the wife of German typographer and frequent Bauhaus collaborator Jan Tschichold. Meanwhile, Florence Henri (1927) portrays the notable Surrealist artist at the outset of her career, when she came to the Bauhaus in 1927 as a visiting photography student. Both portraits are tightly cropped around the women’s faces, revealing expressions of wistfulness or self-assurance that pull viewers into a shared emotional space.
One of Lucia’s more iconic portraits is an untitled photograph of her husband, who, sporting a machinist’s coveralls over his shirt and tie, humorously attempts to block the camera lens with his hand. The candid shot hints at the playful nature of the couple’s working relationship; once circulated, it also helped to shape László’s persona as an artist-constructor. Despite happy appearances, their relationship began to deteriorate as László declined to credit Lucia for many of their collaborations, including the celebrated 1925 book Malerei, Photografie, Film (Painting, Photography, Film).
This was not the only—or even the most significant—erasure of Lucia’s career. Forced to flee Germany in 1933 due to the rise of the Nazi Party, she made the difficult decision to leave behind her collection of 560 glass-plate negatives, which she described as “my only tangible asset.” Following World War II, in the midst of a revival of interest in the Bauhaus, she tried desperately to locate them with no success. It wasn’t until 1954 that Walter Gropius, founder and former head of the Bauhaus, acknowledged that the negatives were in his possession, that he had been reproducing them, and that he had no intention of returning them to her. Lucia Moholy’s precise visual records of the school’s architecture—such as Bauhaus Workshop Building from Below. Oblique View (1926)—had been circulated without attribution for years in order to promote Bauhaus aesthetics. In fact, 49 of her prints appeared uncredited in the catalogue accompanying MoMA’s exhibition Bauhaus, 1919–1928, which was mounted in 1938 with Gropius’s input.
As part of her legal efforts to reclaim the negatives, Lucia wrote, “Everybody, except myself, have used, and admit to having used my photographs […] and often also without mentioning my name. Everyone—except myself—have derived advantages from using my photographs, either directly, or indirectly, in a number of ways, be it in cash or prestige, or both.” Her claim was ultimately successful, leading to the return of 230 extant negatives in 1957. However, the acknowledgement of her influence—both as a collaborator in László Moholy-Nagy’s photographic experiments, and as an agent in the construction of Bauhaus visual identity—remains an ongoing project.
Dana Ostrander, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Photography, 2020
Note: opening quote is from Sam Greenspan, producer, “Photo Credit: Negatives of the Bauhaus,” 99% Invisible (podcast), August 16, 2016. Accessed August 2, 2022. http://99percentinvisible.org/episode/photo-credit-negatives-bauhaus/
The research for this text was supported by a generous grant from The Modern Women's Fund.