When MoMA’s departments of Photography and Conservation set out to make a website to showcase the 341 photographs in the Thomas Walther Collection, the goal was to create an innovative resource that would take full advantage of the Internet’s interactivity. In December, MoMA launched Object:Photo, a digital research platform featuring four data visualizations that allow visitors to explore the materials, techniques, and art historical context of these 341 modernist photographs.
The visualizations act as entry points: you can choose to map the photographs by where they were taken, view them grouped together according to the materials and techniques used, find relationships between the artists, or plot their lives on a map and timeline. Within each visualization, you can select or filter the content by topic.
I’ve recently been researching interwar photographers from Budapest, so I’ll begin with the map of the life events of Hungarian émigré László Moholy-Nagy. The map shows the geographic spread of his work and his travels roughly between the years 1900 and 1950. The larger the circle, the more active he was in exhibitions, publications, teaching, or other activities in that city. Clearly, Moholy-Nagy’s ideas were disseminated far beyond his native Budapest, in his adopted cities of Berlin, Weimar, Dessau, London, and, later, Chicago.
However, it was in Berlin, where he first settled upon leaving Budapest, that Moholy-Nagy developed some of his most important relationships, which would influence and encourage his work thereafter. One of the photographers with whom he began a correspondence was El Lissitzky, who was sent to Berlin by the Russian government to establish contact with other artists.
Adding Lissitzky’s biography to the map, you can track the two artists’ numerous points of convergence, indicated on the map by green circles that represent the places where they were both active.
Animating the map with the red “play” button, you’ll find that in 1929 both artists served as organizers, along with Walther Collection artists Hans Richter, Edward Steichen, Dziga Vertov, and Edward Weston, of the influential exhibition Film und Foto in Stuttgart. The “related artists” window reveals that 41 artists represented in the Walther Collection participated in the exhibition, a groundbreaking and powerful public expression of the new modernist photography and film.
The navigational header directs you to scholarly essays and topic pages that provide more detailed information about the exhibition. A second visualization, Connecting Artists, creates a network diagram of the Walther Collection artists who participated in this influential exhibition.
The yellow dots in the center of this visualization represent the artists from the Walther Collection who exhibited at Film und Foto. Rolling over these dots displays the artists’ names; I clicked on Moholy-Nagy’s dot to reveal his relationships to other influential exhibitions, schools, publications, and cities that played a significant role in shaping modernist photography.
Circling back to my interest in interwar Hungary, I then clicked on Budapest to see the connections formed by others from Moholy-Nagy’s hometown. When I scrolled over István Kerny, who is generally understood to be a painterly, pictorialist photographer of traditional subject matter, I was surprised to find that Moholy-Nagy included Kerny’s work in his seminal 1925 book Malerei, Photographie, Film, in which Moholy-Nagy articulated his vision for the mechanical mediums of photography and film.
Moholy-Nagy wrote about Kerny’s trick photographs—of which the Walther Collection’s Neptune is a great example—as emblematic of modern photographers’ experimentation. Moholy-Nagy’s wide travels exposed him to the work of many artists who espoused modernism more prominently; his inclusion of the relatively little-known Kerny strikes me as a meaningful gesture to his home country that is captured and recalled in this visualization of network connections.
These network connections speak to a period of artistic dialogue and rapid development that is preserved in the 341 photographs now housed at MoMA. Though Object:Photo presents the results of our research on this collection, we hope it will inspire your own inquiries as well. Let your interests be your guide through these maps, timelines, and images. (And let us know what you find in the comments!)