“The New Visual Literature”: László Moholy-Nagy’s Painting, Photography, Film
Jonathan Crary’s important work, which acknowledges the problem of isolating vision as an autonomous area of study. Crary points out that perception is not exclusively a visual faculty but involves a multisensory involvement with the external world. He argues that a scholarly approach that separates vision from broader perceptual processes—sound and touch, for example—internalizes modernity’s fragmentation and fracturing of the body into isolated and thus controllable sensory experiences.
In the first section of Painting, Photography, Film, Moholy-Nagy resolves that our eyes can no longer be a reliable source of perception.6 In an unabashedly technophilic tone, he declares the human body and especially the human eyes to be ill-suited for direct interaction with the quick pace and simultaneity of the modern world. These new conditions of perception demand that photography be used as a supplement to our own inadequate and atrophied visual facilities.
Photography reveals “existences, which are not perceptible or recordable with our optical instrument, the eye,” and that only “can be made visible with the help of photography.”7 Better equipped to process the visual stimuli of the modern world than the human eye, photography “can complete our optical apparatus.”
Moholy-Nagy argues that not only is photography able to show us things never before seen, but it also represents a mode of perception that is separate from our habitual desire to decipher what we see through association and memory. Because photography stands in opposition to conventional vision, showing us that which is unfamiliar to our eyes, it offers a chance for perception in its purest and most immediate form, freed completely from associations with the past.
His insistence on purity has more to do with photography’s isolation from our instinct to assimilate what we perceive through memory than with the dissociation of vision from other bodily senses. As we will see, Painting, Photography, Film’s photographic material incites an interaction of the senses—sight, sound, and touch in particular—and thereby stages a form of perception based on instinctual response rather than habit and experience.
The sources of Painting, Photography, Film’s photographs are typed in a chart on the book’s last pages, and the sprawling list records an over- whelming variety of subjects: photograms, X-rays, microscopic views of plants, close-ups of animals and machinery, photographs of stars and lightning, a bird’s eye view of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, a worm’s eye view of a factory tower, photomontages, split-second exposures and time-delayed images. The sequence presents views and suggests connections to which Moholy-Nagy’s audience in the 1920s was unaccustomed, a Weltanschauung determined by the productive possi- bilities of photography and not yet assimilable through association or memory.
He comments earlier in the book, in regard to photography’s enhancement of the eye, that “some scientific studies, the study of movement (stride, leap, gallop) and the magnification of zoological, botanical and mineral forms, and other scientific research” have made use of photography’s expansion of visual capabilities.23 By including images of scientific study, Moholy-Nagy associates his theory of photographic perception with scientific objectivity and technological advancement.
Performing an early form of multi- tasking, Stone shows how the filing cabinet was far from a means of calm control over the important documents of the modern professional. Rather, it contributed to the “absolute triumph of technology over space and time,” which allows for the accomplishment of several tasks concurrently.58 The filing cabinet also implies a form of attention associated with the modern office worker that is born from a state of distraction. Reading information in a filing cabinet involves visually locating symbols or letters that will guide the viewer to the location of desired information. It is also a practice quite similar to Moholy-Nagy’s description of his search for “good” photographs within the overwhelming quantity of images in the illustrated press— and the intensified form of this practice created by Painting, Photography, Film. These practices entail the fragmentation of the visual field and require the viewing subject to actively sort information into the categories of what is sought and what can be left to the overwhelming field of stimuli. Thus the modern visualization of reading demands the active synthesis of information within a space of potential overstimulation.
Weeding through the information in the file cabinet requires fingers to do the seeing, separating and pointing out the information sought once it is found. At the same time, Stone has the telephone pressed to his ear. Circles radiate like sound waves outward from the phone’s base sitting on the nearby desk. Each wave is accompanied by lines of text shaped to its circular form, making visible what is being said through this otherwise invisible medium. The text transcribes notes about various appointments and conferences: “7:45 telephone with Klara,” “5:45 visit with lawyer.” The fragmentation of information into shortened forms of text allows for the more efficient and productive accomplishment of everyday tasks. Stone stages a competition between various forms of attention but appears to be able to attend to all senses—sound, vision, and touch—with equal care.
Moholy-Nagy describes a form of collection and storage that, like Stone’s filing cabinet, means to organize an abundance of visual information:Such [mechanically produced] images will naturally not be kept as they are today like lifeless room decorations, but rather in compartments on shelves or “domestic picture galleries” [Haus-Pinakothek] and brought out only when they are really needed. . . . Just as today we store the film spools for private cinematographs in a cupboard in the home.59