The collaborative editorial effort of David Travis, Elizabeth Siegel, Keith F. Davis, Taken By Design: Photographs From The Institute Of Design, 1937-1971 is the Art Institute of Chicago exhibition catalog which was a jointly published project with the University of Chicago Press. Showcasing the photography that arose out of The Institute of Design during some three and a half decades, Taken By Design chronicles and documents a fascinating sidebar in the history of American photography. Enhanced with essays, articles, biographical sketches, course curricula, and more, Taken By Design is a welcome, original, and highly recommended contribution to personal, professional, and academic Photography historical reference and resource collections and reading lists.
Much more than a catalog
This book is not just a catalog of the show now at San Francisco's MOMA. It is a rich source that chronicles the evolution of the Chicago Institute of Design (ID) and its photography program. With 6 written essays and articles, biographies, course curricula, and other background it places the ID's photographers rightfully in the middle of the late twentieth century art revolution.
The writing is authoritative, revealing and thought provoking. Some is understandably enthusiastic, by authors named Moholy-Nagy and Siegel, some is analytical/critical, illuminating the difficulties and disagreements that resolved themselves into a program like no other. Any student of photography or modern art must know about this controversial and audacious adventure that was spun off from the Bauhaus by Moholy-Nagy, Arthur Siegel and the other subjects of this chronicle.
The authors explore some of these subjects. Why was the this such an important project and why was it controversial? What effect has it had? What does it teach us today? These are important questions simply because a large number of prominent and influential students passed through it.
No serious collection of late 20th century photographs can be without 20 or so of the prints from this group. Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, Ken Josephson, Ray Metzker, Linda Connor, Arthur Siegel, Art Sinsabaugh and many others all studied and taught there. Many went on the teach at places like R.I. School of Design, San Francisco Art Institute and many places in between. The influence of this group is much more extensive than its size and longevity would suggest.
At a time when the "giants" of the medium were devoted to "pure" photography, Moholy-Nagy appeared from Europe and proposed that photography be treated as a tool of graphic design. Light, texture, volume, rhythm, contrast and other elements were worth studying for their own sake in order to apply the unique strengths of photography to the art of design.
They produced something akin to Jazz. Painters like Motherwell, Johns, Rauschenberg were producing strikingly similar imagery. Paul Strand, Man Ray, Lartigue, Rodschenko and a many others had explored the same issues. The Bauhaus and the Chicago ID were an attempt to formalize the earlier experiments. Strand, Weegee, Winogrand, Blumenfeld and others contributed to the ID at various times.
The ID photographers showed how purely graphic aspects of the medium could be used to express a vision, used to dig subtle meaning from the mundane, used to reveal things in synthetic abstract that weren't visible. They expanded and elevated their medium in a very short, intense time. There is little in today's published graphics not already in the photographs of the students in this show.
An unintended consequence of this book is to have produced a key to much of abstract expressionist painting, and modern poetry. The photograph always contains an insistent link to "reality" that seems more obvious than it is in a painting, but it is no less a subject of the painter than the photographer. This show might be the trigger that makes other modern artists accessible to some people. I've recommended this book to some art teachers for this reason.