Date of Degree
Rose-Carol Washton Long
Maria Antonella Pelizzari
History of Art, Architecture, and Archaeology | Modern Art and Architecture
Photography, Photograms, Avant-Garde
Cameraless photography’s resurgence in the 1920s has long been discussed by art historians and critics as either a facet of modernist “new photography,” or as a specialized practice associated with prominent figures of the interwar avant-garde. In their discussions of the medium, scholars have aligned cameraless photography with specific movements, groups, schools, or individuals, as a means of situating its emergence and subsequent popularity in the 1920s. This dissertation broadens the understanding of cameraless photography (also referred to as photograms) and its narrative by shifting the focus to the publications responsible for the medium’s articulation and dissemination in the years between 1920 and 1929. A focus on three distinct periods of time—1920–23, 1924–26, and 1927–29—provides a framework to chart cameraless photography’s evolution in the 1920s, from its “rediscovery” in 1919 to its status as a key component of the “new photography” at the end of that decade. This change in focus elucidates the importance of the publications to the history of cameraless photography in the 1920s, making clear that the current understanding of cameraless photography has been determined as much by what has been written about it—when, where, and by whom—as it has by the objects themselves.
Beginning with cameraless photography’s “re-discovery” in 1919 by Geneva Dadaist Christian Schad, and the subsequent publication of Schad’s work in Dada in 1920, the first chapter focuses on the publications that together established the discourse of invention surrounding the medium’s embrace in the early 1920s by Dada and Constructivist artists, such as Man Ray, László Moholy-Nagy, and El Lissitzky. In the following chapter, the focus shifts to a period of codification, 1924–26, when popular and more specialized art, photography, and avant-garde publications sought to position cameraless photography within existing and emerging discourses around abstraction, technology, film, revolution, and art photography. These early attempts to position cameraless photography as a new art form succeeded in bringing cameraless photography into alignment with the “new photography” and the push for visual literacy at the end of the decade. The last chapter focuses on the final years of the decade (1927–29) and the culminating moment for cameraless photography’s role in teaching, popularizing, and debating, the “new photography.” The decade’s final years also brought increased criticism and negative responses to the more experimental forms that comprised the “new photography.” This shift in thinking signaled cameraless photography’s waning popularity with the rise of New Objectivity and other forms of modern photography that privileged the camera. By charting cameraless photography’s appearance, articulation, and dissemination in print, this dissertation provides a clearer picture of the medium’s importance to interwar art and photography that moves beyond earlier attempts to categorize the medium as either an individual practice or as tangential to the larger field of interwar photography.
Barber, Karen K., "Writing with Light: Cameraless Photography and Its Narrative in the 1920s" (2018). CUNY Academic Works.