Since 2009, there has been an ongoing interest in Chicago’s Modernist legacy of the New Bauhaus and particularly the artist László Moholy-Nagy. Perhaps beginning with the exhibition “Learning Modern” at the Sullivan Center in 2009, then followed up with “Moholy: An Education of the Senses” at the Loyola University Museum of Art, and now with “Passing the Torch” at Stephen Daiter Gallery which focuses on the New Bauhaus and the students and teachers working there. First though, some history. László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946), the Hungarian-born photographer, painter, film maker, teacher, and writer, brought European Modernism to Chicago in 1937 when he became Founding Director of the New Bauhaus, an art school. The New Bauhaus lasted just a year, but a successor institution, the Institute of Design (ID) is today a department of the Illinois Institute of Technology.
In 1946, Moholy-Nagy hired Harry Callahan (1912-1999) to teach photography at the ID. Five years after that, Callahan hired Aaron Siskind (1903-1991). Between 1951 and 1959, the two men taught together at the ID, which is the focus of the Daiter Gallery show.
“A Little Family”
This was a special time, say Joseph Sterling and Charles Swedlund, who were their students. The ID was “like a little family,” said Joseph Sterling, describing his arrival at the school in 1956 [Joseph Sterling's Untitled, 1958, seen at left]. “Harry and Aaron had a remarkable artistic marriage and I was so happy to be an offspring of that marriage.” Frederick Sommer, who also taught photography at the ID, “was sort of like a loving uncle who would be there on occasion. Those three teachers [Sommer, Siskind and Callahan] created in us a continuing curiosity, a great need to work. I stayed very close friends with the three of them until they passed away.”
According to Swedlund, “I had a unique opportunity with these two gentlemen [Siskind and Callahan] together and they were excellent as teachers . . . Things maybe changed later on, but during [my years at the ID between 1958 and 1961], it was just a very magical time for them and for us being students.”
Swedlund and Sterling studied with both Callahan and Siskind. “They were very different people,” Sterling says. “That’s what was so enriching. I remember somebody asked me who I studied with—at the time I was studying with Aaron—and he said: ‘You just take pictures of walls?’ It was really funny because all of them were really open to anything that was your own and that was strong work. None of the students . . . had any desire to copy them.”
When I asked Swedlund which teacher had the most influence on him, he replied: “If you look at the work, it’s probably Harry, but for ideals, philosophy, and all that, it would be Aaron. He was much more intellectual than Harry, but I lent myself more to what the product was with Harry, specifically the multiple exposures and the multiple imagery. That’s . . . been throughout my work all along in different ways.”
Above all other things, Callahan, Siskind, and their students were photographers who made countless memorable images. Together they wrote the opening chapters in Chicago’s modern art history. Chicago is a Photo Town--its very best artists have been photographers.
Any doubter should visit “Passing the Torch: The Chicago Students of Callahan and Siskind,” a museum-quality show at the Stephen Daiter Gallery until June 5. There are 68 photographs in the show, mostly little-known images, including ones by Sterling and Swedlund, as well as Robert Stiegler, Tom Rago, Thomas Knudtson, Robert Tanner, Ray Metzker, Barbara Blondeau, William Larson, Barbara Crane, Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Marvin Newman, Mary Ann Lea (Dorr), Art Sinsabaugh, Joseph Jachna, Leon Lewandowski, Franz Altschuler, Stef Leinwohl, Richard Nickel, Kenneth Josephson, and James Newberry. For the most part, this work was forgotten until the Daiter Gallery found it.
Some photographs in “Passing the Torch” record Chicago’s famous 19th century architecture. Richard Nickel, an architectural preservationist who died in 1972 when Louis Sullivan’s Stock Exchange Building collapsed on him during its demolition, has two partial views of historic structures in the show. Thomas Knudtson exhibits a photograph of Burnham & Root’s Rookery Building and one of Adler & Sullivan’s Garrick Theater as it was being torn down in 1961 [seen at right]. Leon Lewandowski’s photograph shows an architectural detail of the library wall in Adler & Sullivan’s Auditorium Theater and Art Sinsabaugh contributes a Chicago skyline picture and an image of a boat near Navy Pier.
In other photographs, architecture is background or an element in formal experiments. Swedlund shows multiple exposures of the Chicago Loop in the mid 1950s and Kenneth Josephson contributes scenes of Chicago streets in the mid-60s. Yasuhiro Ishimoto has three images in the show. He records street life in downtown Chicago during the 50s and 60s and is particularly good at capturing the natural lighting, which has hardly changed since he took his photographs.
During the 70s and 80s, Sterling photographed Chicago buildings made of steel and glass, using their strong patterns for experiments that he termed his Pictus Twistus series. The artist worked with a Widelux panoramic camera whose lens moves during the exposure. As he tells it, “I would press the shutter and start moving the camera while the lens was moving from side to side. It took four seconds to span 140 degrees. I did this because I wanted to see what kind of image it would create—and I was really interested in creating new images.” Decorated structures like those of Louis Sullivan would look like “mush,” he stated, if he photographed them with a moving Widelux camera.
Many of the photographs in the show are admirable for their expressive qualities, particularly their depiction of light and shadow. It does not really matter whether they were taken in Chicago or not. Sterling exhibits an untitled photograph of train track patterns in a street, which he may have taken in a streetcar switching yard about 1958—he’s no longer sure. The photograph, a wonderfully economical study in light and texture, could have been taken almost anywhere, even in Europe.
Charles Swedlund. Buffalo. c.1970. Image courtesy of Stephen Daiter and the artist.
Swedlund made a very appealing photograph around 1970 when he lived in Buffalo, NY [seen above]. A nude woman stands with her back to the wall in an empty room. Light from windows on each side illuminate the edges of her torso but leave her face in darkness. The artist makes multiple exposures of this image, moving the camera slightly each time he shoots. The result is several ghostly edges on either side of the nude. Multiple exposures just reemphasize her linear qualities, he says.
Swedlund made many multiple exposures during the 60s and 70s and even self-published a book of them. He states that his multiple exposures “were produced in the camera” and never in the darkroom by sandwiching negatives or multiple printing. “This distinction is important to me,” he adds. “I like and foster the associations produced by accidents or vaguely controlled situations rather than the ones consciously constructed.” Later in his career, Swedlund photographed Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, recording over 4,000 signatures on the ceiling of one large room. Many of these markings were made by Native Americans long before settlement.
“Passing the Torch” celebrates the generation of photographers that Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind birthed. Consistently dedicated and serious, these men and women have devoted their lives to creating vital photo imagery. They are artists, one and all, proud citizens of Photo Town.
--Victor M. Cassidy
(top image: Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Untitled, c. 1950s, Gelatin silver print, 7.25 x 10 in. © Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Daiter Gallery)